The Search for Order in the Soccer Universe
According to Clive Toye (in the 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos), only one man could break through the antipathy toward the game of soccer in the U.S. And that man was Pelé, the hero of Brazil’s third World Cup victory. But how could they entice him?
Toye and Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League’s commissioner and investor in the team, claimed to have approached Pelé as far back as 1970 with an informal proposal to play in America. Their boss, Steve Ross, eventually saw the soccer icon as a marketing brand, a natural fit for their expanding organization; that television would be a huge moneymaker for the star and for the parent company, Warner Communications. We cut to a shot of Pelé in sunglasses, seated at a bench, with Professor Mazzei alongside wearing a white cap, a brown jacket, matching brown slacks, and aviator shades (26:47 to 26:53).
Jay Emmett, another investor in the franchise and later a Warner Communications executive, dispatched Cosmos lawyer Norman Samnick to São Paulo, Brazil, to see if he could sign the superstar to a contract. The problem with that move was that Pelé had been designated a national treasure by the Brazilian government, who refused to let him leave the country for any foreign offers. This was circumvented, somewhat, when Pelé decided to retire from the game by calling it a career in his home country.
Sensing a possible opening in their favor, the men proposed a US$2 million deal, but Pelé wanted more; to be exact, US$5 million for two years of play. Curiously, the reasons for his asking over and above the initial offering price are never explored. But there was a very good motive for his holding out for a higher amount: contrary to his prowess on the playing field, Pelé was not the most astute individual when it came to business acumen or money matters.
In Brazil, he had cosigned for a loan that had gone sour. The bank that was owed the money pressed him for payment, which numbered in the millions of dollars. Desperate to get out of the mess he had found himself in, Pelé turned to his closest advisers (thirty-two in number, according to a wisecracking Jay Emmett), one of whom was Professor Mazzei. The Professor, along with Pelé’s wife Rosemeire, his brother Zoca, and a financier named Xisto, met over the course of several months to discuss the alternatives. After much needling and cajoling, and through their joint efforts, they convinced Pelé that his best (and only) option would be to work out a mutually advantageous pact with the “gringos” in return for a three-year commitment to the team and a longer one to the Warner Communications group.
In a black-and-white photograph from the period, Professor Mazzei can be spotted, wearing a checkered jacket and looking over the contracts with former Cosmos executive Rafael de la Sierra (28:55 to 28:57). The shot shows de la Sierra in the middle right, with Mazzei, his right hand raised in a pontiff-like blessing over the documents, at center left, and Toye seated at far left; a table cluttered with paper, accompanied by ashtrays filled to overflowing, can also be observed. (The prevailing mood was one of having pulled an excess of all-nighters!)
From the looks and stances of the various participants, it was obvious that money had been the main stumbling block. As far as high-flying salaries went, baseball’s home-run king, Hank Aaron, had made US$200,000 that year — and he was the highest paid player in sports. Many years have passed since these events took place, yet there are still differences of opinion about how much Pelé was paid for his services: a five-part contract, at one million per year; a ten-year public relations contract; a million-dollar record deal; and one million for three years of actual play. In the final analysis, the figure was somewhere between $2.7 and $7 million, at 1974 rates — any way you slice it, this was an unimaginable sum at the time that, unfortunately, went mostly toward paying back the loan Pelé had unwittingly cosigned for.
Once again, we are shown a photo of a dazed Professor Mazzei (at 29:28 and 29:30) with a mass of cigarette butts on the table; and faded footage of Mazzei (at 30:31 to 30:33) looking over and/or behind Pelé’s shoulder, with Jay Emmett directly behind him. Pelé embraces his new boss, Steve Ross, and then pats Emmett on the back to officially “seal the deal.” Significantly, Pink Floyd’s song “Money” plays on the soundtrack, which sets the proper tone.
We learn, too, that Henry Kissinger was also involved in bringing Pelé to the U.S. (Brazil did not want to let him go, so they continued to play hard to get). Through some behind-the-scenes politicking and arm-twisting, Kissinger, who was still highly influential as U.S. Secretary of State, along with others in the Brazilian government, were able to make the miracle happen “for the good of the relationship of Brazil and the United States.”
