The tale of the New York Cosmos is fit for a film script. There is no club in the world who’s immediate impact upon the global game was so seismic, so revolutionary - so brief. In the space of just fifteen years, the club went from being the brainchild of two wealthy music producers, to being the most talked-about footballing institution on the planet, signing the likes of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, all before a spectacular financial demise that left the once-great Cosmos as nothing but a blurred memory in the busied minds of New Yorkers.
The club was founded in 1970, by executives from Warner Communications (the parent company of Warner Bros) and two famed Turkish music producers, Ahmed and Nesuhi Ertegun. The club’s founding fathers, who had lofty intentions for the side, sought to demonstrate their ambition within the team’s name, and so, as had been done with the New York Mets (short for metropolitans) and Knicks (knickerbockers), the New York Cosmopolitans - shortened, famously, to Cosmos - were born.
The club’s early years saw contrasting successes, which rather foreshadowed what was to come. The Cosmos’ first season in association football, lead by English player-manager Gordon Bradley, saw them finish second in the recently-founded North American Soccer League, all whilst playing out of the iconic Yankee Stadium. Despite finishing runners-up, it quickly became clear that the club couldn’t afford to play at such a monstrous venue, so they downgraded, moving 30 miles east to the Hofstra Stadium, where they would win their first league title.
The club would reach the play-offs once again in 1973, only to be knocked out in the semi-finals, earning Bradley international recognition. He was offered the chance to manage the USMNT, a role he held for just six games after losing every match (and picking himself to play in one of them, despite not having anything close to US citizenship).
1974 saw the club relocate once again, this time moving to Randall Island and the now-demolished Downing Stadium, where they endured a measly campaign, finishing the season bottom of their division. This clearly was a wake-up call for their wealthy ownership, who, after attempting to do so every year since the club’s inception, finally managed to convince a 34 year-old Pelé to come out of semi-retirement and don the iconic white and green jersey of the New York Cosmos.
It was a transfer that, as mentioned, had been a long time coming. Cosmos representative and Englishman, Clive Toye, had spent years badgering Pelé at every available opportunity, travelling to Santos exhibition games - some as far as Jamaica - in an attempt to strike even a verbal agreement with the icon, when finally, his hard work was rewarded. In March 1975, scribbled on a notepad stolen from a Belgian airport, Pelé committed his future to the city of New York.
The president of Warner Co., Steve Ross, had never heard of this so-called ‘Pelé’ and had initially refused to fund the transfer, until Toye compared the Brazilian’s popularity amongst soccer fans to that of the Pope, promising a wealth of marketing opportunities as a result. Needless to say, a staggering wage of $1.4M - an astronomical salary for any athlete at the time - was then immediately offered to Pelé across a number of contracts, all designed specifically so that their new no.10 would pay as little tax as was legally possible. One such document detailed Pelé as a recording artist with another of Warner’s subsidiary companies, Atlantic Records.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento (unsurprisingly) signed upon the dotted line a matter of days later, sending shockwaves throughout North American soccer, and indeed the world. The Cosmos themselves were completely unprepared for the incomprehensible tsunami of global interest that poured through their front office in the days after the announcement, leading them to increase their administration staff ten-fold. The transfer saw the club’s value skyrocket, making the Cosmos one of Warner’s most valuable cultural assets at the time, filling the once-empty stands with flocks of soccer-induced Americans all hoping to catch a glimpse of the World Cup legend himself.
But beneath the bustling terraces, deep down in the locker rooms, Pelé was greeted by a makeshift crew of migrants, students and semi-professionals, in what was a largely amateurish organisation. The Cosmos’ players heralded from Bermuda, Israel, Uruguay, England and America (as well as Brazil, of course), so you can imagine the lack of camaraderie that existed.
The sides’ Sunday league-esque nature is perhaps demonstrated no better than by the club’s groundsman, who upon hearing that Pelé’s debut was to be broadcast live on CBS, was forced to spray-paint the pitch green to disguise the fact that it had such little grass on it. The painted dirt was then the subject of a broadcast into homes within 22 different countries, thanks to an unforeseen hoard of 300 journalists that scrambled to see Pelé’s eagerly-anticipated debut against the Dallas Tornado.
But 45 minutes into his debut, and it was fair to say the script had not been followed. The Cosmos were 2-0 down at home and it is said that a concerned Pelé trudged into the half-time break, fearing he had contracted a fungal infection from the painted turf. I like to imagine him sat in that crumbling locker room, staring bleakly at his inflamed skin, surrounded by his botched teammates, wondering exactly what he had signed himself up for. Welcome to the NASL, Edson.
Rather predictably it seems, Pelé and his motley crew were unable to reach the play-offs in that 1975 season. Such a disappointment lead the board to realise that if they were ever to see the best of an ageing Pelé, they needed to surround him with players and staff of a similar ilk. They quickly replaced coach Bradley with another Englishman, Ken Furphy, who brought with him another player of Pelé’s level: strike-partner Giorgio Chinaglia, from Lazio. Chinaglia, having averaged almost a goal every other game for the Roman giants, was adored by the Lazio faithful, to the point where fans threatened to “thrown themselves under the wheels of the plane” that was set to fly him to the Big Apple. Some coup, it seemed - and so it proved. Chinaglia would go on to be the Cosmos’ all-time record goalscorer.
