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This book tells the story of the New York Cosmos soccer team, which brought the greatest talents of the world's biggest sport to a city awash in celebrity and decadence. In the summer of 1977, entrepreneurial Warner Brothers chairman Steve Ross assembled the best ...
This book tells the story of the New York Cosmos soccer team, which brought the greatest talents of the world's biggest sport to a city awash in celebrity and decadence. In the summer of 1977, entrepreneurial Warner Brothers chairman Steve Ross assembled the best soccer players from across the globe to play for the Cosmos. Pele, the German superstar Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens, Giorgio Chinaglia, Brazil's 1970 World Cup-winning captain Carlos Alberto, Werner Roth, Roberto Cabanas, and many others all donned Cosmos jerseys and became instant celebrities in the process. The Cosmos quickly became the hottest ticket in town and the Cosmos players soon became enmeshed in a world of millionaires, gangsters, groupies, glamour, power struggles, alcoholic excess, drugs, and fistfights.
Published to coincide with the World Cup in June 2006, Once in a Lifetime is the thrilling story of America's first flirtation with the world's most popular game.
Steve Ross didn't know a goalkeeper from a zookeeper. American football was his game. Often, he would tell people that he had even played for the Cleveland Browns but a broken arm had put paid to his pro career. It was a nice line, but, as his close friend Jay Emmett (president of Warner Communications) explains, not exactly true. 'He said he did but he really never did ... it was just bullshit, you know. Steve could do a lot of that,' he says. 'It was a Walter Mitty situation ... in his wet dreams or whatever he played for the Cleveland Browns but he never did.'
Whatever the validity of his pro-football claims, there could be no doubting that Steve Ross was an Grade-A sports nut. As a kid running the streets of Brooklyn, he had harbored dreams of playing for or maybe even one day owning the New York Giants. Later, when his business interests had taken off. he would even have discussions about buying the New York Jets, but it had come to naught. Quite what Steve Ross was doing with a soccer club, though, when soccer was one of the few sports he knew not a scintilla about was anyone's guess. Still, if Steve Ross, the Steve Ross, thought it was worth a punt, there had to be something in it.
If there was one thing Ross did know about, though, it was making money. As the chairman of WarnerCommunications he had amassed an empire that spanned cars and cosmetics, music and movie studios and all from the humble origins of a Manhattan funeral parlor.
There was no denying that Ross had the golden touch. He was a garrulous, gregarious freewheeler, and his friends were always struck by how extraordinarily lucky he seemed to be. Rarely did his gambles fail to pay out. One friend would even joke that he had a 'hotline to God'. While many of his contemporaries regarded Ross as one of life's born winners, his good fortune, like his pro-football career, wasn't always what it appeared. Often, he would engineer his luck just to preserve his image. At charity raffles, for instance, Ross would nearly always emerge with the winning ticket, not because of some divine intervention but because he always bought the vast majority of the tickets.
Born Steven Jay Rechnitz in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn on April 5, 1927, Ross had got his grounding in moneymaking at an early age. The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up in poverty after his father, Max, had lost his construction business and their impressive family house on Brooklyn's East 21st Street during the Depression. Desperate to find work, Max Rechnitz changed the family name to Ross in 1932.
Although the family continued to struggle, Max Ross nevertheless instilled in his son the entrepreneurial ethos that would stay with him throughout his career and his life. By the age of eight, Steve Ross would run errands to the supermarket or the launderette for a nickel; he would borrow money from his family and walk twenty blocks to the cheapest cigarette shop in town, before returning home and selling the packs to his father for a profit.
On his deathbed, Max Ross had called for Steven to offer him some final words of advice. As Steve listened intently, Max Ross told his son that in life there are those who work all day, those who dream all day, and those who spend an hour dreaming before setting to work to fulfill those dreams. 'Go into the third category,' his father added, 'because there's virtually no competition.' While his father would die in penury, his only inheritance would prove priceless.
Having graduated from Columbia Grammar School in 1945-he had earned a scholarship-Ross enlisted in the Navy, leaving in 1947 to enroll at Paul Smith, a junior college near Lake Saranac in upstate New York. It was during his time at college that Ross broke his arm playing football, an injury that required a metal plate to be inserted in his forearm. It was this accident that lent credibility to his profootball fantasy.
When he had completed his studies at Paul Smith, Ross headed to Manhattan, first to take up a job with a sportswear firm, H. Lissner Trousers, and then a swimsuit company called Farragut, belonging to his uncle, Al Smith. In school and the workplace, Ross impressed everyone with his affable nature and his ability to spot a commercial opportunity.
He had also impressed Carol Rosenthal, the daughter of Edward Rosenthal, a Manhattan funeral parlor owner. Charming, handsome and immaculately turned out, Steve Ross was the ideal suitor not just for Carol but for her family as well. Indeed, Edward Rosenthal was so taken with him he took him under his wing at the parlor.
