Glory days of the Cosmos (cont.)
Posted: Friday July 20, 2007 12:08PM; Updated: Friday July 20, 2007 12:08PM
The club moved on to Downing Stadium on Randall's Island. It wasn't much better. Drowning Stadium on Vandal's Island, we called it. But they had grass, albeit rather moth-eaten grass. And that's where they were when Pelé arrived in 1975. For his first game, CBS television turned up and painted the bare mud patches green. Now we had to get used to crowded press conferences and beefy security guys. We also got used to -- and came to love -- Professor Julio Mazzei, Pelé's companion, fitness expert and translator, who could never quite allow that Pelé was at his best: "Pelé, right now, he's maybe 80 percent fit." I don't recall it ever getting above 85 percent.
Still a hodge-podge team, the 1975 Cosmos, even with Pelé, went nowhere. They won 10 games, lost 12 and failed to make the playoffs. I was commissioned to write a highlight film of Pelé's first season. Much creativity was needed, for the joke had come to life: "We don't have a highlight film, but we do have a highlight slide."
But within two years, the Cosmos were on the move. The big guys at Warner Brothers, the owners, had decided to spend some real money. The team moved to the big, swanky new Giants Stadium in New Jersey and, almost overnight, became the toast of New York, the glamour team of the city.
(Of course, with my impeccable sense of occasion, I wasn't around when it happened. I was in Buenos Aires. The Argentinean journalists came to me bearing tales of soccer drawing bigger crowds than baseball, congratulating me because a crowd of more than 70,000 had turned up to watch the Cosmos. I pooh-poohed the stories, made fun of Argentinean gullibility and, fortunately, left the country the next day.)
Thus began the so-called "Cosmos Years," the days of wine and roses, the Pelé era celebrated in the recent documentary Once In A Lifetime. I suppose all those celebrity things, the ones in the film, happened. But the wild disco nights at Studio 54 and the presence of Henry Kissinger and Mick Jagger in the locker rooms were hardly the whole story.
A lot of soccer was played in those years, most of it pretty good. After all, there were plenty of class players around -- Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Ramon Mifflin, Johan Neeskens, Dennis Tueart and Vladislav Bogicevic.
Up in the stands at Giants Stadium sat the sport's newest superfan, Steve Ross, head of Warner Brothers. But the excitement of watching his new toy, the Cosmos, made him thrash about a lot in his front-row mezzanine seat -- to the point where it had to be fitted with a safety belt to prevent the head-first demise of one of America's top business executives.
A particularly violent afternoon of thrashing came during a tournament organized by the Cosmos. It included the Haitian team Victory SC. At halftime of their first game, more than half the Victory team walked off the field, out of the stadium, into waiting cars, never to be seen again. They had "emigrated."
The embarrassed Cosmos, who kept mum about the incident as long as they could, desperately rounded up various semi-pro Haitians from the New York area and sent them out the following day to battle the Cosmos. The goals poured in, Ross thrashed about in a frenzy of excitement, hailing the 9-0 final score with: "This'll show 'em that the Cosmos can measure up to foreign opposition!"
Ross knew very little about soccer and learned almost nothing. But, like all rich owners, he felt his team should always win. When they didn't, the referees were the villains. Before one game he summoned the press corps to the "multimedia" room. He stood gravely in front of us, with a long pointer. Television clips were shown, halted, re-run, while Ross indicated with his pointer all the anti-Cosmos referee errors. It was, of course, absurd.