The transfer prompted an influx of foreign players into the Cosmos, prompting a move back to the Yankee Stadium, as the club’s profile grew immeasurably. The novelty of watching a player like Pelé had not yet rubbed off at all, with one reporter comparing watching the Brazilian play in the NASL to "watching Nureyev dance in a Times Square honky-tonk joint”. He had developed American soccer to the point where other clubs within the league would also see themselves sign European superstars, namely the Los Angeles Aztecs, who picked up Johann Cryuff and George Best, both in their twilight years.
He had single-handedly redefined a shunned sport within the US, giving it meaning, pride, potential and its first true icon. The role of Pelé in creating the rapidly-mutating hotbed that is modern-day American soccer culture can never be underestimated at all. Further seasons of success followed, before finally, in 1977, Pelé announced that he was to play one more season in New York, before retiring from football for good.
The Cosmos seized this opportunity to create perhaps what remains the most iconic trident of footballing talent that the vast shores of America have seen to date. 1977 was the year that the club signed the electric Carlos Alberto and the ultimate ‘Rolls-Royce centre-back’, Franz Beckenbauer, with the latter having captained West Germany to winning the 1974 World Cup, just three years prior.
As a result of such ground-breaking deals, the club’s support rocketed as they made yet another stadium upgrade, moving to the newly-built Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where attendances averaged at well over 40,000. The club had not just become the face of the NASL, but perhaps the most prominent franchise in all of New York. The newly-established trio danced, passed and out-classed their way into the freshly-won hearts of locals all over the country. ESPN writers began to refer to the Cosmos as “soccer demigods”, with every single venue the club travelled to play within selling out in an instant.
Being on the road with the club was compared to being “on tour with the Rolling Stones” by a club secretary, such was the frenzy that awaited the Cosmos at every destination. Even Franz Beckenbauer, who had just made 439 appearances for German behemoths Bayern Munich, said that being in the dressing room made him “feel like he was in Hollywood”. New York, predictably, would lift yet more silverware that season, gifting Pelé the send-off that his perseverance, widespread influence and sheer class deserved in abundance. Just as the club had peaked, its heyday was abruptly called to an end.
Pelé’s world-spanning ‘farewell tour’ in 1977, went as far as China (and if that doesn’t demonstrate the effect that this man had, nothing will). They became the first Western professional football team to play in the Far East, where they faced the Chinese national side over two legs. Back in New York, an exhibition game was held between the Cosmos and Santos, in honour of Pelé, who played a half for either side. Muhammad Ali, Bobby Moore and some 60,000+ supporters were in attendance, to see the last time the then-greatest player the game had ever seen, lace ‘em up for one last time. The Cosmos won the game 2-1, with the final whistle seeing Pelé give an emotionally-charged speech to fans of the Cosmos, in which he had to be consoled by international team-mate, Carlos Alberto.
His journey with the Cosmos had started in the 20,000-seater, derelict Downing Stadium, with its sprayed pitch and bodged starting XI that played upon it, but had culminated with him giving a farewell speech inside a gargantuan American Football stadium, packed to its rafters, surrounded by true legends of the game, having just come off of a world tour. He had not just personally undertaken the dreams of those who established the club, but had won 3 NASL titles and appeared in 3 NASL All-star games, scoring 31 goals in 56 matches, establishing the Cosmos as one of America’s most appreciated sporting organisations, all before hanging up his boots as a 37-year-old.
The Cosmos retired his no.10 jersey as a tribute to his remarkable efforts and waved goodbye to Pelé in the winter of 1977. Alberto and Beckenbauer soon followed suit, leaving the Cosmos with their heads held high. With everything that I have just detailed happening within 7 frantic years since the club’s inception, the side then turned to whoever was to be the face of not just the club - but the league - for years to come. But that was the problem.
There wasn’t anybody left.
There was no headline act to replace Pelé. There was no attraction, no superstar, no quality in the NASL anymore. That Cosmos side was the only reason the league had any success in the first place. Attendances plummeted after 1980 and ABC soon ended the deal to televise the division’s games. Every single franchise within the NASL became unbearably unprofitable, but none more so than the New York Cosmos.
The side’s capability to attract its superstar roster was largely down to the financial ability of Warner Co., which in the early 1980s, was the subject of a hostile takeover by - and get this - Rupert Murdoch (WTF?). Although this bid was eventually unsuccessful, the company would begin to sell some of its most prized assets, including Atari and Global Soccer Inc - the subsidiary that owned the Cosmos.
Unbelievably, it was actually Giorgio Chinaglia that managed to purchase Global Soccer Inc., giving him complete ownership of the club from the no.9 position. The striker, as could only have been expected, didn’t have the financial powers to keep players on the sky-high contracts that had been initially offered by Warner, so had to sell a vast majority of his teammates to keep the club afloat. It’s scarcely believable, isn’t it?
The club won its last championship in 1982, two years before the NASL folded in 1984. A year later, in 1985, the New York Cosmos announced it would stop competing. Just fifteen years after it had been dreamt up in the boardroom of a New York skyscraper, the club ceased to exist, with 7 regular season titles and 5 championships to its name.
Though the name of the New York Cosmos has since been revived, and the club’s namesake now resides three divisions below the MLS, in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), the original club has vanished into the pages of history. But without doubt, the influence, the memory and the sheer, unadulterated madness of the original New York Cosmos will never, ever, be forgotten.