I know, because I've done it.
It started in early May, when I was heading to work and a guy who had nursed a 30-year grudge against me for what he claimed was inappropriate behavior with his college girlfriend grabbed me in a half nelson on the street and bellowed, "Hirsh, I just saw you in a movie!"
"Are you sure it was me?" I said. "Maybe it was a young Omar Sharif."
"Yeah, you, larger than life. I wanted to ask for my money back," he quipped.
"What movie?" I asked, still nonplussed as to what he was talking about.
"It had something to do with soccer. You always liked that crap." He was trying to be helpful.
And so it went. An all-but-forgotten interview I had done with a couple of British documentary filmmakers two years ago had reached the point that ... well, an Academy Award-nominated actor would later compliment me on my performance.
Once In a Lifetime "Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos" hits theaters in New York this Friday and will be released nationwide July 14. The documentary film is presented by Miramax Films, GreeneStreet Films and ESPN Original Entertainment. It will air in October on ESPN.
I was standing in the lobby of a movie theater at New York's Tribeca Film Festival when Matt Dillon walked up to me and said sheepishly, "Nice job, man." Wow, Johnny Drama's real-life brother knew who I was! OK, so what if he was the narrator of the movie I was in, "Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos." I didn't see him going up to any of the other featured players and kissing their asses.
Then again maybe Dillon just wanted to get up close to the Gisele Bundchen doppelganger who was whispering in my ear as I scribbled my name on her program. Or perhaps he had overheard her opening line to me "I've heard so much about you, I always wanted to meet you." I'm just glad Dillon had moved on before the Brazilian bombshell uttered her next line: "My mother was Pelé's longtime assistant. I wasn't born when you were doing your book with him."
Following my lifelong policy of always being gracious to 19-year-old, thong-wearing daughters of old friends, I said, "I remember your mother," as memories of 1977 began dancing in my head like a Pelé stepover. I realized my love of soccer was an easy pass to a life I would have never otherwise known.
How a game 'for Commie pansies' captivated New York's beautiful people To enter the high temple of disco, drag queens and drug-fueled sex known as Studio 54, you had to make your way past the club's bouncers, whose approving nod could not be bought. Of the hundreds who massed behind the fabled velvet ropes, perhaps a third were granted access, while the rest were left to choke on the exhaust fumes from the limousines that pulled up to deliver the next load of beautiful people. They were the anointed, the uber-celebrities who didn't need a last name.
Actually, I didn't even need a first name. All I had to say were four magic words: "I'm with the Cosmos."
The Cosmos. The name alone conjures up a galaxy of stars. Or, as some would have it, galacticos. Yet 30 years before Real Madrid and Chelsea bestrode the world with their collection of celestial talent, the Cosmos conquered the last outpost of soccer indifference, the United States, and changed the nature of sport forever. It was an extraordinary moment in time, when "I'm with the Cosmos" carried as much weight as "I'm with the Rolling Stones" perhaps more, since even Mick Jagger wanted to be sprinkled with the stardust of New York's soccer demigods and its one Supreme Being.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé is the most incandescent player in the history of the sport. He made his debut on the world stage at 17, leading Brazil to the first of its five World Cups in 1958. For the next 15 years, the best and most experienced defenders on earth could do nothing to stop him, short of homicide. He scored more than 1,000 goals, many of them masterpieces worthy of the Louvre. But Pelé's fame transcended soccer the way Muhammad Ali's fame transcended boxing, touching people in every corner of the globe when he visited war-torn Nigeria in 1967, the country agreed to a 48-hour cease-fire and causing Brazil to designate him a "non-exportable national treasure."
Yet here he was, the King in New York, along with his court of fellow legends. Beckenbauer. Chinaglia. Carlos Alberto. The Cosmos came from 14 different nations to play the beautiful game in front of beautiful people for even more beautiful dollars.