In June 1954, aged twenty-six, Steve Ross married Carol and having shown his talents at the funeral parlor began to branch out into ventures of his own; one even involved using the parlor's limousines as cars for hire. By the late 1950s, he had started Abbey Rent-A-Car with a bank loan, later merging it with the Kinney garage business. Then, soon after, Ross added an office-cleaning business and Edward Rosenthal's funeral parlor to his portfolio. In 1962, Ross's company, Kinney National, was taken public with a market valuation of $12.5 million.
With the capital and reputation to indulge himself in virtually any sector he deemed suitable, Steve Ross finally decided, seven years later, that the time was right to make his mark in the world of entertainment and on July 8, 1969, Kinney National Service Inc. paid $400 million for the world-famous but underperforming Warner Bros.-Seven Arts film studio. 'He was a financial genius,' insists Jay Emmett.
The key to all of Ross's success stories was his knack for finding the right people for the right job. Ross believed that his workforce was the single most important asset that Kinney and then Warner Communications (the name was changed in 1971) possessed and that it was his and the company's obligation to develop the talent they had.
Expertise in any of his company's fields of interest was not of paramount importance to Ross. He owned publishing companies but never read anything other than the bottom line. He owned record labels but rarely listened to popular music. 'He liked Crosby, Stills and Nash,' explains his son, Mark Ross, 'but had no idea who-or what-Joni Mitchell was.' As long as Ross had the right people in the right positions, he was confident that his company would prosper. And besides, he could always learn.
The trouble for Ross was that soccer had never made it in America. Throughout the twentieth century, there had been a succession of national soccer associations, both amateur and professional, all striving to take the game to the nation, but they came and went like buses, their plans often doomed by internal bickering and external indifference. And all the while, the big three-baseball, basketball and pro-football-and the gentlemen of the press looked down their noses and laughed. Prescott Sullivan of the San Francisco Examiner was typical. 'In Europe, as in South America,' he wrote on June 26, 1968, 'they go raving mad over the game. Pray that it doesn't happen here. The way to beat it is constant vigilance and rigid control. If soccer shows signs of getting too big, swat it down.'
When the East Coast's American Soccer League (ASL) was formed in 1921, it had seemed as though professional soccer was finally on the verge of a breakthrough, especially when the American national team reached the semifinals of the inaugural World Cup in 1930 with a side drawn mostly from the ASL. But while the game had once been played by well-heeled members of the Ivy League colleges in the nineteenth century, soccer was now suffering from an image problem, largely of its own making. Increasingly, the game was being perceived as an immigrant's game, awash with bad guys and brigands. In the 1920s, the nation's newspapers were full of stories of on-field battles and fisticuffs. Soccer's reputation, already tarnished, took another dent. On April 20, 1927, the New York Times reported 'FOUR HURT IN RIOT AT SOCCER CON-TEST' when a game between Boston and Uruguay at Malden, Massachusetts, turned ugly. Then, on February 13 of the following year, the same newspaper ran the story 'NIGHTSTICKS SWING FREELY', a report on a bust-up in a northern New Jersey title decider.
The Great Depression, however, would dispatch the American Soccer League. With neither the money nor the inclination to sustain the operation, it would be almost forty years before another professional soccer league emerged in the country.
Despite soccer's turbulent history in the States, there were still some prepared to persevere. One such person was Bill Cox. The former owner of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team-he had been banned from the game when he was caught betting on his own team-Cox was responsible for bringing a new soccer tournament, the International Soccer League (ISL), to the States in 1960.
Played mainly at New York's Polo Grounds, (as well as Downing Stadium on Randall's Island and Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City), the ISL featured eleven foreign teams (including England's West Ham United and Everton, and European sides such as Dukla Prague of Czechoslovakia) as well as the American All-Stars. Unlike previous visits from foreign teams, when the meetings bad been exhibition games, there was now a championship and a trophy to play for. While the event was never going to be the kind of success that would break soccer in the States, the ISL would nevertheless prove to be a sufficient pull for soccer fans to draw respectable five-figure crowds to many of the matches.
Those attendances and the public's receptive attitude to the tournament would prove decisive in persuading a number of investors that there was potential in soccer. At a time when expansion was occurring across all the major league sports in America, entrepreneurs began to view pro-soccer as the next big thing.
By 1965, there were three organizations vying to launch their own nationwide professional soccer leagues, including ones backed by millionaires such as Lamar Hunt and Jack Kent Cooke, as well as huge corporations like RKO General and Madison Square Garden. The decision to ratify, any official national professional league, though, rested with the United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA), headed by Joe Barriskill. An Irish-American, Barriskill often would leave his shabby office in midtown Manhattan and spend his evenings as a part-time ticket usher at New York Yankees' baseball games. Public relations, it seemed, was well down the list of the USSFA's priorities. Now, though, he was charged with deciding which of the pro-league proposals to sanction. He chose the United Soccer Association (USA).
By the spring of 1967, however, there would actually be two national professional leagues in America. Having lost out to the USA in the race for USSFA ratification, the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) had decided to go ahead and launch itself as a pirate league, regardless of the consequences.
