As the United States national soccer team limps home after a disappointing showing in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, sports radio talk shows continue to question if soccer will ever gain a serious foothold and become a major endeavor in America along the same lines as football, basketball, or baseball. It’s a hotly contested debate but the commentators would do well to recognize that for a brief period of time, soccer did manage to hold sway over our biggest city. Gavin Newsham recounts this glorious period in Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos, a book that illustrates both how soccer succeeded, and failed, in the metropolis that influences so much of our culture.
As the struggling North American Soccer League (NASL) managed to retain a pulse in 1970, a plan was being hatched to launch a team in New York City. At the World Cup that year in Mexico, NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam chanced into a meeting with Nesuhi Ertegun, executive vice-president of Atlantic Records, a division of Warner Communications. Ertegun, along with his brother Ahmet, were both dedicated soccer fans, and prodded by the commissioner, they pitched the idea of operating a team to their boss at Warner, Steve Ross. Soccer is “the biggest sport in the world [and] it’s going to take over America,” Ertegun proclaimed. Ross was intrigued and Warner soon found itself in the soccer business.
The team quickly realized an international superstar was needed to attract attention and lend credibility. “What the Cosmos and, more importantly, the NASL needed was a legend, a player who had the kudos and charisma to carry an entire league,” Newsham writes. “It needed its own Babe or Di Maggio, its own Joe Namath or Walt Frazier.” And so began the wooing of the greatest player ever to take to the pitch: Pelé.
The Brazilian great was so valued by his country that in 1962, the president declared the then 22-year-old a “non-exportable national treasure” unavailable to sale. But the Cosmos were undeterred. It took four years of recruiting, selling, pleading, negotiating, and begging, but the team finally signed the world’s most famous athlete.
But the signing wouldn’t have happened without the strategic application of green spray paint. At the time, the Cosmos played at Downing Stadium under the Triborough Bridge, at a facility alternately referred to as a dump, hellhole, or horror show. Striving to make a positive impression, the team planned to helicopter Pelé over the stadium, but first they had to make some emergency renovations. The players “were trying to avoid the broken glass on the field when all of a sudden we see a guy coming on the field and he starts spray painting the field green,” remembered goal keeper Shep Messing.
The humble ingenuity of painting dirt green while wooing the world’s best soccer player is just one example of the more charming stories told in Once in a Lifetime. Another example that seems silly in retrospect, but at the time was viewed as a great idea, was featuring a chimpanzee named Harold as the club’s official mascot. Harold was sent to the pitch before kickoff, to play with the ball and amuse the crowd. “Unfortunately, Harold also had an unfortunate tendency to urinate at inopportune moments, sometimes, on the pitch, sometimes on his handler and occasionally on both,” Newsham writes. In fact, Harold the Chimp marked his first press conference at the Hotel Warwick in midtown Manhattan by urinating on midfielder Stanley Startzell. As one journalist laughingly recalled, “it’s this sort of monkey business that characterized the Cosmos.”
The monkey business changed when Pelé arrived. Attendance figures tripled, ticket revenues skyrocketed, and attention was showered upon the team. The Brazilian’s first game with the Cosmos was covered by more than 300 journalists and televised in 22 different countries. Instantaneously, Pelé added respectability to American soccer and the team. Other international luminaries such as Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto eventually wore the Cosmos uniform. The team suddenly became the hottest ticket in town.
Star athletes were frequently not the only celebrities in the locker room. Mick Jagger, Robert Redford, Henry Kissinger, Andy Warhol, and others were sucked into the Cosmos whirlwind. By the summer of 1977, “the Cosmos were the sports team of New York City, not so for the quality of their play on the pitch, but the quantity of the play off it.” Studio 54 was a regular team hangout and players remembered these days as a period of “women, drinking, dancing, alcohol, and back on the field the next day.”
In recounting the team’s rise to prominence, Newsham mixes in numerous pop culture and historical references that help place this moment in time. Around the same time that the Cosmos failed in their bid for a league championship, President Gerald Ford was also facing difficult circumstances. The economy was faring poorly, his son publicly admitted using marijuana, he was ridiculed on Saturday Night Live, and he had been the target of two unsuccessful assassination attempts. “He would be clearing his desk at the Oval Office, ousted by his Democrat challenger, the peanut farmer from Georgia, Jimmy Carter. Still, at least he could say he had met Pelé.”
Elvis Presley’s death, the Son of Sam murders, the NYC blackouts, and the Warner purchase of a fledgling company once called Syzygy, but later known to the world as Atari, all provide cultural context to this sporting tale. In this way, Once in a Lifetime is much more than just a sports biography and should entice readers who aren’t hardcore soccer fans.
The Cosmos decline is recounted equally well. It features solid reporting, buoyed by engaging writing, and anchored by interesting cultural touchpoints. And while sports writers currently debate US National Team Coach Bruce Arena’s job or Landon Donovan’s performance, they would do well to refer to Newsham’s book for lessons about what to do, and what not do, in establishing the soccer footprint in this country.
A film version of the book is scheduled for release on 7 July.