In the summer of 1977, New York was riven by bankruptcy, serial murderer Son of Sam and a debilitating power blackout that triggered mass looting, arson and rage among its 8 million residents. The rest of the city might have been in chaos, but apparently no one told the Cosmos. If the apocalypse was nigh, they were determined to party their way through it every Monday night at Studio 54. The famed disco became a second locker room for the team, and you were likely to run into the same crowd in both places Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Rod Stewart, and the ultimate soccer groupie, Henry Kissinger.
There were, of course, subtle differences: At Studio 54, the players sprawled on leather banquettes instead of stools; glassy-eyed supermodels, rather than sweaty, overweight sportswriters, vied for their attention; Dom Perignon flowed instead of Gatorade ... and Grace Jones often rode naked on a white horse.
But even that spectacle was nothing compared with seeing the Black Pearl himself, Pelé with whom I was collaborating on a memoir at the time indulging in this late-night bacchanalia. I can still picture him, a blonde Velcroed to each arm, looking like a Roman emperor reclining on a gilded divan with toga-clad damsels feeding him grapes. Our eyes met and he said, with a mischievous laugh, "Not for the book, my friend. Not for the book."
A joyride, that's what it was, and I was on it. All those years of being mocked by friends and colleagues for my unshakable belief that you could pledge allegiance to soccer in America without being considered a threat to the Republic had come to this: me, hanging out with the most famous human on the planet at the epicenter of cool. Just a couple of years earlier, fresh out of college, I showed up at the New York Daily News to kick-start my career as a journalist. "The world is your oyster, kid," barked Dick Young, the famously xenophobic columnist and sports editor, as he put his arm around me and looked me square in my guileless face.
"I notice that you have no one on staff covering soccer," I replied. "I played in college and would like to carve out a regular beat here."
He looked at me as if I had just written my own obituary. "Don't waste your time on soccer, kid. It's a game for Commie pansies."
It was also a game, it turned out, for chimpanzees. The first Cosmos news conference I ever attended featured a 5-year-old chimp named Harold, who was being unveiled as the team's official mascot. This was back in the day when the Cosmos would do anything short of posing nude for centerfolds wait, they did that, too to lure people to their games, and the idea was for Harold to warm up the fans (both of them) by "juggling" a ball in the center circle. But first Harold needed to be introduced to the media, so the Cosmos rented the ballroom of a midtown Manhattan hotel and installed a podium behind which Harold could smile for the cameras alongside the team's token homegrown player, Stanley Startzell. Everything was going swimmingly until Startzell felt a warm pool forming around his shoes. The Cosmos mascot had peed on the great American hope.
Money can't buy you love, but it can buy anything else in America, including Pelé This sort of monkey business characterized professional soccer in the United States until June 10, 1975, the day Pelé signed with the Cosmos.
It would be nice to report that Pelé came to America because he simply couldn't resist the challenge of spreading the gospel of soccer to the last heathens on earth. Nice, but not true. Granted, Pelé relished the thought of little kids from sea to shining sea kicking a ball rather than throwing it or hitting it with a baseball bat. But he was equally enthusiastic about the dazzling string of zeros on his paycheck. As much as he wanted to be the Savior of American Soccer, he also wanted to be the Savior of Pelé's Empire, which, thanks to several disastrous investments by his financial advisers, had started to crumble. The $2.8 million that the Cosmos were paying him for two years of conjuring his magic on and off the field would go a long way toward making him whole.
Alas, Harold The Chimp was otherwise engaged when the Cosmos held their news conference to introduce Pelé to the media, but it was memorable nonetheless. There were more photographers in attendance than there were fans at most Cosmos games, and in the stampede to get close to the dais where Pelé was standing, a melee broke out and two lensmen tumbled over a table, sending shards of broken glass flying about the room. A riot at a soccer news conference! "Welcome to the brave new world of American soccer," Clive Toye said to me. It was Toye who had devoted the past four years of his life to bagging the prize catch of world soccer, crisscrossing the globe like the Great White Hunter in pursuit of the one man he felt could make America open its eyes to the sport he found so irresistible. A former soccer writer in England, Toye had crossed the pond after the 1966 World Cup, armed only with his Falstaffian charm and a quixotic notion that soccer had a bright future in the United States. "When I told my friends in England what I was doing, they all had the same response," Toye is fond of saying, "'Clive, are you bloody mad?'" Mad enough to convince Warner Communications, the entertainment conglomerate that owned a movie studio and a record company in addition to the Cosmos, that, while it was all well and good to have such stars on your roster as Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood and Ray Charles, the man it really needed was Pelé.
