The Great Cosmos Caper, starring Giorgio Chinaglia, came to an end on June 16 after a 15-year run. Crashing thunder and flashing lightning were appropriate show-biz effects as the final curtain fell on the glitzy soccer club that had never seemed entirely sure whether it should have been performing in the New Jersey Meadowlands or 10 miles away on Broadway. Maybe 3,000 faithful fans, announced as 8,677, cowered under the lip of the mezzanine in Giants Stadium that night. And, as the rain came billowing in, there was one last irony for them to savor: The visitors in the pale blue uniforms now sliding about on the sloppy AstroTurf were from Lazio of Rome, the club for which Chinaglia once played and of which, since 1983, he has been president, a position he also held—until he fled to Rome last week—with the Cosmos.
"Chinaglia is the only man to have sunk two major teams in one season," one Italian sports journal noted recently. But earlier this year, while breaking matzo for friends at a Passover gathering held, improbably, at Gian Marino, a fashionable Italian restaurant on Manhattan's East Side, Chinaglia himself was not overly troubled about either of his teams. There would always be crowds of 50,000 or 60,000 to watch Lazio, he claimed, however badly the team played. As for the Cosmos, orphans of the defunct NASL, why, an impressive international program would soon be announced. There would be 11 games against glamorous international clubs like Belgrade Red Star, and tours of South America. "The players we have given away," Chinaglia said grandiloquently, "will return next summer."
The first two games of the series drew an announced total of 32,280 fans. And after the Lazio game it was clearly time to pull the plug. How different it was from the night of Aug. 17, 1977, when 77,691 fans jammed the stadium to watch Pelé and Chinaglia lead the Cosmos to an 8-3 victory over Fort Lauderdale. It was after that night that the Cosmos had ceased to be simply a soccer club.
Until then the owners, Warner Communications, had seemed content to leave the running of the team in the seasoned hands of vice-president and coach Gordon Bradley and president Clive Toye. But now, that starry starry night, Warners—and in particular its ebullient chairman of the board, Steve Ross—realized that it had on its hands New York's most chic franchise, the Studio 54 of sport. Bradley claimed that after home games the Cosmos' dressing room was like a zoo. "They all wanted to be around Pelé," he said. "The players didn't have 10 minutes to themselves. Mick Jagger wanted to come in, and Bjorn Borg. Henry Kissinger wanted to shake hands. It was a rodeo."
But the real seed of self-destruction might have been sown in 1975 when Toye signed Chinaglia, at that time still popular with Lazio fans in Rome but recognized as a burnt-out case on the Italian national team. Within months, Chinaglia, whose brooding, often physically dominating presence would come to symbolize the Cosmos, had gained the private ear of Ross, and soon, despite their six years of team-building, the player had cost both Bradley and Toye their jobs. Bradley was replaced by Eddie Firmani, and from then on the Cosmos worked their way through coaches like wildfire. Firmani would have two spells in office, as would "Professor" Julio Mazzei, Pelé's confidant and adviser. Hennes Weisweiler, the distinguished coach of Cologne, would also put in a couple of seasons before Chinaglia turned on him.
For an intoxicating season or two the Cosmos—more properly Warner Communications—spent money like drunken admirals. By the summer of '79, when Johan Neeskens of the Dutch national team came aboard, the Cosmos' payroll for major players not including Pelé was $9.4 million a year. (Ralph Lauren created designer uniforms for them at $400 apiece.) According to Bob Rolontz, who was a Warner Communications executive at the time, the company had a special term for petty cash of this nature. Anything under $10 million was "non-material."
But by 1980, when Weisweiler became coach, the rocket that had had such an imperial lift-off had started to yaw off course. Attendance slipped by 19%, and ABC began to have urgent second thoughts about its deal with the NASL. And Weisweiler turned out to be merely an expert soccer coach, with no conception of show biz. The genial Mazzei, then the team's technical director, was eager to help him out. "I tell Hennes," he said, "we must make the appearances. He said, "What are you talking about? I don't want to attend to anything outside the field.' "
Weisweiler lasted through 1981, and the Cosmos' attendance kept skidding. In May of that year some 27,000 showed up to watch them play Toronto, the smallest crowd since the team had gone to the Meadowlands. In September the Cosmos lost the Soccer Bowl in a shoot-out to Chicago, which meant Weisweiler's days were numbered, especially since he had fallen afoul of Chinaglia, who, Mazzei says now, was effectively general manager from 1980 on. Chinaglia retired as a player in 1983, but he immediately found a new interest: He bought his old club in Italy. "Giorgio has a new baby called Lazio," said Mazzei. "From now on he is not Cosmo anymore." The Professor was wrong. Soon Giorgio would be the Cosmos, because in the great big world outside of the NASL, Ross's Warner Communications was taking a beating over its losses on Atari video games that, at more than half a billion dollars, could not be regarded as nonmaterial. The ever-open Cosmos' checkbooks closed, and a vice-president named Rafael de la Sierra assumed control, with one Peppe Pinton as his assistant. "Chinaglia's altar boy," Mazzei called Pinton recently. "You know, he say 'Amen, amen' every time Chinaglia speaks." Now the rocket had stopped yawing: It was in free fall.
And, from July of last year until the night of June 16, clawing at the controls had been Chinaglia himself. With astonishing naiveté, in the view of many, he became the leading member of a group which purchased a 60% share in the team, leaving Warners holding on to the remaining 40%.
"I make the impossible happen," Chinaglia said when he took over, announcing a five-year plan for recovery. But that sort of breathing space was no longer available for pro soccer in the U.S. For all Chinaglia's rhetoric, the '84 Cosmos seemed uninspired, listless, failing to score in their last three games and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1975. The average home attendance dropped to 12,896. Significantly, Chinaglia left for Rome without comment as soon as the season ended, leaving Pinton, the altar boy, to trot out excuses. Later in the year, during the indoor season, he would make strange decisions. Giorgio fired Firmani and made his goalie, Hubert Birkenmeier, coach. And, at 37, he took to playing again.
Worse was to come. In February of this year, in midseason, Chinaglia pulled his team out of the MISL. Then the Cosmos were expelled from the NASL, after which the league died. Finally, and farcically, to fulfill U.S. Soccer Federation regulations and play the 11-game international schedule Chinaglia planned, the once-proud Cosmos were obliged to become members of a certified league. So they joined the New Jersey Italian-American League. In which capacity they lost 2-1 to Lazio and finished up on an even lower note of absurdity when, as time ran out, the game ended in a flurry of fisticuffs and kicks from both of Chinaglia's teams.
And so the rocket finally hit the AstroTurf, not with a bang but a damp phut! The following morning Pinton resigned and Giorgio went back to Rome, where, from his home in the Piazza di Spagna, he announced that he had left the Cosmos for good, that he had returned his shares to Warners, that he would let the lawyers sort everything out. He certainly did not sound very interested in the Cosmos anymore.