How Pelé and the New York Cosmos changed soccer

How Pelé and the New York Cosmos changed soccer

“The New York Cosmos were the best and worst of American soccer,” Rodney Marsh once said. It’s often rare that one sentence can sum up every argument you want to make; Rodney Marsh does that though. The New York Cosmos truly were the best and worst of what American soccer was. The extravagant celebrity lifestyle dominated the Cosmos team of the 1970s and ’80s, shaping the future of American soccer in the process.

The club was founded in 1970 by Warner Communications executives Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, as well as company president Steve Ross. The beautiful game was brought into the Land of the Free like it’s people, from all corners of the world. Ethnic communities had played the game in the suburbs of New York for many years, whilst America pulled off one of the World Cup’s biggest shocks in 1950 when they beat England 1-0. The player who scored the winning goal that day, Joe Gaetjens, wasn’t even an American citizen. The team, and the American game, was amateur at best.

The North American Soccer League (NASL) was largely the same; amateur teams playing in front of small crowds on sub-standard football pitches. Gordon Bradley was the Cosmos’ big player-coach in 1970, having played 130 games for Carlisle United. It was the same for the league. The 1970 NASL All-Star team was made up of amateur American players, or imports from the likes of St. Mirren, Peterborough and Huddersfield Town.

One man’s passion changed all of this, though. That man was Steve Ross. The world’s first media mogul had founded Warner Communications in 1971, whose catalogue boasted big names such as Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles and The Rolling Stones. Ross had ignited the cable television revolution, bought a company who launched the first ever video game console and helped integrate the comic book into the entertainment industry. This was a powerful man, who loved to be at the forefront of any industry he ventured into. He was also passionate about sport. It was this passion that brought him to the Cosmos and made him determined to change the face of American soccer.

It was initially, however, Nesuhi Ertegün, a Turkish-American record producer, who was responsible for the birth of the Cosmos. He and his brother, Ahmet, had moved to Washington from Istanbul in 1935, and he became vice-president at Atlantic Records. When Nesuhi threatened to leave the company after it had been acquired by Steve Ross, he said the only way he would stay would be if Ross founded him a professional football team. With that, the first seeds of the New York Cosmos were planted.

By 1968, the NASL had been formed by the merger two failing leagues, boasting only five franchises. Kansas City Spurs, Atlanta Chiefs, Dallas Tornado, St. Louis Stars and Baltimore Bays were all defeated franchises in a largely disappointing league. Little over 300 people were in attendance of top games, and the league was in terminal decline after just one season.

The 1970 World Cup, held just south of the border in Mexico, would change all of that, with the Ertegün brothers at the forefront of radical proposals. Pelé attended the World Cup and, fortunately for them, the NASL commissioner, Phil Woosnam, was also in attendance. They arranged to meet back in New York.

It was at that point the New York Cosmos were born. The brothers held Ross to his word and ten Warner Communication executives put in $35,000 each to the club. A million dollars eventually helped found the New York Cosmos, a team built with amateur and misfit players from New York and it’s suburbs. To put it into perspective, Randy Horton, the Cosmos’ first leading scorer and league All-Star, worked full-time at the Warner Brothers’ Jungle Habitat theme park while playing for Cosmos on the side.

The team started playing at the enormous Yankee Stadium before moving to the Hofstra Stadium, where they were lucky to get 50 people watching a game. They won their first league title there, however, and had hooked one important fan: Steve Ross. He was determined to make this a success and, in the name of Warner Communications, bought the nine other investors’ shares for a dollar. It was a brave and bold move from Ross, putting his company name behind the team. He moved the Cosmos closer to the city – to Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island – to attract more fans. His empire was behind the team, the league and the sport, but no one could predict the way it would explode.

With the team going nowhere, Ross and the Cosmos team knew they needed something special to ignite interest in the team and in the NASL. That something special would be Pelé.

Arguably the best player of all time, there was nobody more famous than the Brazilian star. In 1958, he became the youngest player to ever win a World Cup final, the first of three winner’s medals he would pick up. He was seen as the only man to break the barrier of disinterest in American soccer.