"Who?" said Warner chairman Steve Ross.
But Ross did not become one of America's showbiz czars by thinking small. Once Toye explained that Pelé was right up there with Ali and the Pope in terms of global box-office appeal, Ross handed over the keys to the Warner vault. Now all that was left to do was spirit a national treasure out of Brazil without causing an international incident. Enter Henry Kissinger, former goalkeeper in his native Germany and the U.S. secretary of state, whom Ross knew socially.
The world's greatest soccer groupie exercises his political muscle Kissinger was asked to use his diplomatic influence with the foreign secretary of Brazil to allow Pelé to leave his homeland for "the good of the relationship between the United States and Brazilian governments."
It wasn't long before Pelé received a phone call from the foreign secretary, all but begging him to play for the Cosmos.
I was able to break the news of Pelé's coming to America on the back page of the New York Daily News, the first time a soccer story of mine had appeared anywhere in the paper other than buried next to the hair replacement ads. If American soccer had been transformed overnight, so had I. No longer was I at the bottom of the sporting food chain, the poor bastard who had to travel two hours by train to a game no one cared about and write four paragraphs that would inevitably be cut in half. Suddenly, I was the envy of my colleagues, covering the biggest sports star in the world and being interviewed by other American journalists about this fellow "Peeley."
I arrived at Pelé's first game two hours early to find Toye pacing the field like a man anxiously waiting to see his newborn in the delivery room. Would he be a healthy bundle of joy, and how would he react to the world he was about to glimpse for the first time? In Toye's case, his "baby" was 34 years old, and eight months removed from a competitive match after retiring from his longtime team, Santos, in October 1974. Would he still be capable of conjuring magic with those dancing feet? The problem was those feet would soon be dribbling a ball on Randall's Island, a pile of rocks and dirt left over from the Paleolithic Era that passed for a soccer field in New York City. And because this was Pelé's first game for the Cosmos, it would be televised in 22 countries and covered by more than 300 journalists from around the world.
Toye wasn't about to display his diamond in a rhinestone setting, which is why he was out on the field, pointing to areas of dirt that had not yet been painted green. "Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel," Toye said, exhaling cigar rings with unalloyed delight. "I have Randall's Island."
By then a middle-aged man by the standards of his sport, Pelé no longer possessed that explosive first step that whiplashed defenders foolish enough to body up to him, but he had lost none of the audacity and guile that once saw him chip the ball from the halfway line, 70 yards away from goal, over the head of an unsuspecting Czech goalkeeper.
In his first practice with the Cosmos, Pelé was sprinting toward goal, awaiting a crossfield ball from the wing. But instead of the ball being served just in front of him so he could meet it with his head, it was kicked behind him, shoulder-high. In an instant, he catapulted into the air, his body parallel to the ground, and scissored his legs to send the ball whistling into the net. The Cosmos players stared slack-jawed, and coach Gordon Bradley, sensing their awe, immediately whistled the practice to a close.
Although there would be other flashes of Pelé's breathtaking genius over the next two and a half seasons, his role on the Cosmos was more of a midfield traffic cop than a goalmouth predator who would torment keepers with his trickery. Try as he might with his subtle backheels and seeing-eye passes, he was never able to lift his teammates to his level, at least on the field.
Off the field was another story. In Boston, for instance, when Pelé ordered the lobster special at a team meal, the waiter took a look around the table at the nodding heads and went back to the kitchen with the order: 18 lobster specials. Such was life on Pelé's Magical Mystery Tour: mobs of reporters, sold-out stadiums and that staple of big-time American sports groupies.
