Stood in a vast SportsDirect.com store at my local retail park, my eye was drawn to the rail crammed with New York Cosmos shirts, t-shirts, tracksuits, all with neon coloured discount labels on them. A wry grin came across my face. I was taking a grim pleasure in the fact that the public had clearly not been drawn into the marketing man's dream. Why pay £45 for an umbro shirt of a team that doesn't really exist? A team that doesn't actually play any matches? You might as well buy a retro shirt from TOFFs.
As a child I remember the Subbuteo catalogue containing the kits of the NASL teams, the colours, the names had an exciting look and sound to them; the Cosmos, Chicago Sting, San Diego Sockers, Tampa Bay Rowdies……. Then again, I was 7 or 8 years old - the real reason the brightly coloured men and unusual names appealed - and didn't really understand that the NASL was a league stumbling towards oblivion.
Reading the late David Wangerin's book Soccer in a Football World it is hard not to be drawn in by the tale of the star-filled NASL team of the 1970's. The way they made proper football appear cool to the hardened American public for a short while. The stuff of legend, or myth, depending upon what you believe of the stories of the time. Yet, much of the reflective glory of the Cosmos can be seen as a hype that masked the reality of a failing league, with many failing franchises, little growth. In fact the brief shot in the arm provided by the Cosmos all-stars saw opportunistic franchises, unsustainable wage demands and when the big names left and the crowds drifted
away, financial hardship.
By 1982 the Cosmos average crowds were 18,000, way down on the oft quoted 62,394 that turned up to watch Pele score a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay in 1977 or the 77,000 full house at Giants Stadium for Pele's last game versus Santos. The Cosmos for a time were like the Harlem Globetrotters of the football world, big name players, exciting to watch, creating their own demand. But that demand wasn't for football, or for the Cosmos themselves. It was for the constituent parts and therefore longevity was never going to be achieved.
The re-launch of the Cosmos in 2010 smacked of money men looking to milk a faded brand, to tap into football fans' unending yearning for nostalgia. The one thing it never convinced me of was that it was trying to create a sustainable, long-lasting football club. I remembered the fanfare of the Pele backed re-launch, a great player but a man who I think would turn up to the opening of a cardboard box if the financial incentives were enough. The cover and several pages of FourFourTwo were filled with the dream.
Former Spurs director and Lord Sugar sidekick Paul Kemsley had purchased the rights to the Cosmos name and at the launch said;
“We hope you get it. It’s gonna be huge. Support us. The Cosmos are back.”
He talked about building a stadium, opening Cosmos-related restaurants and hotels in New York City and he predicted that he and Umbro will sell a fortune’s worth of shirts in Europe and Asia. The only thing is he never said when he would have a team up and running.
In trying to add the names and glamour, that the team of the 1970's and 1980's provided, the club has tried to appoint high profile names into what can best be described as nominal positions; Pele as Honorary President, Eric Cantona as Director of Football, Shep Messing and Carlos Alberto as International Ambassadors. Yet these are merely figureheads, with seemingly little actual input or effort being made. On his appointment, Cantona described it as
"..a wonderful project. It's kind of a mix between football and art"
He didn't say which of the two facets would have the stronger emphasis though.
With former international Cobi Jones he aimed to develop a home-grown policy, playing on the strength of the two academies the club had up and running in New York and Los Angeles. The fact that the West Coast operation ceased operating last year and the New York where Cosmos linked up with the established Blau Weiss Gottschee club has hit problems. Late last year there were allegations coming from BWG that Cosmos hadn't met the financial commitments originally agreed. A visit to the Blau Weiss website makes reference to the Cosmos, but information is limited and greater emphasis is placed on a link-up with the US Soccer Development Academy.
Two years on from the glitzy re-launch Kemsley has departed, following financial difficulties for his property company, a couple of management restructures have taken place and only now do they have a plan in place to enter the third tier of US football in 2013. It remains to be seen whether they take that place.
The fact they have now, two years on finally committed to playing in the NASL can be looked at with a degree of scepticism. In avoiding the significant financial outlay required to join the MLS (their initial stated aim), they have instead joined a league which allows them to protect their own media and image rights. As chairman Seamus O'Brien told ESPN;
"Our goal is to own our own brand, media rights and player contracts. We realised we would be better off by investing that $100m (MLS buy-in fee) capital in our own brand and owning it"
And there you have the nub of the problem.
Whilst I believe that football clubs need to be run as businesses with a credible financial model, I can't help feeling that the re-incarnated Cosmos is a brand with a football team added on as an adjunct, not the key element. Attention-grabbing, merchandise selling without a foundation for sustainable success. Whilst the development of the Cosmos youth academy is to be applauded, many questions remain over its future and the fact that the under-23 team failed to take its offered place in the Premier Development League for the new season is further cause for concern.
My cynicism is clearly not widespread, although there does appear to be a degree of tempered expectation with regards to the Cosmos. A poll on The Bleacher Report website, alongside an article called "Why we should care about the return of the Cosmos", has a poll asking 'How do you feel about the return of the Cosmos?' Although
only 1,500 have voted at the time of writing, we can assume they are people with a keen interest in football to have read the article in the first place. 46% responded "Excited", with 19% "Not Interested"and a further 35% saying "Let's wait and see what happens".
Football has a home in New York and whether you agree with the Red Bull corporatisation of football across the globe or not (I don't). They have invested time, money in the Metro Stars, built a stadium and built a fan-base from a standing start. Plenty to be applauded for. The idea that someone can build a team based on its name, a moment of history, and a few star players and that it will succeed is perhaps naïve. People selectively forget what happened when the big names left the Cosmos, just as they choose to remember the halcyon days.
I don't mind golden eras of football being romanticised but sometimes certain things are of a moment; when everything falls into place, right city, right ethos, and right time. And sometimes, they need to be left there.
If the NY Cosmos are still here in 5 years' time, competing with talented, home grown players in the NASL, holding off MLS entry for the right reasons, then maybe my negativity will subside. In doing this they will be demonstrating a willingness to build and steadily grow a football club, rather than be the mere marketing puff they remain at present.
Ian Rands is a proud Sheffield United fan and his site is enjoyable whether you're a Blade or not.