With time against them, the USA resorted to importing entire teams from around Europe and South America to play in their league under different names. The English clubs Wolverhampton Wanderers, Stoke City and Sunderland all joined for the summer season in 1967, becoming the Los Angeles Wolves, the Cleveland Stokers and the Vancouver Royals. Hibernian, Aberdeen and Dundee United left Scotland to become the Toronto City, the Washington Whips and the Dallas Tornado. Bangu of Brazil morphed into the Houston Stars, Italian side Cagliari landed in Chicago and became the Mustangs and New York got its own club too, the Skyliners, which was actually Uruguay's Cerro in disguise.
The rival National Professional Soccer League, meanwhile, had decided to actively recruit players for its franchises rather than just ship out teams for a few weeks in the summer. There would be some significant acquisitions. Dennis Violett, a survivor of the Munich air-crash in 1958 that took the lives of eight of his Manchester United teammates (and three of the nonplaying staff), signed for the Baltimore Bays, the Argentinian striker (and future World Cup winning manager) César Luis Menotti joined the New York Generals and Phil Woosnam, a Welsh international, arrived from Aston Villa as player-coach of the Atlanta Chiefs.
The problem for the NPSL, however, was that it was an outlaw league, without official sanction from the USSFA and therefore from the world governing body, FIFA. Consequently, the ten NPSL clubs could only play against each other and, moreover, any player who wanted to return to a club or league within the FIFA family would first be subjected to disciplinary action for having played in the banned NPSL.
With teams masquerading as other teams, outlaw leagues in operation and players running the risk of suspension simply for taking to the field, by the late 1960s American soccer was in a mess. What little support there was for the game had now been divided between the two leagues, to the detriment of both organizations and their franchises.
The teams, consisting almost entirely of foreign players with little or no affiliation to the club or the area, simply could not attract the kind of crowds they needed to break even, often playing in vast 80,000-capacity stadiums with just a couple of thousand fans watching the action. Moreover, the standard of play on offer was mediocre at best.
In a country where even one professional soccer league had found it difficult to succeed, it was imperative that the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League should amalgamate if there was to be any chance that the game would prosper.
In December 1967, the decision was finally taken to merge the two operations. The new league, called the North American Soccer League (NASL), would have two commissioners, Ken Macker front the NPSL and Dick Walsh-a man who once confessed. 'I hardly even know what a soccer ball looks like'-from the USA.
Now endorsed by FIFA, and with the threat of suspension lifted from those players who had turned out in the NPSL, the inaugural season of the NASL would feature seventeen of the twenty-two franchises from the NPSL and the USA. Over 350 players would make their debuts in the new league the next year, although, significantly, just thirty would be American.
While the standard of play improved markedly in 1968, culminating in Phil Woosnam's Atlanta Chiefs winning the title with a 3-0 win over the San Diego Toros, the growth in support had failed to materialize. At the outset of the campaign, the NASL's budget had been set with a break-even average crowd of 20,000 per game. It was an ambitious target and one that proved to be wishful thinking. By the end of the season, the average attendance was just 3,400. Casualties were inevitable.
When the dust settled, just five of the seventeen NASL franchises were left. The crash had been spectacular. Across the country, franchise owners bailed out and players' contracts were shredded. Even the commissioners jumped ship. With the NASL on the edge of a precipice and in the absence of any other willing candidates, it was left to Phil Woosnam, the Welshman who had coached the Atlanta Chiefs to the NASL title, to take on the mantle of NASL commissioner. Despite interest from several clubs back in England, Woosnam opted to stay in the States to salvage what he could from the wreckage of the league. 'What did we have to lose?' he says. 'I wouldn't have done it unless I thought we were going to succeed.'
Since accepting the challenge of resurrecting professional soccer in the United States, Phil Woosnam had discovered that it was going to be anything but easy. Franchises seemed to vanish overnight, attendances were sparse, and confidence, not to mention competence, was at an all-time low.
At least he wasn't alone. Alongside Woosnam, trying to convince America's 220 million people that soccer was the sport of the future, was the former general manager of the Baltimore Bays, Clive Toye. 'It seemed natural we would end up working together,' explains Toye. 'Phil felt a sense of mission and in my case it was plain bloody-mindedness, a determination to make people like soccer.'
Originally from Plymouth, England, Toye had been the chief soccer writer for the Daily Express, when the newspaper was still a broadsheet and outsold virtually every other in the world. After the World Cup Finals in 1966, he had left England in search of a new challenge, eventually becoming general manager of the National Professional Soccer League team the Baltimore Bays. When the NPSL had merged with the United Soccer Association to become the NASL, Toye was then poached by Woosnam to become the new league's director of administration and information. This made Clive Toye soccer's chief salesman in America.
Excerpted from ONCE IN A LIFETIME by Gavin Newsham Copyright © 2006 by Gavin Newsham. Excerpted by permission.
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