In Toronto, two women masquerading as hotel maids showed up at Pelé's room, only to encounter the stocky figure of Pelé's bodyguard, Pedro Garay, barring the door. "Mr. Pelé does not need towels tonight," Garay said with a devilish smile, "but I might." What Pelé needed was a better supporting cast if the Cosmos were to win any silverware. The instant credibility Pelé gave the North American Soccer League attracted other fading legends to the U.S., most of them English; marquee names like Rodney Marsh, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Gordon Banks all followed, and even George Best hoisted a few pints in Los Angeles. The result was an upgrade in competition, and the Cosmos struggled with their one-icon show.
The next season, Warner moved the team into a spanking new 77,000-seat football stadium in New Jersey and surrounded its crown jewel with a glittering ensemble of soccer superstars. In rapid succession came deadly Italian goal scorer Giorgio Chinaglia and majestic German sweeper Franz Beckenbauer, both seduced by the opportunity to sup at the Warner trough and escape the ravenous tabloid press in their respective countries.
'If a dog chokes on a bone around here, they blame Chinaglia' Chinaglia was so beloved at his Italian club, Lazio, that supporters named their firstborn after him and threatened to throw themselves beneath the wheels of the plane that whisked him to New York in the dead of night. It seems his American-born wife had urged him to return to the relative anonymity of the United States, where they owned real estate in New Jersey, perhaps because, after having been substituted for in the 1974 World Cup, he had flipped off the fans and spent the next couple of years dodging rotten fruit and death threats.
From the moment Chinaglia joined the Cosmos, it was clear he was treated differently from the other players, even Pelé. This was because he enjoyed an unusual bond with Ross, who saw in Chinaglia not only the brash, handsome, celebrated athlete he had dreamed of being himself but the kind of Machiavellian wheeler-dealer who fit easily into the Warner culture. One day, I went to interview Ross in his sprawling office suite on the 29th floor of the Warner building and, after negotiating a phalanx of security guards, was ushered into the throne room where Ross sat behind his desk punching up numbers on an electronic ticker that gave him the latest Wall Street quotations. Across from him were two matching pigskin sofas. On one of them reclined Chinaglia, sipping 21-year-old Chivas, straight up.
When I asked him once what his mission in the U.S. was, he said, "I am here to score goals for the Cosmos and to let people know what a Chinaglia is." He delivered spectacularly on both, becoming the leading scorer in league history and a magnet for controversy. When he first arrived, he said Pelé was not fit and he would have to carry him until he was. The Latin fans hated him for that. Then he said the Cosmos should sign more American players rather than Beckenbauer. The Germans fans hated him for that. "Every time I breathe, I insult someone," he told me. "If a dog chokes on a bone around here, they blame Chinaglia."
At 31, Beckenbauer was still considered the best defender in the world. When he signed with the Cosmos in 1976, German tabloids branded him a traitor and a mercenary for leaving the Vaterland two years before the next World Cup. He was accused of adultery and tax evasion, as well as bankrupting his club team, Bayern Munich. The happiest I think I ever saw him was one spring day when we walked down Fifth Avenue and nobody recognized him. "In Germany, I can't walk two feet without being stopped," he said. "This is heaven."
In contrast to the icy Teutonic resolve of most German players, Beckenbauer had a boyish grin and a glint in his eye. But those features quickly morphed into a bemused look as he struggled to understand the nexus of soccer and showbiz the Cosmos embodied. "Sometimes, in the dressing room, I think I am in Hollywood," he once told me.
When the Cosmos' playoff match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers drew 77,691, as opposed to the paltry 21,472 who turned out to watch the Yankees, it was as if a seismic shift had occurred in American sports. Soccer, the game once reserved for "commie pansies," had become the chic sport to be seen at. Led by Ross, cheerleader-in-chief, the celebrity posse, often with their children in tow, would be allowed to enter the Cosmos locker room 20 minutes before the doors were flung open to the working press. I will never forget the day my path to Pelé's cubicle was blocked by a jock-sniffing scrum that included the Holy Trinity of soccer groupies Jagger, Frampton and Kissinger. Jostled by a shove from the back of the mob, I lurched forward, nearly knocking Kissinger into Pelé's lap. Although I was tempted to say, "That's for Cambodia," I simply muttered, "Sorry, Henry, I'm on deadline."
