If it hadn’t have been for Warner Brothers President Steve Ross, the New York Cosmos and its legacy may have been nothing more than a distant dream. Twenty-six years on after its disbandment which left a brief yet storied legacy to football in the United States, one marquee name started the jugular for the world’s global game to kick off in the land of the opportunity. Arguably the greatest player to have ever graced a football pitch, Pele.
Steve Ross had a dream to build a legacy from scratch in his homeland with a sport that was considered by the majority of the American people as a no-go. With basketball, baseball and American football to name a few being primary sports in the country, soccer was never ever foreseen as a successful venture. It is no secret that the game hasn’t been the country’s most popular sport and had it not been for the New York Cosmos then no one could have envisaged its rapid progression of today. With a successful national team along with a branded national league in the MLS (Major League Soccer), the US is becoming more and more affiliated to the sport.
Steve Ross, the godfather of football in America, believed that with the backing of his company Warner Communications (parent company of Warner Brothers), the sport was finally going to captivate the American people. He along with brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun founded a football club in 1971. Their general manager Clive Toye had the responsibility of registering the new club’s name– taking inspiration from the destined city’s baseball team the New York Mets – he founded the club as the New York Cosmos – referring to Cosmopolitans as the Mets did with Metropolitans. Their dream of taking the nation by storm with a sport that was more or less ridiculed was seen by its onlookers as a disaster waiting to happen. How little did they know?
In the early years the club struggled with players being brought in from New York’s amateur leagues. The club was taking part in the North American Soccer League that was a professional tier but had the talent off those at semi-pro with the players having various part-time jobs. The club was struggling to get exposed with a lack of promotion, nothing to do with the effort being put in by those behinds the scenes but due to the lack of interest in the sport from the American people – despite the club winning the league championship in 1972. Ross wanted people to be aware of his club and therefore moved the club to Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. The stadium was so dilapidated and unappealing that Cosmos striker Randy Horton once said; “I found great difficulty getting out of my bed on game days, really not wanting to go to Randall’s Island”. His mentality was similar to that of his peers as the team ended up losing 14 games in 20 and therefore finishing bottom of their division – the worst performance in its history. Only a saviour, a messiah could turn fortunes round and lead the Cosmos to the golden gates of football heaven. A man who had achieved more than anybody in the history of the sport whose name stood the hair’s on the back of one’s necks. A man who left spectators open-mouthed as they witnessed a riveting piece of his skill as he blessed the ball with his feet. A man who could bring football off its knees in a country that was afraid to fall in love with it. To reach the top, they needed the top man and that was Pele.
Amazingly when general manager Clive Toye proposed the radical idea to lure footballs greatest ever player to a team with seemingly no appeal to the club’s Vice President Raphael de la Sierra, he responded by saying; “Well who’s Pele? I have no idea?” Toye had in fact tried to entice Pele to New York a month after the club was formed, also insisting the clubs colours be yellow to replicate that of Brazil who had just won the FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Steve Ross was appealed by Toye’s idea despite having very little knowledge on the man in question. With his money bankrolling the Cosmos operation he would go all out to bring in football’s biggest name in order to get his franchise off the ground. He saw it as not only a wonderful opportunity for his team to be enhanced but was also excited by the marketing opportunities with Pele’s name and face. Cosmos delegates flew over to Brazil to try and convince their target that his future laid in New York City. Jay Emmett, Vice President of Warner Communications along with Toye and thirty or so other delegates presented the World Cup winner with a challenge. Allegedly Real Madrid and Juventus were seeking the Brazilian’s signature by luring him to play for a European club for the first time in his career. Clive Toye however told Pele that all he would achieve there is another championship where as in the States he would have the opportunity to win over a whole country.
Toye’s thinking certainly had Pele’s mind ticking but with all such transfers like this money would play a huge part in the occurrence of the deal. He would earn $1million for a three year playing contract, another $1million for a ten year contract for his image rights and $1million again for a fourteen-year PR contract. All in all Pele became the highest paid athlete in world sport. Warner Communications and Steve Ross had gone all out to get their man and how they would reap the benefits of his presence.
