Can David Beckham's best friend revive the New York Cosmos?
Of all the figures I've encountered in soccer over the years, Terry Byrne is right near the top of my most intriguing people list. A 44-year-old Englishman, Byrne has gone on a remarkable life journey from London taxi driver to massage therapist for Chelsea and England to David Beckham's best friend and personal manager to a sports business career of his own.
Byrne's latest gig, however, may be his most fascinating of all. He has moved his family from London to the Big Apple to help relaunch the New York Cosmos. That's right: The Cosmos, the most famous soccer team in American history, the unforgettable outfit of Pelé and Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto that made
Recently I visited Byrne, the Cosmos' director of soccer, at the company's new headquarters in Soho, a hip, exposed-brick office space that was thrumming with activity. The Cosmos is run by four Brits: Paul Kemsley, the chairman and CEO, a former vice chairman of Tottenham Hotspur; Carl Johnson, a Cosmos board member who is the co-founder of Anomaly, a communications company; Byrne; and Rick Parry, a Cosmos board member and former Liverpool CEO.
Since announcing its return last August, the new-look Cosmos has been busy. It bought the Cosmos' logo for an estimated $2 million. It brought on Pelé as honorary president, Chinaglia as international ambassador and (just this week) Cobi Jones as associate director of soccer. It signed a deal with Umbro (now a Nike subsidiary) to market Cosmos apparel worldwide. It acquired two respected youth soccer academies in the New York and Los Angeles areas -- where the Cosmos, not the players, will foot the bill. And it took over the Copa NYC, a sort of Gotham-wide amateur World Cup.
Byrne and the Cosmos have big plans for 2011. They're planning a summer exhibition game in the New York City area featuring a host of the world's top soccer stars and a few select prospects from the Cosmos' academies. And they're hoping to push forward in their quest to become the 20th MLS team in 2013. MLS commissioner Don Garber has stated publicly that the league wants its 20th team to play in the New York City area, but there are other potential suitors, including the Wilpon family, which owns the New York Mets.
The Cosmos has been trumpeting the publicity horn louder than any of the other candidates, but there are several questions, too. Do Kemsley and the Cosmos have the money to back up their plans? Should MLS be concerned that Kemsley's British property empire collapsed in 2009? Is the new Cosmos more than an apparel and lifestyle brand? And will Beckham have a role in the Cosmos at some point? After all, Beckham has the option to buy into MLS as a team owner at a below-market price once he's done playing. And Beckham happens to be Byrne's best friend.
I was fired up to interview Byrne for a few reasons. During the reporting of my book,
This interview marked not just my first on-the-record interview with Byrne but also the first time we had met in person. I had always been told that he's a good guy, a straight-talking guy, and that's exactly what I found. We spoke about a number of topics, including the Cosmos' plans for its youth and senior teams, his hopes to build a new soccer stadium in New York City and his detailed memories of consoling a weeping Beckham after his life-changing red card in the 1998 World Cup.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
I then sat down with [Kemsley] to say, "OK, if we're going to do this, there's only one way you can do the New York Cosmos, and that's properly." It would be extremely difficult to replicate what it was unless you are Real Madrid with $500 million to spend, which the U.S. league doesn't allow you to do. To have had a team that had Franz Beckenbauer, Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto, as much as I would love to assemble that tomorrow here for the Cosmos, it would be difficult to do so.
So I looked at it from the soccer perspective: How would you go about relaunching the Cosmos? For me, the key is you could develop a youth structure that gives you your feeder to the future, and you could build from the grassroots, from the bottom up. So the first project we carried out was to acquire an academy team, as well as signing Pelé as an honorary president. Over the last year we have assembled a very good structure internally.
Our long-term goal is to go into the MLS. We've had extensive talks with Don Garber, and that's ongoing. I'm under no illusion that we're the only option, but I do know that we will do everything within our power to try to be that 20th franchise team in 2013. For me, that has to be the end goal. And currently New York City doesn't have a team based in New York City. You've got the Red Bulls out in Jersey, but I think New York deserves a New York City team.