The Cosmos went on to win the 1977 Soccer Bowl in Pelé's final competitive game on a goal by, of all people, Chinaglia, who gleefully ascended to the throne in the post-Pelé era, anxious to show the world that the team's success indeed, the success of soccer in America was not predicated on one man. After all, even with Pelé gone, didn't the North American Soccer League still boast box-office names Beckenbauer, Best, the Dutch master Johan Cruyff and, of course, Chinaglia? And weren't there plenty more where they came from, eager to grab some of that easy American lucre to finish out their careers? And why couldn't cities like Houston, Memphis and Detroit replicate the Cosmos' success by splashing out millions for other famous soccer mercenaries? At least, that was the benighted thinking among the Lords of American Soccer, who misread the success of the Cosmos as an endorsement of the sport rather than what it was a feverish, ephemeral moment when the arrival of a global idol combusted with the birth of showbiz in American sports. When the house of cards finally collapsed for good in 1984, its demise was so total that it took another 12 years for a professional league (Major League Soccer) to emerge from the rubble.
But for those of us who were there during the wondrous Pelé years when soccer in America was considered cool, the memories linger three decades later. Like the evening of the Cosmos' 1977 championship victory party held, appropriately, in a Portland, Ore., lounge named Top of the Cosmo.
The celebration was in full swing when Beckenbauer walked over and tapped Pelé on the shoulder. "Pelé," he said, "one more time. I want to dance with you." The Cosmos had taken over the bandstand as they sang names to the Latin tune, "Guantanamera." "Franz Beck-en-bower, la la la, Car-los Al-ber-to..."
Finally, Pelé relented and the two men danced a little samba, laughing, stepping on toes.
I felt like cutting in.
Out of soccer's glorious past comes a dead ringer for Tony Soprano Nearly 30 years later, outside the theater at the Tribeca Film Festival, paparazzi were milling around, awaiting the arrival of the Cosmos stars. A rumor had it that Pelé would turn up, but that made no sense, since he had declined to participate in the documentary when the producers balked at his $100,000 fee.
Beckenbauer would be the next best get, but as the head of the World Cup organizing committee, Der Kaiser was back home in Germany. So all cameras were focused on Chinaglia, who appeared burlier and less hirsute than in his playing days but still instantly recognizable. He looked like a dead ringer for Tony Soprano, right down to the Jersey accent and the eyes that twinkled at once with mischief and menace. When he enveloped me in a bear hug, I wasn't sure whether he was happy to see me after all these years or eager to crush the life out of me for past journalistic sins. The Cosmos hadn't referred to him as the Godfather for nothing.
"Well, if it isn't the movie star," Chinaglia said with a smile before releasing me to breathe again.
"C'mon, Giorgio, you're the real star of the movie," I countered.
"No, I'm the villain," he said. "I'm the one everybody loves to hate. But I don't give a s--- because I delivered. I scored more goals than anybody in the history of the North American Soccer League, and I put people in the seats."
This was undeniably true, but it struck me as bittersweet, even poignant, that he needed to have his ring kissed 30 years later.
Then, just to make sure I got the point, he added this coda: "There will never be another Cosmos. Big names may come over here eventually Beckham, Ronaldo, Zidane but they'll all be past their prime, and they'll be doing it for the money. We had guys who were at their peak Beckenbauer, myself, [Johan] Neeskens and we were on a mission."
Whether the Cosmos accomplished the mission is open to debate. Certainly, they planted the flag of soccer in the soil of the grassroots movement that today has 18 million American kids playing the sport in the United States.
And they did one other thing that may be even more enduring: They made me into a movie star.
David Hirshey is senior vice president and executive editor of HarperCollins Publishers. He writes frequently about soccer and is the co-author of "Pelé's New World" and "The Education of An American Soccer Player."