While certainly, Pele was the drawing card who turned the New York Cosmos into the must-see side of the North American Soccer League (NASL) during the mid-1970s, the supporting cast of soccer legends and superstars that surrounded the greatest player in the history of the game was as much as part of the success story that was the Cosmos. Clearly, one of the key cogs in that Cosmos machine was Lazio legend Giorgio Chinaglia.
North American sports has witnessed its share of super teams. On the baseball diamond, the New York Yankees were never afraid to spend money to put a superstar-laden squad together. The NHL’s Detroit Red Wings were considered the best team that money could buy when they put a record 10 Hall of Famers on the ice with the same club. In basketball, Los Angeles Lakers fans will forever debate which powerhouse was more potent – the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Magic Johnson-led teams of the 1980s, or the Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O’Neal clubs of the early 2000s. None of those clubs, though, could boast of the star power or the soccer mojo that the mid-to-late 1970s Cosmos exuded. No club in sports ever walked with such a well-earned swagger.
Pele’s presence in the beautiful game was such that Cosmos president Clive Toye compared his addition to their side similar to signing the Pope himself to a contract. His arrival provided a Pied Piper effect on the Cosmos side. Soccer mega stars lined up to jump at the chance to play alongside the Brazilian magician. Chinaglia was among the first to make the leap across the Atlantic Ocean and embark upon a North American Soccer League adventure. In fact, he arrived in the Big Apple a year after Pele to also take a mighty bite out of it.
Assembling A Super Team
The most talented and skilled player in the history of the game, Pele won three World Cups with Brazil in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Among those who’d join him with the Cosmos was defender Carlos Alberto, who captained Brazil to that 1970 World Cup, and sweeper Franz Beckenbauer, captain of West Germany’s 1974 World Cup-winning side. Both of them arrived in 1977, one year after Chinaglia.
Chinaglia’s 1976 departure was devastating to Lazio supporters. He’d led the side to their first Serie A title just two years earlier, topping all Serie A scorers by hitting the back of the net 24 times. That earned Chinaglia a place on Italy’s ill-fated 1974 World Cup squad, the first Italian side ever to exit in the group stages of the tournament. Chinaglia also made Italian soccer history with his international debut against Bulgaria in Sofia on June 21st, 1972. Chinaglia, who scored in his debut for Italy, was the first player in Italian football history to be called up for international duty from a second division side. Furthermore, in 1973, Chinaglia beat England captain Bobby Moore to the ball and fed Fabio Capello – later England’s manager at the 2010 World Cup – for the goal that clinched Italy’s first-ever victory at Wembley Stadium. While Chinaglia was ready for a move away from Italy, Lazio’s fervent fans weren’t prepared to see him go. Some vowed to throw themselves in front of the wheels of his plane to ensure it would not get off the runway.
Those Cosmos super teams would produce an NASL Soccer Bowl title in 1977, Pele’s farewell campaign. And led by Chinaglia, they’d keep on winning in the years following Pele’s retirement. The Cosmos won further titles in 1978, 1980 and 1982. Being on the road with such soccer legends, Cosmos team travelling secretary Steve Marshall once famously compared it to being on tour with the Rolling Stones. In fact, they were bigger than the Stones, because Mick Jagger used to come to Studio 54 to hang out with the Cosmos.
ESPN writer David Hirshey called them “soccer demigods,” while Chinaglia stated that “we were really the first big pioneers where big stars came to the United States” in the documentary Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos.
The Cosmos were the biggest deal in North America’s biggest city. A more star-studded team than the Yankees. A better show than you’d see on Broadway. Fans packed American football stadiums to watch them play. Crowds of nearly 80,000 would cram every nook and cranny of these palaces built for North American sports to catch a glimpse of soccer icons in action. There was no such thing as the internet or online sports betting sites in the 1970s but if there were, imagine what a wager on a soccer team becoming the talk of North American sports would have paid out? The odds would’ve been astronomical.
Chinaglia Became The Face Of The Cosmos
Pele assembled the ship but it was Chinaglia who kept it sailing. He was named the NASL’s striker of the year in 1976, 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1982. Playing for the Cosmos from 1976-83, Chinaglia finished with 435 goals in 413 matches.
Chinaglia was blunt in assessing his mandate to the New York Daily News upon arriving in the city that doesn’t sleep. “I am here to score goals for the Cosmos and to let people know what a Chinaglia is,” he boasted. Mission accomplished, although, as with his days for Lazio, Chinaglia’s sometimes laissez-faire approach to the game when the ball wasn’t at his feet found him almost as many detractors as it did supporters.
Even the night in the 1980 NASL playoffs when he scored a league-record seven goals during an 8-1 win over Tulsa Roughnecks, Chinaglia’s night began with catcalls from the Cosmos faithful. “After the third goal, I didn’t hear the boos anymore,” Chinaglia cackled to Associated Press. Nonetheless, when his Cosmos playing days ended, the team retired Chinaglia’s No. 9, joining Pele’s No. 10 as the only digits to be so honoured.