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.

Giorgio Chinaglia, in his prime.

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.

Wearing sweatpants.

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.

Pele (left) and Giorgio Chinaglia. When the Brazilian retired in 1977, the Italian took over the club's limelight.

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.

Giorgio Chinaglia, in a recent photo.

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.

33 responses to “Giorgio

  1. Another joke, Dan?
    That’s the guy from the Sopranos.

  2. and Birkinmaeir, right?

    • Former goalkeeper Hubert Birkenmaier now manages a sporting goods store in New Jersey. He used to own it, but sold it to his former teammate Eskandarian — whose own son is a pretty good player too.

  3. amythompson1722

    Giorgio really is my idol!

  4. Kinda sad, right? The passing of time, people changing…hindsight being 20/20…RIP, Giorgio.

  5. I thought that was James Gandolfino too!
    Why did Giorgio’s teammates hate him?

    • He was arrogant. He hogged the spotlight. He was involved in off-the-field politics to get rid of coaches and teammates he didn’t like. Some teammates thought he was too close to the owners, and not close enough to them. He didn’t pass much, or do a lot of the off-the-ball work soccer players are expected to do. But he could score. And he loved, loved, loved the game.

      • The Dude Abides

        He also became a part owner and involved in some undergoings on the finances of the club, no? Many blamed him for the failure of the team.

  6. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Another bit of childhood falls by the wayside… And being an adult/grown up takes a stronger hold… But everytime I can take the pitch the child in me LIVES!!!! R.I.P.

  7. I moved from London to Westport in 1977 and couldn’t imagine seeing better football than what I just left. Stamford Bridge was plenty rocking (and dangerous for a Yank), but The Meadowlands with 70K was surreal. And to see Giorgio hanging offside until the second before the ball was played in (or not) was dreamy. Been missing him (and that team) for a long time already.

  8. For those readers who aren’t old enough to have witnessed the meteoric rise of the Cosmos, perhaps the only way to try to describe it is to imagine Linsanity happening to an entire team and a sport.

  9. I was at Greens Farms that day, It was the Cosmos against UConn, unbelievable that they played at Greens Farms. Jim Baumann was coaching Greens Farms at the time and Mark Brickley and Jay Emmet made it happen. It was a great day for me as I met Johan Cruyff, who came by to watch and was amongst the crowd with hardly anyone noticing. Giorgio did indeed play, no Pele or Beckenbaur. Great day in the history of Westport Soccer. Will send a photo to post.
    Ray Flanigan

    • Fred Cantor

      Ray, are you sure Johan was there in 1977? He was definitely there in 1979 when his sports marketing company, Inter Soccer–the one I worked for–helped organize the “Total Soccer Spectacular” at GFA.

      He first played an exhibition game for the Cosmos in, I think, the fall of 1978, and he started in the NASL in 1979.

  10. And who can forget that day at the Giant’s stadium when a group of undersized players from the WSA took the same field before the Cosmos game and looked like a bunch of mice in a wheat field. Memories are sacred.

  11. Catherine Burnett

    Yes! Ben – I remember that game. A bunch of us from the girls team were in the stands that day.

  12. I saw a very good documentary on the rise of the Cosmos in the 70’s with Westport’s own Jay Emmett as Vice President. It was a wild time for soccer in this area. Writer Phil Mushnick of the New York Post was offered a job covering the Yankees instead of the Cosmos and he replied: “Are you serious, covering the Cosmos is an ongoing party.” I know the Professor was part of that band of Studio 54 reporters as well. Wish I had been there.
    Nice piece. And despite their dislike, I am sure many will miss Giorgio. He was one helleva of a character.

  13. Fred Cantor

    One more noteworthy Westport-Cosmos connection that might be of interest to 06880 readers. Paul Hunter, Staples ’73, who was one of the top players on consecutive state title teams before becoming captain and All-American at UConn, played for the Cosmos in 1977. He earned his first start of the season in the NASL playoff semi-finals, where he joined Pele, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, and Carlos Alberto in front of roughly 75,000 fans. We were all thrilled for him.

  14. “Once in a Lifetime” is also available on Netflix (Instant Streaming) – great movie!

  15. Woog’s post was picked up by SoccerAmericaDaily and sent out in their email compilation.

  16. There were three Soccer Spectaculars. Dan fails to mention that he coached in at least two of them… I knew my original programs with all the starting lineups would come in handy someday! Chinaglia and the Cosmos (minus all other superstars) was of course the main draw in 1977. Former Cosmos Werner Roth and Shane Kennedy led the clinic. There were four games with Westport teams playing against private schools from MA & RI: GFA Varsity & JV, and two PAL U18 & U13 squads. In 1978, Kennedy returned with 3 coaches for the clinics: Jim Lennox (1977 Div I Champ), Steve Parker (English Pro & All-American), and Greg Meyers (NASL Head Coach). Matches involving Westport teams were expanded to six,now including girls: GFA Varsity & JV, PAL Boys “D” (U12), Girls “C” & “D” (U14 & U12), and “A” (U18) Southern CT All-stars (only 5 players from Westport). Cruyff must have been featured in 1979, but alas I don’t have the program for that final year.

  17. There is no doubt that Giorgio, along with George Best, was one of the most charasmitartic figures the game.

    As George Best once said “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

    Giorgio will be missed. RIP.

  18. I too was at that game! Uconn was a good soccer team but the Cosmos moved the ball around them like they were a jv team!! The skill of those players was astounding!! It was a little surreal being out on that GFA field watching players of that caliber. The journey continues. Good memories!!

  19. Dan, I think you would make the prefect replacement for Giorgio on SiriusXM’s The Football Show with Charlie Stillitano every weekday morning.

    Your radio voice sounded good last week on NPR!

    • THANKS — but no one can replace Giorgio, or his voice. He had a unique Welsh-Italian accent, modulated by decades of cigarettes and Chivas.

  20. Eddie Wilder

    Dan! I still have the T-shirt that Hubert Birkenmeir signed for me that day! It is in my scrapbook next to the team photos from The Meadowlands! How lucky were we to have that experience as children. I am currently coaching my son Nicky’s 5 and under team in Florida! Peace! Thank you for a great read and flashback!!!!

    • I am amazed how many people remember those days — and how much they meant to all of us. Those were definitely some good times. THANKS, Eddie, for checking in!

  21. Carlos Almeida

    The Cosmos also played in spring of 1983 vs Uconn in Westport. It was not until I read this story that I now realize the location of the game was probably at Greens Farm Academy (perhaps why Ray above thought that the 1979 game was vs Uconn). I actually played in the 1983 game for Uconn for coach Joe Morrone and have pictures from that day which I will also try to send along. People were hanging from tree’s to watch the game. It was incredible. We played vs Giorgio , Bogie, Birkenmaier, Eskandarian, Johan Neeskins (not Cruyff), Roberto Cabanas , seninho and the rest of the cosmos team, but Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto (obviously Pele) were already gone by then. Fond Memories. RIP Giorgio, and thank you Dan for sharing a great story.

  22. Dan, I was there, but it was 1979, my first year at the school. It was amazing. I recall when the school’s field crew lined the field for play. They did everything possible to make it as wide a pitch as can be. UConn was a perennial #1. Great stuff!