If you said to me, "[Since] you first came to look at the MLS for David, what's the difference that you've seen? How has the league progressed?" There have been changes in people like [owner] Joe Roth coming to Seattle, and I've got great respect for what he's done with season tickets, etc. But I also spoke at length with the people at Vancouver, who have completely done it the right way, looking at their under-8s, their under-10s, their under-12s. It's a very good youth program. They're doing things from the bottom up. That gives you longevity.
That's the evolution of the league. Teams are looking at that a lot more now than they were then. I'm not criticizing the Galaxy, but when I went to the Galaxy at first [in 2007], the players didn't have any food after training. Professionalism is definitely improving here, as it did back in the Premiership when we had the influx of foreign players. When Franco Zola, Luca Vialli and all those players came to Chelsea when I was there, they completely transformed the way the British players thought, because the mentality of the British players after a game back then was to go to the player's bar and drink two pints of lager. I think the influx of players like Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, those kind of players, they changed the professionalism of English players.
I think if you have courage in your beliefs to play a certain style or educate children in a certain style, you should follow that belief. I spent three days recently in here with our two directors of coaching, and we said, "Let's challenge ourselves and our beliefs in style of play." We looked at 4-4-2, 3-5-2, whatever the systems were going to be. It's not about systems. Systems don't win games. Players win games. However, if we are trying to encourage a formation that gives the kids as much of the ball as we possibly can, it can only help them. So every coach at our two academies has to play that system.
And those games that we play, we could put that 18-year-old kid from Los Angeles or the New York academy on the field so that he could learn from some of the best players in the world. Could we give that chance to U.S.-based kids? Yeah, we could. We want to be aspirational off the pitch and inspirational on it. But I have to field a team of enough world-class players that people want to come see us play.
What I will tell you is I've had several of those world-class players all saying to me: "When are you going into the MLS? Because if you are, I quite fancy that." Which backs up my decision to do what I'm doing. It justifies in my mind: I'm moving my family here, literally. I'm giving up everything to move here [from London] because I believe in this project.
My mother was an aromatherapist and a hairdresser, so she did massage. I was at a Chelsea game when the physiotherapist put an advertisement in the program saying: "Can somebody come help me with sports massage?" I had no knowledge of sports massage whatsoever and I applied. I went home to my mum and said, "Quick, teach me how to massage. I want to be a sports masseur." You can't just learn it like that. I went for the interview and he said, "You've got the right personality but no experience. If you're serious about it, come do a course." So I went to a place called the London School of Sports Massage and did a one-year course.
The following summer I got a call from [Chelsea] saying the guy he brought in has emigrated to Japan, did I want to come in? And in 1993, he brought me in part time as a sports masseur, just on match days helping him out when Ian Porterfield was manager. Then in six months they'd gone and Glenn Hoddle had become Chelsea manager. He wanted a full-time masseur but [then Chelsea chairman] Ken Bates, God love him, who was such an enigmatic character to say the least, wouldn't pay the salary for a kit manager and a sports masseur, so Glenn said to me, "Can you do both? Because they won't pay." And my salary was 12,000 pounds a year.
And he said to me, "Look, you're working too hard, you can either go on the equipment management side and have a job for life, or I'd love to develop you on physiotherapy. Would you be willing to do a course and be open to learning on the medical front?" The English FA did a two-year course for a sports injuries diploma, where you can work as a physiotherapist in football if you do it. So I did that diploma from a distance, and you'd go for exams every summer. While I was working at Chelsea, I was doing that as well.
Then Glenn in 1996 got the job as England manager, so he offered me a position within the England medical staff, which meant I could do Chelsea and England together. So I accepted that, and my first squad was David Beckham's first squad. David was a young kid from London, his mum was a hairdresser and my mum was a hairdresser. We came from the same kind of background. Our dads were working-class men and we just hit it off immediately as friends. We had the same kind of banter and mentality, I think.
