A match between New York Cosmos and Old Carthusians encapsulates the entire span of football’s growth from a Victorian pastime into the world’s most popular sport, but when they played last weekend it was not part of some historic curiosity roadshow.
Instead it was an important step towards the rebirth of the Cosmos, once the most glitteringly famous football club in the old North American Soccer League (NASL), whose players included Pele, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer, but which crashed and burned when the star-spangled league collapsed in 1984.
The club, bearing the same distinctive swirling ball badge and green and white colours, were reformed in 2010 with Pele as their honorary president and Carlos Alberto and former Manchester United striker Eric Cantona as ambassadors, and are now about to embark on their first competitive season for 29 years.
They are returning in a modern, streamlined NASL, effectively the second division of professional football in the US beneath Major League Soccer (MLS), and, as everyone associated with the club says, the perfect place to start a new adventure.
Sunday’s match against Old Carthusians, the old boys team of Charterhouse School in Surrey, ended in a 4-1 win for the Cosmos, who have been preparing for the new season on immaculate, green playing fields, set against the backdrop of the turretted Victorian pile that remains one of Britain’s oldest and most elitist fee-paying public schools.
Unlike the Cosmos, whose original existence lasted only 14 years, the Old Carthusians have been playing without a break since 1876, winning the FA Cup in 1881 when Queen Victoria was still on the throne.
One Old Carthusian, former pupil Seamus O’Brien, is now the chairman and chief executive of the Cosmos, who have been based at Charterhouse for nearly two weeks preparing for pre-season warm-up games in England.
They played their first official match since 1984 on Wednesday when they were beaten 2-1 by League One Leyton Orient and faced Gillingham in a behind-closed-doors friendly last night.
Coach Giovanni Savarese, the much-travelled Venezuelan who has built the squad from scratch, was not too concerned by the defeat at Orient. Rather, he was positive about the future when he spoke amid the rolling green hills of the Surrey countryside this week.
“It is just so special to be involved with the Cosmos and all of us are very fortunate to be part of the re-birth of such an important club, which was well known and respected internationally because of the type of player they were able to attract,” he said.
“The original Cosmos helped build soccer in the United States and must be given credit for helping develop the game to the stage the US has reached now. But I also have no doubt the future is much more secure now than it was then and there are many reasons why this is the case.
“These days the United States has a proper youth development programme. The US has many more people enthusiastic about the game, not just in the professional and international levels, but at youth level, everywhere. The United States is full of soccer at the moment.”
Savarese actually started with a blank piece of paper as he set about recruiting players from around the MLS, overseas and from the club’s own youth set-up.
The most notable arrival is of former Spain international Marcos Senna, relishing one last challenge at 37 and showing plenty of his old touch at the Matchroom Stadium.
Others have come from far corners of the globe such as Brazil, Italy, Japan, Cameroon and Guatemala, and there is also a sprinkling of native New Yorkers that includes Savarese’s first signing, captain Carlos Mendes.
Mendes knows the New York scene well, having spent seven seasons with the New York Red Bulls and growing up in a household with parents who went to watch the original Cosmos when they arrived in the States from Portugal in the 1970s.
“I grew up hearing about the Cosmos and for a New Yorker it is a huge honour to be with them now,” he said at the end of a gruelling double training session at Charterhouse.
“My parents went to Cosmos games when they first arrived from Portugal, and it made my decision an easy one. It’s very special for me personally.
“We know we can’t duplicate or match the original team, they had some of the greatest players that have ever played the game, so that pressure is not on us.
“We are starting a new chapter with fantastic people and we can reach the top level and be a major club again.”
The way the sporting model is built in the United States differs in one crucial respect from sport around the world in that there is no relegation and promotion. So if the Cosmos were to win the NASL that would not mean automatic promotion to the MLS.
Instead, chief operating officer Erik Stover said it would strengthen the club and the league. Intriguingly, he believes the NASL could once again be the top league in the United States.
“We feel we can make ourselves a better club in the NASL, which has different rules to the MLS and means we can develop faster, in a way that suits us and the league,” Stover said.
“There is no salary cap in the NASL, but that does not mean we just want to outspend every other club, it just means we are not so restricted. In five years from now who knows where we will be?
“There is nothing to say the NASL can’t be just as good as MLS, or even better. Because there is no promotion and relegation, our league can be as good.
“The gap on the commercial side is bigger right now, but we don’t think the gap on the playing side is that great at all.”
The Cosmos will have the chance to test Stover’s theory in the US Open Cup next season, the 100-year-old knockout competition for teams in all the US leagues, with the winner qualifying for the Concacaf Champions League.
The winner of that then plays in Fifa’s Club World Cup, and with it gains a place on the global stage. That kind of success may be a little way off yet, but there is no doubt the New York Cosmos are shooting for the stars once again.
Seventies superstars: The original Cosmos
The original New York Cosmos were born in early 1970 when Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun and Warner Brothers president Steve Ross founded a New York side for the North American Soccer League.
Players such as Pele, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia were signed, with celebrity support including Mick Jagger, Henry Kissinger and Steven Spielberg. After finishing second in their first season, the Cosmos were top in 1972 and in total won five championships. Average crowds peaked at 47,856 in 1978, with a high of 77,691 for a 1977 game.
The Cosmos folded due to financial problems in 1985 following the dissolving of the NASL. The club was reformed in 2010, with Pele as honorary president and Eric Cantona named director of soccer. They will re-enter the NASL in the Fall Championship.
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