The Cosmos had first tried to sign Pelé in 1970, but it was to no avail. In 1974, however, Pelé announced his retirement from his lifelong club Santos. The Brazilian people did not want to let Pelé go, but it was the lure of making a difference in America that eventually captured his imagination, and signature, for the Cosmos.

“Pelé was going to open a new frontier, and that was America. The great challenge of America.” Rose Ganguzza

The Brazilian would receive a multi-part contract at the Cosmos; $1 million for three years of playing, $1 million for ten years worth of marketing rights, $1 million for a 14 year PR contract and a $1 million music contract. If not the sheer money behind the deal, the deal reiterated that this would be more than a sport for the Cosmos and the NASL. This was a brand that Pelé embodied.

The reported deal was worth $4.5 million, although the figure is largely disputed still today. Ernesto Geisel Brazil’s president, disapproved of the deal, demanding that Pelé play one more year in Santos before going to America. The Cosmos called upon their substantial influence, though, ensuring the Secretary of State of the United States of America stepped in to save the deal. The signing was announced at the legendary 21-Club in Manhattan, a sign of things to come.

Pelé was, of course, a superstar, but the real significance of the announcement was that the vast majority of American media showed up to televise or document the Cosmos’ new signing. The only mention the Cosmos had managed to get up to this point was in a full-page nude spread by their goalkeeper Shep Messing in an adult magazine. The world’s eyes were on them. This was the Cosmos’ moment.

“Before Pelé came to town, soccer games had only ever really been covered by junior reporters, often as some kind of punishment. Now, though, there were over 300 journalists at Downing, including David Hirshey, Cosmos correspondent for the New York Daily News,” Gavin Newsham stated in Once in a Lifetime.

Pelé’s first match was televised on CBS, with the Cosmos groundsman spray-painting the dire, muddy pitch at Downing Stadium green to look appealing on television. The Cosmos and the NASL were reborn. The match was a sell-out, with American spectators flocking to Randall’s Island out of pure curiosity to see Pelé.

• • • •


Read  |  From Swansea reject to Lazio legend: the story of Giorgio Chinaglia

• • • •

The world’s biggest star did not disappoint, guiding the Cosmos back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. The Cosmos would play on Randall’s Island for one season with Pelé before moving on.

With the Brazilian’s arrival, the Cosmos could kick on and really attract the big crowds that their fellow major leagues did. They missed out on the playoffs that year but Pelé and the team were on the road to becoming the brand Steve Ross and Warner wanted them to be. More than 20,000 people turned out to see the Brazilian in street clothes at one game as he was injured. His presence alone shattered attendance records in Boston, Los Angeles and Washington DC.

The sport’s presence was increasing. Pelé and the Cosmos met President Gerald Ford for a kick about and were covered regularly on the front and back pages of the New York and national press. The Cosmos’ average attendance during the mid to late-1970s was over 40,000 and they truly were the league’s marquee club.

Following Pelé’s arrival and success, other star names from the football world ventured over to the States. Gordon Banks, Rodney Marsh, Geoff Hurst and George Best all graced the NASL. The Cosmos set the standard and other franchises wanted to follow.

The revolutionary New Yorkers had to set the bar even higher. Popular Cardiff-born Lazio striker Giorgio Chinaglia joined the Cosmos to partner Pelé up front. He was i Biancocelesti’s leading scoring in 1975 and the highest paid player in Italy but was highly controversial. The Chinaglia signing was different to any other signing in the league. He was a player in his prime, making the step to America to further his career, not finish it. Chinaglia scored the most goals in the history of the NASL. His passion also caught the heart of Steve Ross. Indeed, Pelé and Chinaglia would lead the Cosmos to the playoffs for the first time.

With the increase in star players, money and player power, the attention on the team increased. Nightclubs and bars across the city wanted the Cosmos’ star players Pelé and Chinaglia to grace their venues. They didn’t hesitate to accept, ultimately costing the Cosmos the playoffs.

