The New York Cosmos Want to Take the Field Again

GLORY DAYS With the goalkeeper Shep Messing directly behind him, Pel

“Thanks so much for coming,” he said, turning serious. “We hope you get it. It’s gonna be huge. Support us. The Cosmos are back.”

Hang on ­— the team that gave Americans their first taste of soccermania, once packing Giants Stadium with more than 77,000 fans? That rum band of night prowlers with their own table at Studio 54 and Hollywood hangers-on? The franchise that vanished not long after Steve Ross, the head of Warner Communications, decided that pro soccer had no future? Those Cosmos are back?

Certainly the brand is back. Amid all the team memorabilia on display at that February party were plenty of crisp new Cosmos shirts, shorts and warm-ups, part of a recently unveiled line of clothing from Umbro, the English company that co-sponsored the shindig.

But Kemsley’s ambitions far exceed retro sportswear. A former real estate mogul who flamed out spectacularly in England when the recession struck, he is now chairman of the Cosmos, whose rights he bought recently. Since then, the team has been his all-consuming passion; he talks about building a stadium as well as Cosmos-related restaurants and hotels in New York City. He predicts that he and Umbro will sell a fortune’s worth of shirts in Europe and Asia. He has a staff of 16 already (including an executive named Terry Byrne, a close friend and former manager of David Beckham’s). He is touring the world to spread news of a second coming.

“I’m going to Singapore, to a dinner with the president,” Kemsley told me a week before the party. “The whole thing is just sick, do you know what I mean?”

For now, Kemsley is missing just two essentials: players and a league to play in. Players are easy; they can be bought. Breaking into Major League Soccer is trickier. Now in its 16th season, the country’s biggest professional soccer league will soon sell off rights to its 20th team, which Commissioner Don Garber has earmarked for New York City. The hope is to start a local rivalry with the New York Red Bulls, who play in Harrison, N.J.

The winning bidder for the 20th franchise will have to fork over as much as $100 million, Garber says, and have enough left over to build a stadium in the city. As important, prospective owners need to buy into the league’s modus operandi. “We need good owners, good stadiums, good marketing, serious guys who can be serious about the sport,” Garber says. “The Cosmos haven’t lived for 30 years. And unless it’s relaunched the right way, it won’t be successful.”

“Bless Don,” Kemsley said one afternoon not long ago, sounding like one of those charming rogues in a Guy Ritchie film. “I accept it’s not a done deal. But he’s got to give me that franchise.”

The Cosmos were the brainchild of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Turkish-born brothers and executives at Atlantic Records, a division of Warner Communications. In 1971, the Cosmos joined the struggling N.A.S.L. and initially played their games in dingy little stadiums. Then Ross, a natural-born impresario, decided in 1975 that what ailed the team could be cured by the biggest celebrity in the sport. So he coaxed Pelé out of retirement and into a Cosmos jersey with a multiyear contract that paid more than $1 million annually. At the time, the highest-paid athlete in baseball, Hank Aaron, earned $200,000 per season.

Pelé was introduced to Manhattan at a media-mobbed 21 Club on June 10, 1975. He was soon followed by the arrivals of Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer, a soft-spoken defender who captained West Germany to a World Cup championship in 1974. The Cosmos started drawing huge crowds to Giants Stadium, and during a summer best remembered for a blackout and the Son of Sam murders, the team was a gorgeous diversion. Mick Jagger showed up in the locker room. Liza Minnelli, Grace Jones, Andy Warhol and Bjorn Borg hovered around the team at Studio 54.