A rumour spread early this summer. “The Cosmos are coming back,” you’d hear in soccer circles of the USA’s north-east. “They’ll build a new stadium. They’ll play in Queens, in the City.” The word on the street was that a legendary American club was about to be reborn.
A great and enduring nostalgia exists for the New York Cosmos – the flashy, glitz-and-glamour boys of old who made resistant Americans care about the world’s game. However, the club’s imminent return seemed little more than a flight of fancy as the Cosmos's last game was nearly three decades ago.
The Cosmos were the figurehead of the old North American Soccer League (NASL), North America’s first attempt to launch a professional league to compete with the entrenched and hugely popular gridiron and baseball. While the league lasted a shade over a decade before collapsing in 1984, the Cosmos – whose oversize budget and flash-bang, jet-set persona became the stuff of legend – remained a beacon for the future.
The high-water mark ran from 1975 to 1980 as the Cosmos brought the best players in the world to New York City in the heyday of Studio 54. Pele came first; Carlos Alberto followed. Franz Beckenbauer, briefly Johann Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia all lined up for the club, and they consistently filled the over 80,000-seat Meadowlands to become what one journalist of the day called “the most glamorous team in world football.”
Soccer was set to topple the American scene. But reality caught up and the bubble burst. The likes of the San Diego Jaws, the Hartford Bicentennials and the Colorado Caribous - lesser teams with modest budgets in small markets - were all trying to compete with NYC, the Cosmos and their ultra wealthy owners, Warner Communications. The NASL eventually and inevitably collapsed under the New York super club’s weight.
The detritus of the Cosmos’s explosion became seeds that took root. Within ten years of the league’s collapse, the USA hosted a FIFA World Cup, and two years after that, the country had another professional league, Major League Soccer (MLS), a significantly more modest operation obsessed with fiscal responsibility and avoiding the mistakes of the past.
“The Cosmos are back!” old boy Pele enthused in August, when the would-be club’s directors announced the Brazilian icon, world football’s one and only O Rei, as honorary president. “Pele is the biggest name in the game,” Englishman and Cosmos executive Terry Byrne told FIFA.com in a recent interview. Byrne, 44, best friend to David Beckham, former taxi driver and part-time Chelsea team massage therapist, is the mouthpiece for the movement.
Following in the Cosmos tradition of bringing in the big names, Byrne and Co weren’t going to stop with Pele’s re-signing. Last month they announced former Manchester United cult figure Eric Cantona as director of football and Cobi Jones – USA's all-time caps leader – as his deputy. “Cantona’s been out of football for a long time and his signature is a huge coup for us,” Byrne said of the Frenchman, adored during his time at Old Trafford. “The pair will bring something special and with them we have the global and local angles covered.”
Major League ambition
The aim is to have the Cosmos join MLS in 2013 as the league’s 20th team. The league is eager to have a second team in New York alongside the Red Bulls, who play out of New Jersey and boast such foreign stars as Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez. But while the Cosmos have a clothing line, a Facebook page, a jersey (a revised take on the old green-and-white classic on sale for 75 USD), banners, billboards, a cool-looking office in SoHo and staff to work it, they have no team and no promise of a return to the big table of the American Soccer scene.
Entry to MLS would in fact require an update to the old style of cash-splashing and star-hunting that defined the Cosmos, a topic that Byrne is ready to address. “The vision will be the same – to shoot for the stars,” said Byrne, who was “gripped by the passion of the Cosmos” since seeing them train as a boy. “The DNA of the old Cosmos is still there.” MLS has learned the lessons of NASL’s failure: designated-player policies and club salary caps mean they would have to build from the ground up.
“We have two youth academies, one on in New York and one in LA (both recently purchased),” said Byrne as he outlined the new Cosmos ethos, one which he promises will focus on attacking football. “We can’t go out and buy the world’s best players. The new philosophy will be about building an entertaining style of play. Johann Cruyff and Barcelona are the dream model and we want to replicate that with Pele, Cantona and Jones.”
Anyone pining for the glitz and glamour of those old heady days will be disappointed with the new Cosmos’s necessary compromise with fiscal responsibility, but as Byrne is quick to add: “We respect the heritage and history of the old days, which were big days, and our aim is to bring them back, but through the grassroots.”