The contract was officially announced at the 21 Club in Manhattan, in what Daily News columnist David Hirshey claimed was held “in a room aptly named the Hunt Room, as if Pelé [were] the prize catch.” Pelé was two hours late (the quip was that he was on “Pelé time,” not New York time). When he finally did arrive, guess who was standing behind him? Professor Mazzei, his trainer and mentor at Santos Soccer Club, dressed in a blue business suit, white shirt, and natty striped tie (33:39 to 33:42). He is seen directing traffic at or near the podium, as Pelé waves to the press corps and shakes hands all around. Veteran sportswriter and severe soccer critic Dick Young can be heard heckling the participants from the back of the room. Nevertheless, Pelé’s charm and charisma energized those present, especially the reporters who likewise became instant fans. This positive show of support resulted in record attendance at the Cosmos games, though Young remained a powerful skeptic.
After the contract was signed (and with Pelé’s wife by his side), Mazzei turned to the expectant crowd. Translating for the “King” while inadvertently echoing Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York,” the Professor issued the following proclamation to a warm round of applause: “You can spread out the news to all the world that the soccer arrived finally in USA” (34:50 to 34:58).
Intermission: Rise & Shine
Meanwhile, at Randall’s Island, Pelé is seen patting two small boys on the head, while the ever-watchful, ever-present Professor Mazzei, in jacket and tie (36:30 to 36:34), looks on in the near distance. A bit earlier, Mazzei, dressed in an orange-colored, long-sleeved jersey (35:29 to 35:35), is caught observing the superstar going through his training routine. Next, Pelé enters the stadium for his first match as a Cosmos player. And who do we see trailing behind him, in dark glasses, wide-open collar, and plaid jacket? You guessed it: good ole Professor Mazzei (36:39 to 36:40). Thus began the North American leg of Pelé’s career at the age of thirty-four.
The first game took place at Downing Stadium, on June 15, 1975, against the Dallas Tornado. The score was tied at 2-2. Pelé had done well for himself, with an assist and a header in the process. When it was over, Pelé went down to the showers. The locker room was packed to the rafters with wall-to-wall reporters. Out of the blue, he called Rafael de la Sierra to come over and shouted, over the din of competing voices, that this would be the first and last game he would play for the team. “Look at my feet,” he cried. “I have a fungus that I contracted here!”
De la Sierra was stunned by the accusation, but it turned out the alleged “fungus” was nothing more than green spray-paint used to brighten up and prettify the substandard field. Crouching down at Pelé’s hallowed feet, which were covered in filthy, mud-drenched socks, was the unmistakable form of Professor Mazzei (38:51 to 38:55), in the same green baseball cap and Cosmos sweatpants he sported at the beginning of the documentary. When Pelé realized the ridiculousness of his claim, he broke out into an amused grin. We can sense a collective sigh of relief.
“I come to play in America,” Pelé later announced before the camera, “because I believe in soccer in America. Kids here love the sport, the American people’s sport naturally. I come to play here because I know, in a few years we’ll have a good team in America.”
How right he was — and how prophetic as well. His presence continued to shatter attendance records, the voiceover makes known, although that first season ended with the Cosmos missing the playoffs. Soon after, Pelé was invited to the White House, where he put on a brief demonstration for then-President Gerald Ford, with Professor Mazzei (42:38 to 42:49) interpreting as the need arose.
Things got better as the Cosmos moved to Yankee Stadium. As a matter of fact, many people have taken credit for bringing Pelé to the U.S. and to the Cosmos. However, it remains a mystery that the one man who became his most trusted companion — his trainer, his mentor, and his English language translator as well as his frequent travel partner — goes unmentioned.
