The Original Galacticos

15 05 2010

Pele, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cryuff, Johan Neeskens, Giorgio Chinaglia. Some of the greatest players ever to grace the game, all of which turned out for the New York Cosmos in the late 1970s. 

The Cosmos were formed in 1971, as the brainchild of the then Warner Brothers President, Steve Ross. Naturally, this was to give the Cosmos unrivalled financial muscle, allowing them to persuade Pele out of retirement with an unprecedented, lucrative offer. It is not known exactly how much Pele was paid for his three seasons at The Cosmos, the contract had many stipulations and caveats relating to image rights, but most agree it was in the region of $5m. The signing of Pele was not only a victory for Warner’s money but also their political influence. The Brazilian government classed Pele as a national treasure and were blocking his move to the Cosmos, asking him to play one more year in Brazil. They soon backed down after a phone call to the Brazilian Secretary of State from his American couterpart, Henry Kissinger, who explained that allowing Pele to move would help improve realtions between the two countries. Kissinger was to go on to become the Cosmos biggest fan.

Pele’s arrival in New York catipulted the sport onto the front and back pages. The following 5 years was to prove the golden age of football in America. A lot of the players arriving were towards the end of their careers, but not all. Chinaglia moved to the Cosmos aged 29 and Beckenbauer, although marginally the wrong side of 30, had just been named European footballer of the year for the second time. It was not only the Cosmos that attracted the big names. Eusebio, Gerd Muller, George Best, Rodney Marsh, Trevor Francis, Johnny Giles, Geoff Hurst, Booby Moore and many more great players were lured to the bright lights and big pay checks of the NASL. 

In New York the Cosmos took on celebrity status. The strips were designed by Ralph Lauren and they had their own VIP table at the world famous Studio 54 disco. Along with Kissinger, Mick Jagger was a regular at the Cosmos home games and the dressing room. They were often joined by the likes of Robert Redford, Steven Speilberg, Andy Warhol and even Muhammad Ali. The Cosmos were without doubt the coolest sports team in New York. They regularly attracted crowds of over 40,000, which given their starting position just a few years earlier, was nothing short of remarkable. Pele’s last game for the Cosmos in October 1977 attracted a capacity crowd of over 75,000 at Giants Stadium. On the road the Cosmos had a closer resemblance to a rock band than a football team, travelling to and from airports in stretch limousines laden with champagne and women. 

Ostensibly, football was taking over in America. Many commentators had accepted that American sports would soon have to play second fiddle to ‘soccer’. However, the glitz and razmataz of the Cosmos was papering over the cracks. In attempting to follow the Cosmos mould, other franchises were paying massive wages in the hope the crowds would follow; in the main they did not. Average attendances never rose above 15,000 for the entire leage and some teams were attracting less than 5,000. The league was heavily reliant on foreign players, many drawing massive salaries. TV ratings were generally poor, with the networks devoting less and less time and peak hours to the games. As it was before the creation of NASL, football was seen as a foreign game. Changes were made in an attempt to make the game more palatable to the American public. A 35 yard offside line was introduced and no games were to end in a draw, full time was followed by a mini game, if the scores were still level the game was decided by an American shoot out. Rather than the traditional penalty shoot out, players had 5 seconds to score from the 35 yard line. 
Ultimately the success of NASL was also to prove its downfall. The apparent triumph of the Cosmos saw the league grow too much, too fast, peaking at 24 teams. It soon became clear to the owners of these new franchises that the business model of the Cosmos was not sustainable. NASL began to decline at a startling rate. Firstly, the Cosmos lost the financial backing of Warner, the jewel in the crown could no longer afford to lure the big names that had kept the league afloat. America also had high hopes of staging the 1986 World Cup after Colombia withdrew, this was seen as a great oppotunity to reinvigorate the game. FIFA awarded the competition to Mexico and NASL was all but dead. Team after team folded as the watered down indoor game, which was proving slightly more popular, began to encroach on the outdoor season.

At the end of the 1984 season, just 16 years after its inception, NASL was no more. The legacy of NASL did in 1988 lead to FIFA awarding World Cup 1994 to America, which concurrently led to the formation of Major League Soccer in 1993. Lessons had been learnt and MLS was to prove a much more stable and well run organisation. However, for all its faults and excesses, NASL will always be fondly remembered.