James Lawton: Good luck Cantona. Recreating those exciting Cosmos days is one tall task
Saturday 22 January 2011
You may have shrugged, even muttered a phrase not too far removed from, "there he goes again, the big French barmpot," but Eric Cantona may be on to something when he says the challenge of reviving New York Cosmos could prove a wonderful mix of football and art.
Well, wonderful might be pushing it a bit because it was certainly too much for a combination of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer around 30 years ago but interesting, well, maybe.
So far the artistic and sporting communities of New York have interacted significantly on the rarest of occasions, most recently when the great Luciano Pavarotti was appearing at the Met.
Unfortunately, the divine voice was put out of action by a nasty cold and when an obscure understudy was announced the patrons were so inflamed they started booing and in some extreme cases throwing programmes and other random items at the stage.
The following night a spokesman for the New York Rangers, who had played a numbingly unspectacular game of hockey down the road at Madison Square Garden, explained that many of the fans, who have one of the more ferocious reputations in American sport, had left early not because of the tedium on the ice but out of fear of colliding with the opera crowd.
Who knows, Cantona, with his coat draped around his shoulders and his now iconic ability for self-dramatisation, may achieve something of a more substantial fusion between what the original promoters of the old North American Soccer League sold as a "kick in the grass" and higher forms of culture.
Certainly you give the project more of a chance if you remember how it was, briefly but excitingly, for soccer in New York back in those pioneering days when Pele and Beckenbauer and all those other "soccer" notables came to town.
One vivid memory is of the night Reggie "Mr October" Jackson hit a homer at Yankee Stadium only to go home to his Manhattan penthouse, switch on the TV and find himself second item on the sports news.
Number one was the Cosmos victory over the Tulsa Roughnecks at Giants Stadium in front of 70,000, a crowd swelled somewhat by another visit from Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger.
Cosmos were certainly the hot ticket then, which was partly explained by Giorgio Chinaglia, the Welsh-born Italian who had starred for Lazio, being one of the city's most prominent sports citizens.
Chinaglia scored against the Roughnecks and his goal had nearly as many re-runs as the one scored by George Best for the San Jose Earthquakes a few years later. Best's goal was brilliantly achieved, but was performed at about a quarter of his old pace and sharpness.
Chinaglia's old popularity in New York, which is unlikely to have suffered by his being linked with figures in the Italian underworld, is no doubt the reason why he will play his part alongside Cantona in the effort to restore the Cosmos image with an application to the Major Soccer League.
The worry of course must be that the high-water mark of football popularity in the United States, as a spectator sport rather than healthy recreation for both sexes, has come and gone.
Fifa, never slow to sniff out commercial possibilities, suggested this may be their conclusion when they decided to send the 2022 World Cup to an obscure corner of Arabia rather than return to America after a 28-year break.
Such rejection would have been unthinkable back in the early eighties when the mood could scarcely have been more optimistic. Montreal Manic drew a crowd of 58,000 for a play-off against Chicago Sting in 1981 and when Phil Woosnam, a former Aston Villa and Wales inside-forward, was appointed league commissioner, he experienced a rush of blood to the head he has possibly spent the best part of the rest of his life trying to forget.
Under its influence, Woosnam, a university graduate and in most situations a model of rational thought, declared, "In 10 years we will surpass the NFL." As hubris goes, it was in a class of its own and the American media, at least that part of it which cared either way, dined on it all the way to implosion in the mid-eighties.
Then, the fear was that football would never recover as a serious player. The verdict on that assessment must still be a long way from being delivered but at the very least Cantona's appearance in New York – and the big advertising messages in Times Square – is a reminder of a period when the world's most popular game did seem to be on the verge of crossing its last frontier.
Wherever you went there was a demi-god on show. Johan Cruyff and Carlos Alberto followed on the heels of Beckenbauer and Pele.
Kissinger seemed to capture the mood of optimism better than most when, as an ambassador for the successful bid for World Cup 1994, he was quizzed about the ability of the Americans to successfully adapt indoor stadiums and Astroturf pitches. "I think we're up to it," he said. "Don't forget, we did get a man on the moon."
Before Cantona was instated officially as the catalyst who returned Manchester United to the big time, he once mused about the inspiration he drew from every appearance at Old Trafford. "I feel the ghosts all around me. The great players of the past are with me. I know I can help to bring back some of their achievements."
Who knows, maybe he will draw strength from another set of ghosts in New York – and perhaps the fact that the game is no longer coming from another planet.
That, certainly, was the impression of Beckenbauer when he made his debut at Giants Stadium, one rather bleakly confirmed by a report of the reaction of the big man from Warner Communications, the club owners. Impatiently, he demanded to know why the great star who had cost so much was loitering at the back of the team. "That's where he plays," the big man was told.
"Not here, not at his price," said the moneyman. "Tell him to get his ass up front." Bon chance, Eric.
'Big lie' at heart of London 2012 is the hype on which Blair's bid was built
Lamine Diack, president of the International Federation of Athletic Associations, has made a damning intervention in the Olympic Stadium fiasco.
The confession of the old long jumper from Senegal, and admitted Francophile, that he succumbed to the masterful salesmanship of Tony Blair, and the Olympic know-how of Lord Coe, at the cost of his belief that Paris had a superior bid went straight to the heart of all reservations about the success of the London campaign.
However successful the London Games, no one should forget that they have been built around a central deceit.
It is that all the claims that victory for London was an investment in the future of youth, that it was guaranteed to bring down a shocking place in the world obesity league and provide, at last, a decent infrastructure for sport and recreation, was so much hype.
Paris did not have to make such claims because the reality was already in place. We had the Picketts Lock catastrophe in 2001; Paris had the World Athletics Championships of 2003. Paris had the superbly organised World Cup of 1998 and a transport system that had passed all the tests.
France, along with so many other European nations, had an infinitely better record in providing facilities for young sportsmen and women.
Now Tessa Jowell, the former Olympics minister, says that rendering the London stadium unfit for athletic purposes would make a lie of the winning bid. So it would, but then where do we begin to measure the lies and reflect on the difference between promises and performance?
How guilty does Jowell feel about the flogging off of school playing fields by successive governments – or the reality that a burst of sports spending has been directed where it is most likely to yield medals in Beijing and London?
How guilty does anyone feel about the fact that Britain has so long been a poor relation of nations who understand that looking after the welfare of young people is not something you do in exchange for the Olympics but because it is right and decent.
We are told that tearing up a running track, for the benefit of Tottenham Hotspur, would confirm the telling of a "big lie". But then who's measuring and for how long?
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