Glory days of the Cosmos (cont.)
Posted: Friday July 20, 2007 12:08PM; Updated: Friday July 20, 2007 12:08PM
Ross's sidekick, Jay Emmett, was a noisy, gregarious individual who liked the spotlight and liked to exude authority. He took a similarly childish line whenever the Cosmos lost.
The real soccer power behind Cosmos was Turkish record industry magnate Nesuhi Ertegun, along with his brother Ahmet. Nesuhi knew his soccer. One September morning in 1978, I sat in his office, talking about the post-Pelé Cosmos. Who would replace Pelé? Maybe Cruyff (he did play a game or two for them). I mentioned that Rivelino was in New York ... and the word Rivelino had barely passed my lips and Ertegun was reaching for his phone. He spoke to whomever, and the gist was: Find out where Rivelino is and get him to play for us in our friendly against Atlético Madrid tomorrow. And that's what happened. Unvarnished power and authority, swift to act and to get results.
The Cosmos got results on the field because they played vibrant attacking soccer. Chinaglia got the goals, Beckenbauer commanded elegantly from midfield. Yes, midfield. He wasn't needed at sweeper because that was where the remarkable Carlos Alberto reigned. I've never seen anyone play in defense more cleverly, more artfully, more skillfully than Alberto. As Best put it: "He's 34 years old, he can't run, he can't head, he can't tackle -- so why does he always end up with the bloody ball?" Magic, maybe? Certainly, it was spellbinding to watch.
As for the coaches, they didn't seem to me to matter that much. When Chinaglia arrived in 1976, he quickly got the ear of Ross and made it clear that he wanted the Englishmen Bradley and Toye out. They departed; Eddie Firmani arrived. He was Chinaglia's choice, and there was a feeling that he was doing Chinaglia's bidding.
Firmani got the boot in 1979, and an inexperienced American, Ray Klivecka, took over. It was a bizarre appointment. Everyone felt that Mazzei, Pelé's pal, should have the job. A player told me: "All I know is that in the locker room Mazzei does a lot of talking and Klivecka does a lot of nodding." Mazzei did take over, quickly followed by German Hennes Weisweiller in 1980.
And suddenly the coach did matter, for Weisweiller ruined everything. He got rid of Alberto, seemed obsessed with the idea of sheer speed of play -- hardly the strong point of Bogicevic, the beautifully languid playmaker -- and made a big show of bringing in young Americans who were clearly not capable of playing the sort of high-level football that was the Cosmos trademark. The Cosmos were hemorrhaging fun -- and that was fatal.
By 1982 Mazzei was back, but the Cosmos were running on empty. So, too, was the league, which now had only 14 teams, down from 24 only two years earlier. Every so often a blinding spark of the old Cosmos took fire -- never more so than on July 17, 1983.
Three minutes into the second half of a home game against the Tulsa Roughnecks, New York's gymnastic young Paraguayan Roberto Cabañas raced up to meet a cross in the Tulsa area. He mistimed his run, dived too early -- but, airborne as the ball passed over his back, he flung up his legs and back-heeled the ball into the net with ferocious power.
That was a Cosmos moment for sure, maybe the last one. In 1984, the NASL died. With heavy heart I wrote an obituary for The New York Times in which I admitted that the fans were just not there -- yet -- and quoted a typical Sam Goldwynism: "If they don't wanna come, you can't stop them."
But it wasn't the unintentional witticisms of Goldwyn that summed up the crazy Cosmos. Really, they were a more surreal happening, right out of Lewis Carroll. Listen: One memorable afternoon when more than 70,000 fans were streaming into Giants Stadium, an over-excited minion in the press box told us: "It's a sell-out! We're now selling standing-room seats!"
I had to ask, of course: "What the hell is a standing-room seat?" The guy cast a pitiful look at me and simply repeated, almost jumping up and down: "Standing-room seats, standing-room SEATS!"
Standing-room seats belong with frumious bandersnatches and caucus races and unbirthdays; they are pure Alice In Wonderland. That was the Cosmos, a topsy-turvy, down-the-rabbit-hole world of soccer where for a short time anything and everything, however absurd and nonsensical, seemed perfectly proper. Fantasy, if you like -- but they played some wonderful football while it lasted.
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