By Sean Hartnett
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For a brief time, soccer was king of the New York sports scene. A large portion of that credit belonged to Giorgio Chinaglia, the controversial, egocentric and enigmatic star striker of the New York Cosmos during their heyday.
Chinaglia passed away Sunday morning at the age of 65, but few embraced the celebrity-athlete lifestyle quite like Giorgio. Alongside world-famous soccer icons Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, Chinaglia helped transform the NASL from a little-known semi-professional league to delight of America and captured the hearts of New Yorkers.
The Cosmos played in front of packed crowds at Giants Stadium during the mid-to-late 1970′s and struck a deep chord within New York’s diverse population. Everyone wanted to be a part of the Cosmos’ phenomenon both inside the stadium and wanted to get a taste of the rock star lifestyle they enjoyed so famously.
Imagine Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand and Henry Kissinger all gathered inside the same building during the height of their popularity. Now imagine all of them not being the main attraction inside the room and actually trying desperately to become part of the Cosmos’ entourage. This is how big the Cosmos were at their peak.
Pele may have been the Cosmos’ best all-around player but Chinaglia competed with Pele for the admiration of New York soccer fans, power inside the locker room and over women off the field at disco haunts like Studio 54.
Chinaglia soaked up the limelight. Whenever he scored, he would dance in a showy fashion. He had a natural magnetism of David Beckham, the cocky self-assured attitude of Kobe Bryant and lived the lifestyle only a Hollywood celebrity could imagine.
Giorgio wanted to be bigger than Pele in every aspect. He even talked frequently in the third-person.
If the relationship between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez could be described as ‘frosty’ when A-Rod arrived in New York in 2004, Pele versus Chinaglia was an all-out war.
Chinaglia demanded the ball from Pele, challenged the Brazilian legend’s authority and used his influence within the Cosmos’ organization to force the team to hire coach Eddie Firmani who allowed Chinaglia to flourish.
They may have never seen eye-to-eye but Pele and Chinaglia produced beautiful music together on the pitch, winning back-to-back NASL titles in 1977 and 1978. Soccer became a full-blown sensation in America and everyone nationwide wanted to see the Cosmos on television or at their local stadium.
But suddenly, the roof caved-in on the NASL. The league over-expanded and many owners made terrible investments, forcing their franchises and ultimately the league to dissolve. The NASL folded in 1985 but the legacy of Chinaglia and the stars of the NASL made it possible for professional soccer to flourish once again in America.
The arrival of the 1994 World Cup in the United States created a second wave of popularity in professional soccer in the America. Major League Soccer began their inaugural season in 1996. Although the league has been through its share of ups-and-downs, the modern day MLS is financially healthy and is growing in popularity.
Fans of the MLS and stars around the league such as Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario all owe a debt of gratitude to NASL icons like Chinaglia who paved the groundwork for the success of the MLS.
While the MLS is an ever-growing league, it’s hard to imagine it ever becoming what the NASL was during the late 1970′s. The ‘pipe dream’ still remains that one day soccer will push itself toward the forefront of American sports once again.
Can it happen again? It’s unlikely but anything is possible in America…
Is it possible for soccer to become a major sport in America once again? Share your comments below and send your tweets to: @HartnettWFAN.