Fun while it lasted
A look back at the glory days of the New York Cosmos
Posted: Friday July 20, 2007 12:08PM; Updated: Friday July 20, 2007 12:08PM
It must have been early in 1971. The North American Soccer League at last had a team in New York. The Cosmos were in the process of being born, they had a name, and one or two players had been signed. But as far as I could find out, no telephone number. I called information and asked for Cosmos soccer club ... long pause: "I'm sorry, we have no entry for Cosmos supper club."
That sort of obscurity engulfed the Cosmos' early days. They played way out on Long Island in a small stadium belonging to Hofstra University. It had ultra-primitive artificial turf, roughly equivalent to concrete, and a seemingly constant 90 mph wind blowing straight down the pitch, which was a mass of heavily marked gridiron lines. The venue was awful, and most of the football was pretty bad, too.
They'd had trials of course, during which their English coach, Gordon Bradley, patiently watched excruciatingly bad players and sent them home. Dieter Zajdel, a bald-headed Pole, turned up -- he wasn't bad, but Bradley said no. A week later there was a slender midfielder who looked pretty good on the ball -- but the Cosmos had a fearsome Scottish defender who flew into him with a brutal tackle. Bradley looked on in amazement.
"There was this crunch and the guy's head just flew off his shoulders," Bradley recalled. "I thought: 'My god, he's killed him!' We raced out on to the field to find a blond wig lying on the turf." Zajdel had returned in disguise. He was not decapitated, and made the team.
In those early days the Cosmos were -- very oddly, in the light of subsequent events -- rather stingy. I was in their poky offices in midtown Manhattan one day, chatting with Clive Toye, the general manager. We were watching a telex machine jerkily spitting out soccer news. There had been a doping case somewhere, apparently. An awful thought occurred to me. I asked Toye: "The Cosmos don't use drugs, do they?" A look of righteous horror swept across his face. "Good god, no!" he said. "We can't afford them."
Even so, the signs of ambition were there. There was the famous press conference with George Best, who, inevitably, charmed everyone for miles around. The deal was on, just a few details remained, and Best would be a Cosmo. After a week of no news, I called. Where was Best? "We don't know," was the answer. He was, as it happened, sunning himself in Spain, all thought of the Cosmos banished forever from his mind.
Back at Hofstra stadium, new players did arrive, most of them soon forgotten. One dreary evening, before a pitiful crowd, as we watched another lamentable performance, journalist Dave Hirshey of the New York Daily News gloomily remarked: "I know they couldn't get Georgie Best, but did they have to bring in Freddie Worst?"
Another night -- it was raining like Noah's flood -- the Cosmos introduced their new Brazilian, Cinesinho, who'd been playing in Italy. Wind, rain and rock-hard artificial turf were not his scene. He disappeared after the game, never to be seen by the Cosmos again.