It was a surreal scene, one I’ve never forgotten. And it’s tough to describe, because it sounds like I’m making the whole thing up.
In the late 1970s, the New York Cosmos were the most famous franchise in the entire sports world. A pro soccer team with superstars like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto — and Giorgio Chinaglia — they were glamour personified.
Mick Jagger, Henry Kissinger and a host of other boldface names followed them like groupies.
They sold out the 77,000-seat Meadowlands for every game — and did the same in Russia, China, South Africa, or anywhere else on the planet they played.
On November 20, 1977 — a couple of months after winning the NASL championship — they showed up at Green’s Farms Academy.
They were part of a “Soccer Spectacular.” There were clinics, a couple of games involving private schools — and the Cosmos, playing an exhibition match.
They didn’t just wander in off I-95, of course. Jay Emmett — the #2 man at Warner Communications, which owned the club — lived a mile away, on Prospect Road. The club’s PR director was Mark Brickley, a Staples grad just 3 years out of Union College.
Still, it would have been like the New York Giants showing up this weekend to toss the football around.
I don’t remember much about that game. But what I do remember is Giorgio Chinaglia — the team’s leading scorer, an international star, a man who broke Italy’s heart when he left to play in America — weaving elegantly and effortlessly up and down the Green’s Farms Academy field.
He never took off his warmups. He played the entire match that way.
And before the game, at halftime, and after, Giorgio Chinaglia stood on the sidelines, smoking cigarettes.
He was not trying to show disdain for the fans, the setting or the game. That was simply Chinaglia’s way. It was the rest of the league — some of his teammates, even — hated him. Even as he drew attention to the Cosmos, the league, and the entire sport.
In 1977 I was in the early stages of my writing career, and covering the Cosmos was a plum job. I saw many Meadowlands matches, and others around North America. In the locker room afterward, Chinaglia’s legs would be bruised, from hip to ankle. It was the price he paid, as a goal scorer. He took plenty of hits — who said soccer isn’t a contact sport? — but he never complained. He just sat there on a stool after matches, answering questions he thought deserved responses, staring imperiously at sportswriters he thought were imbeciles.
And smoking cigarettes.
Giorgio Chinaglia died yesterday in Florida, of a heart attack. He was 65 years old.
He wasn’t the best role model, as anyone at Green’s Farms Academy that day 35 years ago could see.
Then again, he never pretended to be. He was simply Giorgio Chinaglia.