The club went on two worldwide tours, generating substantial publicity for the Warner brand. Wanting more, Ross was finally able to move the Cosmos to the newly constructed Giants Stadium for Pelé’s final season. The Cosmos and the NASL were on an unstoppable rise.

The league had centred itself around entertainment. On and off the field, football had to be entertaining. The North American Soccer League Shootout was introduced to ensure there was always a winner. The Cosmos brand continued to develop with Cosmos cheerleaders, the half-time show and mascots introduced. The game was being ‘Americanised’. Ross was doing all he could to attract the American fans.

On the pitch, though, the Cosmos were being internationalised. They became the first American side to have a full team of foreign players. The bar was being raised further with Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer, joining the Cosmos as the ultimate team leader at the height of his career in 1977. Brazilian World Cup winner Carlos Alberto joined Beckenbauer that year.

The 1977 season, however, saw Pelé’s last game. A capacity crowd at Giants Stadium turned out for the testimonial match against his former side Santos. With his retirement, most of the progress made by the American game was lost. The final years of the 1970s saw turnouts decline. By 1980, attendances had almost entirely tailed off. The broadcast deal with ABC was dropped that year, while the majority of franchises were making a dramatic loss financially.

“There was no business model. After Pelé retired, the tent just kind of folded up. We were like Studio 54. For a moment everybody wanted us, and then they were on to something else.” Shep Messing, Cosmos goalkeeper

Amongst the drowning of clubs were the Cosmos. The high wages paid to overseas players meant that the finances could not be supported any longer. An unsuccessful, hostile takeover bid from Rupert Murdoch saw Warner Communications sell off a lot of its assets, including Global Soccer, the subsidiary of the Cosmos. Global Soccer was sold to Chinaglia, who was ultimately unable to support the club’s high wage bill and increasing debt.

The Cosmos won the title in 1982, their last before the NASL folded in 1984. Pelé’s retirement shook the league; there was no one to take over the mantle and personify the league.

Until Major League Soccer was founded in 1993, there was no American professional football league after the NASL folded in 1984. Steve Ross had made one final attempt to save American football, bidding to hold the 1986 World Cup finals in the States, but FIFA awarded the tournament to Mexico for the second time. The move killed American soccer for good.

The Cosmos rebooted in 2003 and currently play in the new NASL, a division below the MLS.

The MLS has come under intense scrutiny, especially in recent times, for it’s strict draft system, salary cap and lack of promotion/relegation. The NASL and the spending of the Cosmos has undoubtedly influenced this. The Cosmos were the flagship side of the NASL and almost single-handedly made soccer one of the most popular sports in the country. Pelé’s retirement and the Cosmos’ demise saw the game disappear as quickly as it rose in America.

Despite their fall from grace, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that the New York Cosmos are still one of the most famous clubs in US soccer history. They were a team of star players and drew attention from all over the world. These days, any MLS franchise would dream of that attention. They pioneered everything about the American game, but were equally the downfall of the game.

The free spending of the NASL teams was the major problem of the league, ultimately causing its’ demise. The MLS has attempted to safeguard itself against this, putting in place a strict salary cap and limitations on international players. Instead, it’s the MLS who have looked to make money, with the franchise fee currently at $100 million, as Jon Townsend alludes to in his article The cost of $100 million.

Whilst youth development has been the focus of the MLS it’s perhaps not enough, and the standard of the American game has suffered for many years. Presently, over 13 million Americans play soccer, with the American Youth Soccer Organisation currently boasting 600,000 registered children. The longevity of the American game has been secured, but it’s time for the league to move onto the next level.

While the league has resorted to marquee players at times – such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry – to boost focus and attention on the league, it has been wary of doing so because of the Cosmos’ story.

The Cosmos, with their star attractions, still represent the height of American soccer for many. They were decades ahead of their time and were the first real Galácticos. Despite their shortcomings, they represented the free image of American soccer for many across the world; a free image that the bigwigs at Major League Soccer could do worse than to embrace these days.

By Scott Salter. Follow @ssalter_ftbl