We became very close, and at France '98 I kind of became a confidant to him throughout the tournament because he was having a rough time being away from his family and he didn't have a good start to the tournament. We used to sit up at night talking about everything and trying to help him, and then I would go out with him in the afternoon when he'd practice his free kicks and put his big music box on. We would just talk and I'd go and collect the balls for him. Then he goes and scores against Colombia with his first free kick. I've still got his shirt from that goal in my office in London on the wall.
After that, we then had what I think for him was the defining moment of his life. The Argentina game. When he got sent off, Glenn Hoddle turns to me on the bench and calls me and says, "Go with him." So as he's going to be sent off, I walk onto the pitch, put my arm around him. I was a lot slimmer then and had hair. And I walk off with him and we got to the tunnel. The FIFA rep said you're not allowed in the dressing room because under FIFA rules if you've been sent off, you have to sit and wait in the drugs room in case you're one of the players to be tested. So we went in there and he literally broke down, completely crying in my arms like a baby.
He kept saying: "Why me? Why does this happen to me?" I kept saying, "I don't know why you, mate, I don't know why you. But it just seems to happen to you. I don't know why."
Then when we came back from the World Cup, you talk about media trying to destroy a young kid. They were burning effigies of him being hung outside the grounds, there were bullets sent to his mum's letterbox with his name on them. There was a complete exaggeration, because in England we just get carried away with thinking we should win the World Cup every time.
I think [after that] he closed ranks and had four or five people around him that he totally trusted, and I was one of those. That friendship led to him becoming godfather to my son. I'm godfather to his eldest two. When he renewed his vows, I was the best man for him. Football became secondary and the friendship became the primary. I was offered general manager of Chelsea and declined because the guy who had the position had held it for 22 years, and if I'd taken it, as Luca Vialli requested, they would have sacked the other guy. I didn't think that was the right thing for me to do having been with him for nearly 10 years.
Luca left and asked me to become the director of football at Watford, which was an interesting project for me. I was only there a year. The club was in a much worse financial position than they portrayed. They took a complete gamble on Luca, and after Christmas worked out that they weren't going to get up, so they pulled the plug on [the project] two years short of what they should have done.
I had just appointed Ray Lewington as manager of Watford, and David then called me and said, "Look, I'm going to split with SFX [his management group]. Would you consider you and your wife moving? I'm going to go to Real Madrid next summer and leave Manchester United. Would you come and live in Spain and just run my world?" I said, "OK, fine." And I can say this with my hand on my heart, I never took a penny of commission out of David. Ever. I took the same salary I was on at Watford. I said, "Look, it's not about money. I'll help you for a period, get your life sorted back out and then there will be a time when I step away."
I managed him for five years. Lived in Spain, loved it. Had the pleasure every day of going to the training ground and watching Zinédine Zidane, Ronaldo, Raúl, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo. The dream team. Other than maybe Franco Zola, watching Zidane in training was the best part of my career. And just Real Madrid as a club, the stadium and the atmosphere and the way the city comes to a standstill when it plays, I loved it.
Then in David's career, Steve McClaren became England manager. David was one of the Florentino Pérez signings, so with Real Madrid's presidency changing, Ramón Calderón didn't want to re-sign David. I had worked with [AEG head] Tim Leiweke building the [Beckham] academy in London, and Tim had made no secret of the fact he wanted David to come to the Galaxy. Tim worked for two years with me to bring David to the U.S. That combined with Simon Fuller's program with managing Victoria and Simon's commercial team doing David's commercial work. As Simon's role became more prominent in David's management, from my point of view, my involvement in management wasn't as necessary.
There came a point where the England players asked me to manage them. David wanted me to move to L.A., and my wife and I didn't want to. Our baby had just been born, so I said to David, "Now is the right time for me to step away." I didn't want to cause him any conflict within the football world. I'm the football [adviser], the commercial world was 19 Entertainment. And rather than put David in a position of conflict, it was right for me to step away. So I chose at that point to extricate myself from it. I still speak to David regularly, and he'll ask my advice on whatever. But the friendship comes first and will always come first before business.