From then on, things picked up for professional soccer in America. At Franz Beckenbauer’s signing, there was the ubiquitous Professor Mazzei, standing at extreme left and flanking Ahmet Ertegun, Werner Roth (captain of the Cosmos), Pelé, Mr. Ross, the Kaiser, and Chinaglia. But Pelé, it can be stated, was without a doubt the player who started the literal ball rolling, the one who could lay claim to the mantle of having given soccer the propriety it lacked in North America. As a result, the likes of Gordon Banks, Rodney Marsh, Geoff Hurst, and George Best were all attracted to the States.
Steve Ross wanted a winner above all else. This is why he recruited the Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, who is variously described as a “backstabbing individual,” a person “who scored a lot of goals,” but who was generally disliked; “a very disagreeable fellow at times,” but one who “was extremely passionate about soccer” (according to Ross’ son, Mark). He was also the “man to put the ball in the back of the net,” exactly what Ross required. And maybe what the Cosmos needed at that point. Ego and temperament were what drove Chinaglia to become the league’s highest scorer; whereas aptitude and ability made Pelé the leader in assists.
Despite Chinaglia’s reputation as a playboy, he and Ross got along well together, former Cosmos goalie Shep Messing insisted. “Giorgio had won a soft side in the heart of Steve Ross.” Obviously, this led to friction between the two prima donnas of the team, Pelé and Chinaglia. Not that Pelé was the “diva” type, the kind to throw temper tantrums at the drop of a hat; it was that Giorgio craved being the rock star, the idol of millions — he certainly had the dark, smarmy looks and the requisite brooding mien. He also needed the adulation (both the boos and the cheers), the attention, and the hangers-on. This was not the case with Pelé, who had enough self-possession and assurance not to require those things. He had been in the spotlight for half his life, ever since his 1958 World Cup debut in Sweden, ergo he was used to being at the center of the soccer world.
They clashed in the locker room, where emotions ran high, exploding in a torrent of recriminations and four-letter words. Egos inevitably took over, especially Chinaglia’s. David Hirshey, sports columnist and author who wrote a biography of Pelé, talked about the women, “a blonde on each arm,” as he recalled the soccer star having at one point. In that, Pelé and Giorgio saw eye-to-eye.
This helped to explain how the Cosmos lost the 1976 Championship to their rivals, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, by a score of 3-1. Wine, women, and song were to blame — in this instance, two bottles of Chivas Regal, according to Tampa Bay’s star player, Rodney Marsh. The boss, Mr. Ross, was not at all pleased. To escape the inevitable fallout, the Cosmos were sent on a tour of Europe, where they became literal “goodwill ambassadors,” in the words of Rafael de la Sierra.
Rodney Marsh, often hailed as “the white Pelé,” then relates the story of how he corrected a reporter who had interviewed him by insisting that Pelé [was] the black Rodney Marsh. “This did not go over well,” he confessed. With that, there is a shot of the team leaving their plane as it lands in London. Professor Mazzei is there, looking dapper in a gray-blue sports shirt and trademark dark glasses (53:16 to 53:18).
In the decade between the 1960s and the mid-70s, soccer in America had been transformed into its own type of sport, tailored specifically to U.S. audiences: that meant halftime shows, tailgate parties, leggy cheerleaders, a colorful mascot, and the piece de résistance — no tied games.
“You needed a winner,” Rodney Marsh would say. So teams would go first into a mini-game, then O.T., and finally the dreaded penalty shootout — only, this wasn’t the standard shootout it would become today; it was a one-on-one rush at the goalie! Some of the players despised the idea, while others loved it; either way, it brought additional excitement to the game. The players stood thirty-five yards from the goal mouth, and were given only five seconds to get off a shot before time would be called. The crowds ate it up.
Take the Credit, but Spread the Blame
The Cosmos had been playing at Yankee Stadium until the final year, 1977, when they moved across the river to the newly built Meadowlands in New Jersey. They even added the Cosmos Cheerleaders (one of whom, a young woman named Marjorie, was Professor Mazzei’s daughter!). Also, a guy in a Bugs Bunny outfit, on loan from Jungle Habitat in New Jersey, would become their unofficial mascot in the stands and on the field. They were Americanizing the sport, at the same time that Steve Ross was continuing his efforts toward “internationalizing” the team (a contradiction in terms).
