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 fútbol cool in the days of Studio 54 and spawned a gripping documentary film called Once in a Lifetime.
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, The Beckham Experiment, about Beckham's first two years in MLS, I tried repeatedly to arrange an interview with Byrne, who served as a paid consultant to the Galaxy and recommended the hiring of coach Ruud Gullit in 2007. In the end, Byrne never agreed to be interviewed on the record.
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:
SI.com: So how did you get involved in this Cosmos revival?
Byrne: Two years ago, Paul Kemsley came to me asking if I would like to be involved in a project. He called a meeting in London with several top people who have years of experience in football. He said, "I've got this opportunity to buy the New York Cosmos. What are your views?" I had a personal view: In 1979, I played at East Meadow in Huntington here representing London schools in a tournament. We got to watch the Cosmos train at the time. I've done so many different things in football, and this was another stage of progression. It was an interesting project. Back home I own a company called 1966, and we've managed the England players pool for the commercial program. We've done it for the last four years, and the company will still do it for the next four. I've restructured the company internally to run it as I'm leaving it, but that's the history of what I've been doing since I ceased managing David [in late 2008].
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.
SI.com: So you think New York is big enough for two MLS teams?
Byrne: It's interesting, because we've already kind of created a rivalry, with some of the Red Bulls' fans posting messages on the Internet and our fans are responding back. I've got nothing but admiration for what the Red Bulls have achieved so far, with a stadium of the likes that they've built and [their acquisition of] Thierry Henry, although Thierry's season wasn't a great start for him. Nothing happens overnight. They've spent a great deal of money putting a new infrastructure in. I know they're looking at academies properly.
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.
SI.com: As I understand it, the Cosmos already has a policy that all its youth teams will play an attacking 4-3-3 style?
Byrne: Yeah. When you think of the New York Cosmos, it was an exciting style of play. I'm not sure you can do that at a top level today very easily, but what I do know is that when Johann Cruyff set about the Total Football concept that he took to Barcelona, he instilled it from the under-8s to the under-18s. At that point there was a young player in Pep Guardiola who was playing in that system and then became the manager of that system. One of the people in the last two years who I spent two to three hours listening to was Jürgen Klinsmann. He tried to do with the German national team what he felt should be done across soccer from the under-5s up.
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.
SI.com: You guys had to buy the old Cosmos logo from Peppe Pinton, who had owned it for many years. What should we know about him?
Byrne: If you watch Once in a Lifetime, I think he gets pretty much a raw deal, having known a little more about who he really was and what he'd actually done. For every Cosmos fan who exists, without Peppe Pinton, the Cosmos wouldn't exist today. When [Kemsley] sat down with him and tried to understand what it would take for him to sell it, he'd had several offers to try to buy it over the years, but he didn't feel that anybody who approached him had the same vision he had witnessed under Steve Ross [the colorful former CEO of Warner Communications, which owned the Cosmos]. I think in [Kemsley] he recognized some similarities. I'm not saying [Kemsley] is on the level of Steve Ross, but [Kemsley] is somebody who comes up with creative ideas in a similar way that Steve did. Giorgio [Chinaglia] has said the same thing to me. Peppe kept every single game on Betamax video -- in chronological order with the attendance, who scored in what minute -- in a library that has clearly been his baby for a number of years. When we acquired everything that is Cosmos from him, we got the '77 trophies here because he kept them and polished them in his office. That was his pride and joy.
SI.com: So he wasn't just squatting on the brand name?
Byrne: Not at all. He not only had it, but he's looked after it from that period of time. We had 3,000 original photographs, from Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger to Henry Kissinger and Muhammad Ali, all those people who were part of that special thing that was the Cosmos. [Peppe also gave us] 4,000 original jerseys that were all in lockup. He had kept everything in pristine condition.
SI.com: For years MLS has been speaking with the Wilpon family, which owns the New York Mets, about being involved in a second New York-area soccer team and a soccer stadium. Do you see the Wilpons as competitors or potential partners?
Byrne: I think potential partners is the answer to that one. The commissioner has made it clear that they are interested in building the stadium and would be willing to partner with us in potentially building that stadium. I don't think they're competitors. [Kemsley] has had a couple meetings with them. The vision is ideally to work with them.
SI.com: How would that work?
Byrne: I think stadium-specific is the plan. That's where the partnership is: We'll bring the team and they'll bring the stadium, effectively. That's the ideal scenario.
SI.com: Ideally, where would that stadium be? How big would it be?
Byrne: There are several zoning areas they're looking at right now. My understanding from the commissioner is their preference is Queens. And how big would that stadium be? I want to say between 30,000 and 40,000. It's not going to be a New Meadowlands, 80,000 to 90,000, and it's not going to be 20,000. I'd like to see between 30,000 and 40,000 every week, ideally.
SI.com: You do have the financing for the MLS expansion fee?
SI.com: And for the stadium?
Byrne: [Kemsley] put a lot of money in himself initially, then he has raised privately, through investment and securities, to fund the MLS franchise fee and the stadium. So we're in a very good position as far as that is concerned. Because obviously if you're ambition is to be in the league, you have to have the funding in place to execute it. So we have that.
SI.com: Would debt be a part of that?
SI.com: Are you looking for more investors right now?
Byrne: No. Absolutely not.
SI.com: Could you explain what these "Inspirational Games" are that you have planned for the Cosmos in 2011?
Byrne: I'll explain the concept. I've heard, "Are you going to become the Harlem Globetrotters?" No, we're not. "Are you going to have exhibition games?" There's a slight twist on exhibition games. I think exhibition games are played at a pace where people don't really try that hard. My job over the next two years is to build a platform that starts the future structure of the team. So the phrase "inspirational game" came out of it. What if an 18-year-old who's currently playing in our New York academy has an opportunity to line up alongside some of the best players in the world? Has that been done before? No. Could we do that? Well, yeah, we could.
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.
SI.com: I know you have great contacts with some of the world's top players. Is that possible? Would their own teams be OK with that?
Byrne: It's a big challenge and there's a way around it, doing it the right way within FIFA guidelines, which I'm working on. The first game, for me, just has to be a celebration of the rebirth. But that game should be a sellout game, and that game should be against top-class opposition with as many world-class players as I can get on the field with three or four of those kids, giving them a taste of that experience. If you're saying to me you've got world-class players as good contacts of yours, that's my job. That's why I'm here, to try to utilize that.
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.
SI.com: When would these inspirational games be? Where?
Byrne: We're looking at the New Meadowlands Stadium this summer. We've looked into two or three dates. Our intention would be to play one game here this summer and probably two international games on the road. In 2012, there will probably be a lot more than those three games. And then in 2013, we'll be ready to go into the league.
SI.com: The only similar thing I could think of to these Cosmos friendlies would be those special games FIFA has done over the years with All-Star teams.
Byrne: As close as I can get to that would be my ideal scenario.
SI.com: Do you think FIFA and U.S. Soccer would sanction them?
Byrne: I'm working with the governing bodies to make sure I do everything the right way, so that everybody embraces the idea.
SI.com: I get the sense that the feeling about the new Cosmos among American soccer fans is 1) excitement, and 2) can these guys back it up?
Byrne: Are we a fur coat with no knickers on? Kevin Keegan said years ago of a team: They're a fur coat with no knickers on underneath. Can we back it up? If I didn't believe we're going to put these things in place to do it, then I wouldn't be here. Anything the league requires us to do over the next 12 months, we have to do if we want the end goal, and that is to be in the MLS. That, for me, is the absolute target. If we fall short in some areas, it won't be for the want of trying. So, yeah, our intention is to do all those things and put them in place.
SI.com: I don't want to keep you here forever, but I also want to give my readers some background on who you are. Your soccer journey is pretty amazing.
Byrne: I've been lucky. There's an element of luck, but I also think sometimes you create your own luck. I was in the right place at the right time. I was a massive Chelsea fan as a kid. Used to go to every game home and away for years and wanted to be a professional footballer before that. At Leyton Orient, I was on their youth team. Wasn't good enough, most devastating day in your life. But I then said, "In what other ways can I work in soccer if I wasn't going to be a player?"
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.
SI.com: Clearly it wasn't the Abramovich era at Chelsea back then.
Byrne: No, and you know what? I believe to this day it was the best education I could have ever had. I was doing two people's jobs. And I was the first full-time masseur in English football in those days. No other club had a masseur because Glenn had played in Monaco and in France they had four masseurs with the team. He wanted to be the first person to introduce sports massage into English football. So over those first two years of working with Glenn, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In our first season we lost to Man United in the Cup final, the first Cup final in 27 years for Chelsea.
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.
SI.com: Clearly you've worked your butt off in this journey you've had. Do you ever get frustrated that people seem to think that, Oh, it's all because he's connected to David Beckham?
Byrne: No. I've come to expect it, because David is who David is. The public persona of David is not David. The real David is a really nice kid from central London whose mum is a fantastic lady. I still see his mum probably two or three times a month. She comes to our house and his sister still comes around and cuts my hair and my wife's hair. They're integrated into the family. I organized David's granddad's funeral for him. Forgetting who David is publicly, we are best mates. Therefore, if people associate me with being David's man, then there's nothing I can do about that. I look at that as an honor.
SI.com: In a lot of ways, is it sort of out of your control what people might think?
Byrne: Yeah. In every interview I'm asked about David. Is David involved in the Cosmos? Is David going to be involved in the Cosmos? And I sit here and go, On my son's life, we have not approached David to be involved in the Cosmos. If that should happen in the years to come, who knows? But right now, because of the franchise option he has [to own an MLS expansion team at a below-market price], everybody thinks two and two together and comes up with seven. The reality is he has another year on his existing Galaxy contract. I said to Tim [Leiweke], "We're never going to be disrespectful to Tim by trying to approach David about any of that." David's got his own management now, and I have nothing to do with that. So I don't get aggrieved if people link me to David. I was a big part of his life. I still am. It's natural in some cases.