By Paul Gardner
We don't do things by halves here in the Big Apple, no sirreee. If we set out to make complete asses of ourselves, expect a double dip immediately. And that's what we've now got.
Both dips have a decidedly Brit flavor to them. First of all we have the Red Bulls, evidently looking for some easy publicity, grabbing John Rooney - yes, the great Wayne’s younger brother -- during the MLS super-duper draft. What, you might ask, was Rooney doing in the draft? If he’s so good, surely he would have been snaffled by a club as a discovery player? A delicate question. Could it be that MLS was also looking for easy publicity for its increasingly irrelevant draft?
Right after the Rooney madness came the startling news that the people -- Brits, all of them -- who are intent on reviving the New York Cosmos, had appointed Frenchman Eric Cantona as their Director of Soccer. (To get that out of the way: no, I’m not sure what a director of soccer is supposed to do - it’s a comparatively new title that seems to involve a good deal of treading on the toes of the coach).
Cantona, the Cosmos Brits may be surprised to hear, is not a big deal in New York. But he is in England. So the headlines in England are far, far greater than anything that appeared in New York. Cantona is big in England because he had several very successful seasons with Manchester United, also because he once jumped into the stand to karate-kick an abusive fan, and also because he makes mysteriously ethereal remarks about seagulls, which the English mistake for French intellectuality (the English are, pardon the pun, very gullible in that area).
If you want to see Cantona at his French poseur worst, go to the Cosmos web site, where you will find him glaring at you and puffing cigar-smoke in your face. Very nice.
This Cantona business is frankly disappointing. Up till now the Cosmos group had been making some excellent moves -- establishing themselves at the grassroots level by forming associations with two top, and very well chosen, youth clubs (New York’s BW Gottschee, and Los Angeles FC). They have an office in New York, and as their Academy Director, have appointed Giovanni Savarese -- one of the most respected figures in local soccer. And of course, they’ve got Pele, the most iconic of all the Cosmos players, as honorary president, and they’ve signed up Cobi Jones as a soccer ambassador and no, I don’t know what that means either.
This is all good stuff, I think. Then comes the Cantona nonsense. Which immediately raises the whole question of just how serious this venture is, simply because the advent of King Eric (yes, that’s what they’re calling him) is so clearly a PR gimmick. It forces one to take a much harder look at the group trying to revive the Cosmos: we have Terry Byrne, one of the prime movers (and a great friend of David Beckham); the other Brits involved are Paul Kemsley (formerly a vice chairman at Tottenham Hotspur and, I gather, the major investor at the moment); Rick Parry (formerly the CEO at Liverpool FC); and Carl Johnson (founder of New York marketing company Anomaly). There you have it -- it would be difficult to imagine a more Britty group than that.
An all-Brit group means, inexorably, a very narrow-minded soccer group. That is a given, though I doubt whether any of that quartet understands that fact. If you want to get the full flavor of just how limited Brit thinking is, you could do worse than start with a long interview that SI’s Grant Wahl conducted with Terry Byrne.
Through some nine pages Byrne details his soccer background and experience. Virtually all of it English, and where not English, of a limited European flavor.
I have grown used to this. For virtually every Brit, Latin America simply does not exist. Byrne mentions 21 coaches and players in the interview -- 18 are European, only 3 are Latinos. He congratulates the Red Bulls on signing Thierry Henry, but fails to mention Rafa Marquez. It is also mighty strange that when he talks of the possibility of the Cosmos becoming the 20th team in MLS and a New York team at that (and that would seem to be the ultimate objective) he does not once mention the huge soccer-devoted Hispanic population in the metropolitan area. He talks of the need for a stadium, and gives it as the MLS “preference” that the stadium be in Queens - without giving any indication that he understands just why Queens would be an ideal site.
A reminder or two for Messrs Byrne, Kemsley, Johnson and Parry: when the pro soccer boomlet started in 1967, we had the New York Generals -- with an English coach and a lot of English players. The soccer was poor, the Generals quickly disappeared, unlamented. The Cosmos headed in the same direction -- English coaches, British players. Only when a concerted move to bring in the best players, regardless of their origin, was made (ironically, a Brit, Clive Toye, spearheaded that move) did the real, wildly popular, Cosmos emerge.
If Byrne and his fellow Brits need (and I think they do) a strong reminder on just how awful Brit-oriented soccer can still be, let them study the current MLS champion Colorado Rapids under its Brit coach Gary Smith.
That is the sort of soccer that an all Brit managing group will inevitably bring with them. Unless they are aware of the danger, their attempt to launch a genuine American team with young American players will fail, without any doubt at all. Or, putting it another way, it will be as successful as England has been at the international level for the past 45 years.
In short: the appointment of Cantona is a mistake. It raises one’s suspicions that the Brits are only interested in making headlines back in Britain. And deeper suspicions that the idea is to create an academy to raise players who can be sold at marvelous prices to the EPL. That is, if the EPL clubs don’t work out a way to get them for nothing.
Cantona can puff his obnoxious stage-prop cigar for all he’s worth, but he leaves me thinking only one thing: that Pele would have been a far better choice for whatever that title is.