“It was like Noah’s Ark,” described Rose Ganguzza, Pelé’s manager from 1975-77. That year, there were fourteen new players from seven countries, among which was the twice-named European Player of the Year, the “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer. As mentioned earlier, at the signing, to the far left of the Ertegun brothers, Pelé, Ross, Beckenbauer, and Chinaglia, was Professor Mazzei, standing ramrod straight with his hands at his side and glancing down at his cuticles (57:18 to 57:20).
Chinaglia went berserk at the news of the signing, openly questioning why they, the Cosmos, needed another star player when they already had him! One reason was that the Cosmos were losing more games than winning them; another was that they were only drawing twenty or so thousand fans to their home games, in a stadium with a capacity for three times that much. So they were losing money with every game. And, as we learned, Ross did not like to lose anything — especially money.
In response to the crisis, Ross brought the heavy artillery out to the stadium, i.e., all the singers and actors under contract to Warner Communications. They were enlisted for their drawing power: Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, Henry Kissinger — you name ‘em, they had ‘em. Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Steven Spielberg, the list was endless. In Clive Toye’s words, “The bloody locker room was littered with people. It was becoming a joke.” Once, Mick Jagger was mistaken by Gordon Bradley for a drug addict, he looked so abysmally bad. Mick and Kissinger visited regularly, as did many other celebrities, which took attention away from the game and those playing it.
After a while, Toye resigned his post and Bradley was summarily fired. It seemed that Bradley had wanted to bounce Chinaglia from the team, but upon Bradley’s firing, Giorgio recommended that Eddie Firmani be hired to take his place. Firmani had led Tampa Bay to victory in 1976. Toye insisted that Giorgio “had a malign influence over Ross,” and therefore over the Cosmos. Giorgio was the “suck-up”: whenever he’d score a goal, he would run up to the boss’ box and wave and gesticulate in Steve’s direction, paying homage to the kingmaker, as it were. This was a smart move on Giorgio’s part since he too had been dropped by Coach Bradley. He needed to get back into Ross’ good graces, and this was one sure way to do it. In the end, the striker would win out over his adversaries.
Even with Chinaglia’s goal-scoring facility, the team lost five of their subsequent matches. So the search was on for new blood: Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team, was brought in from São Paulo. Carlos Alberto revealed that the day he arrived in New York, July 13, 1977, was the day of the big blackout. Crime, looting, arson, robberies … The Son of Sam serial killer was still on the loose, and the impending bankruptcy of New York City was in the air, along with gun shots, fire alarms, police sirens, and billows of black smoke— the place was in turmoil. I lived through those rough times, with the blackout doing the most damage to the city’s reputation. These were exceedingly difficult days to overcome. Having a winning, championship team to rally behind helped to pull the city from the brink.
Meanwhile, the Cosmos players were living it up at Studio 54 (equivalent to Nero fiddling while Rome burned), with stretch limos escorting them to and fro after each game, and to a huge section reserved for the team. The rock-star milieu had finally come to U.S. soccer in that they held a party there every Monday night.
There is a snapshot of Pelé at a table, with his then-wife Rosemeire to his left; to Pelé’s right is Nelsi Morais, one of the first Brazilians to be signed by the Cosmos, and his wife; to Rosemeire’s left is the ubiquitous Professor Mazzei, and at the extreme right side is Mazzei’s wife, Maria Helena (1:04:32 to 1:04:35). They are raising their glasses in a toast to fun and frolic — the Brazilian contingency at play.
On August 14, 1977, a sold out audience of 77,691 screaming fans at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands saw the Cosmos seize the playoff bench from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The team went on to win the 1977 Soccer Bowl against Portland, thanks to a squeaked-through goal by Steve Hunt and a tremendous header by Chinaglia. And they did it for Pelé; they wanted him to end his career on top as a winner. Act II came to a climax. It was the arc of triumph, the pinnacle of field performance for the New York Cosmos.
It would all come crashing down in the years to come.
(End of Part Two – To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes