Thursday, January 20, 2011

For those football fans of a certain age, the mere mention of the North American Soccer League conjurs up a whole host of thoughts and opinions and most of them won't be all that flattering.

Ask them to name a team from the League though and for many, the New York Cosmos will be the reply.

The NASL was a curious spectacle in football and one that thankfully we'll probably never see again. The League ran for 17 seasons from 1968 to 1984 and, for a short spell, had big names, glitz, glamour, Americans and Canadians falling over themselves to go to some games and a total disregard to football's heritage and rules.

The memory cheats.

As we get older we start to look back at things with a fondness we never particularly had for them at the time. You just have to look at the love for all things 1980's that has been so prevalent in recent years. The 1980's were shit.

It was an awful decade for football, fashion, a lot of the music, politics, unemployment and life in general. If you were to believe all the stuff about it now, it was the most wonderful time of everyone's life. Try telling that to a miner's family. The 1970's were equally as shit, but at least they had punk!

Some people look back on the NASL now with that fondness. Those in the States feel it was the golden age of North American football, whereas in reality it was a glamourisation and bastardisation of the working man's game. It reached a state that made it almost unrecognisable to the game we were watching week in and week out in the UK in an attempt to get the dumbass Americans to take the game seriously.

The "Americanisation" included 35 yard offside lines, shootouts to decide draws (because someone has to win, it's the American way), playoffs, mini-games to decide drawn playoff games and game clocks that counted down and not up.

It seemed to work as they came out in their thousands to watch. Or so we now believe. The harsh reality of it all was that only a few teams pulled in the really big crowds. Many struggled. The average attendance in the League ranged from a low of 2.930 in 1969 to a high of 14,440 in 1980.

Whilst teams in Chicago, Boston and Hawaii (wtf?!) struggled to draw in more than a few thousand at times, teams like Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Minnesota Kicks were pulling in crowds of over 20,000 plus.

All of this pales into insignificance though when compared to the New York Cosmos. Founded in 1971, the Cosmos won 5 Soccer Bowls and 7 Divisional titles in their 14 NASL seasons. Plodding along to crowds in the three and four thousands, they added Pele to their squad in 1975. German legend Franz Beckenbauer and fellow Brazilian here Carlos Alberto joined Pele in New York in 1977 and attendances soared.

For the seven seasons from 1977 to 1983, the Cosmos drew 262,292 fans to their games, a staggering seasonal average of 37,470, peaking at 47,856 in 1978. They were the NASL's hottest ticket and in a sports mad city of baseball and gridiron nuts, the must have ticket in town.

It can be a much overused word nowadays, but they really were a phenomenon, no matter what you think of the validity of the whole NASL.

The interest in football waned in the US, as the big names left, the television coverage dried up, the League over expanded and too many people thought they could make a quick buck by backing the latest 'in thing'.

The NASL folded and New York Cosmons disolved in 1985, leaving football in the US and Canada struggling to recover and it never really has. Hosting the 1994 World Cup and the rise of the MLS (which is still a mickey mouse league in so many ways) have helped and with the addition of Vancouver and Portland (keeping with their NASL heritage names) to the fold from the second tier of the game in North America, the 2011 season could be their biggest and best yet.

The name of the New York Cosmos has always been gone but not forgotten though. Memories, books and the brilliant DVD "Once In A Lifetime" (a must see) keep their legacy alive. They're still the team many people think of when they think of football in the States and they've been dead and buried for 25 years.

But now they're back.

And in true Cosmos style, they're doing things the glamourous way.

The Cosmos name had been kept by the old team's general manager G. Peppe Pinton. He didn't want it devalued or disrespected but when a group wanting to take the team and the name to MLS proved that they would do neither, Pinton sold the name and image rights, paving the way for the return of the famous Cosmos to the North American football scene.

Pele announced the club's return on August 1st last year and was installed as the new Club's honourary president.

Yesterday though saw the Cosmos return to the streets of New York in dramatic style, with some glitzy advertising in Times Square and they backed it up with a dramatic announcement.

Manchester United and French legend Eric Cantona has been made the new Cosmos' Director of Football, with the aim of bringing the Club to Major League Soccer in 2012 or 2013 as the MLS' 20th Club.

They've no ground, they've no players, there's already a team in New York but those little things aren't really going to stop a Club like the New York Cosmos. They have their name!

If they do return, we can only hope it doesn't signal the decline of the MLS and a return to the bad old days of glitz and glamour over sustainability and progress. "It's a wonderful project. It's kind of a mix between football and art" was one of the things Eric chipped in yesterday. Says it all really.

As long as Vancouver Whitecaps can turn them over again on their way to the Championship, as they did in 1979, then that's all that really matters to me.

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