Unbelievably the deal very nearly collapsed after a mixed reaction in Brazil opposed the idea of their darling playing the remainder of his career in North America. Even the Brazilian President demanded that he play one more season in his homeland for the good of his people. Pele in a precarious predicament didn’t want to upset his people nor his potential suitors. Warner Communications who were sweating on the deal potentially collapsing were lent a helping hand by an unlikely acquaintance, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It was he who got in touch with the Brazilian Government and sold them the idea of it being a tremendous opportunity for their country to have their beloved son playing his trade in the United States. Pele was then contacted soon after by Brazil’s Secretary of State telling him to sign the contract with the New York Cosmos for the good of the relationship between the two countries. Without thinking twice Pele was convinced and signed on the dotted line. His love affair with American football was ready to blossom.
He was presented to the world’s media at the 21 Club in Manhattan to a sea of cameras and lights as America got their first glimpse of football’s most iconic individual. All of a sudden people in the country were taking notice of the football club and all it took was the greatest player on the planet and one hefty pay pocket for their eyes to glance upwards. Via his translator Pele stated; “You can finally spread out all the news to the whole world that soccer has finally arrived to the USA”. It wasn’t a feeble statement by the man, it was a promise. The whole world was now aware of the New York Cosmos and looked on in huge interest to see how the arrival of their marquee signing would pan out.
Football being televised in America was a rare occurrence back then to say the least but Pele’s debut against Dallas was aired by CBS with Downing Stadium completely sold-out. The club beforehand had struggled to draw in any more than a couple hundred spectators, now they were turning people away due to a sell-out. People who had never seen a football game in their life were turning up just to see Pele out of curiosity. His arrival had already drawn in new fans and he hadn’t even kicked a ball. He played the full ninety minutes in which he made an assist and headed in an equaliser to earn a 2-2 draw. It couldn’t have gone any better. However, Pele started to think twice about the move whilst in the changing room after seeing his feet covered in green marks. He called over Raphael de la Sierra whilst he was showering and told him he didn’t want to play for the club again because his prized feet had contracted a fungus from playing on the pitch. Little did Pele know that prior to his arrival the groundsman had spray painted the pitch green to cover large parts of the dead turf to make him feel at home. As soon as Raphael had told him that it was actually paint Pele burst into laughter and rejoiced with his peers.
Pele wouldn’t have to worry about playing his trade at Downing Stadium anymore as the club had plans afoot to move to the city’s Giants Stadium which had a capacity of over 80,000 – worthy of Pele. For the meantime the club moved to Yankee Stadium where in just half a season Pele’s arrival had trebled their home attendance records. He was also smashing attendance records all over the country where ever he played as people wanted to catch a glimpse of the new star man. On the pitch his team mates were somewhat in awe of their new peer and became too dependent on him. Bobby Smith who played in defence revealed that he found it hard to believe that he belonged at the club whilst playing with such a legend. Nevertheless his arrival spurned on his team mates who learnt so much by his presence and made them better players because of it.
The North American Soccer League as a whole was benefiting from the arrival as more and more star names opted to cross the Atlantic and play for its clubs such as Gordon Banks and George Best. Rodney Marsh who joined the Tampa Bay Rowdies infamously claimed to the American press that Pele was the black Rodney Marsh – leading to a robust challenge by the Brazilian on the Englishman when they met on the field.
Cosmos brought in Giorgio Chinaglia as their second big name import from Lazio and went on to become the league’s highest ever goal-scorer. German legend Franz Beckenbauer and Brazilian World Cup winning captain from 1970 Carlos Alberto was also brought in and inevitably became integral figures in the clubs quest for honours. Had Pele not started the ball rolling with his transfer then the arrival of other such huge names would not have been possible. The football wizard contributed on the pitch with 64 goals in a total of 107 appearances.
In his final match in the play-off championship in front of a sold out Giants Stadium with 77,961 spectators, Pele became an American champion. He had completed his mission by bringing awareness to the American people of the greatest sport in the world. The club had struggled to draw in more than 1,000 spectators three years prior and now nearly 80,000 people were on looking from the stands. That just signifies the importance of Pele’s arrival along with other famous names but had it not been for the Brazilian then who’s to say that football in America would have become as popular as it is today.
Pele and the New York Cosmos was a match made in heaven for the rise of the sport in the US and twenty-five years after the club disbanded, it has now been revived with Pele as Honorary President. Along with the hierarchies in charge, the club are now on course to get the infamous name implemented into Major League Soccer.
The rebirth of America’s most famous football club is well and truly underway.