RIP Roberto Cabanas, 'an idol wherever he went'

There's the notion that the old North American Soccer League was an elephant's graveyard. And it was certainly home of many aging greats like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Mueller and George Best.

But not every player was old.

The greatest American pro soccer team of all time was the 1980 New York Cosmos, who beat the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, 3-0, in the Soccer Bowl.

Beckenbauer was 34, Giorgio Chinaglia, who scored the second and third goals, was 33, while goalkeeper Hubert Birkenmeier was 31. The rest of the team was under 30, including the great Dutch centerback Wim Rijsbergen, 25-year-old Belgian midfielder Francois van der Elst, just off the Red Devils' second-place finish at Euro 1980, and Vladislav Bogicevic, in his third season with the Cosmos but still only 29.

After the game at Washington's RFK Stadium, I asked van der Elst, who arrived from the great Belgian team Anderlecht in midseason, how the Cosmos would fare in Europe for a story I was doing for France Football on the Cosmos, and he said they'd be a top six team in any European league.

The babies of the 1980 Cosmos were 19-year-old American defender Jeff Durgan, whom the Cosmos' German coach Hennes Weisweiler preferred over the great Carlos Alberto, and a pair of Paraguayans, Julio Cesar Romero, 20, and Roberto Cabanas, 19.

Only a year before, Romero -- they called him "Romerito" -- and Cabanas were part of the Paraguay team that won the Copa America.

The idea of an American team snatching such young talent out of South America today would be unimaginable. But in those days the Cosmos didn't just have the backing of Warner Communications (Steve Ross and the Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi) but there wasn't the competition for players like there is today.

Most big leagues had restrictions on the number of foreigners who could play. There wasn't the TV money -- it was still the pre-cable days -- there is today. And there weren't the sports moguls invested in the sport like there are today from the United States, Russia, the Middle East and Asia.

Cabanas, who died on Monday of a stroke at the age of 55, played five seasons in the NASL, scoring 63 goals in 97 games for the Cosmos. They won NASL titles in 1980 and 1982 and Cabanas was the league MVP in 1983 when he scored the greatest goal in league history, taking a ball moving away from him the air and stabbing it into the Tulsa goal with a scorpion kick.

Cabanas was still only 23 when the NASL folded after the 1984 season. He starred for America de Cali in the mid-1980s when it was operated by the Cali Cartel. He starred for French club Brest for two seasons, then went to Lyon under Jean-Michel Aulas of Alex Morgan Twitter fame.

After that there was a successful stint at Boca Juniors followed by a series of short stops at clubs in Ecuador, Paraguay and Colombia.

In recent years, Cabanas was a soccer analyst on Paraguayan radio and television and helped organize Paraguayan national youth teams.

Perhaps the greatest compliment came from brother, Valerio.

"He was an idol wherever went," he said on Monday.

5 comments about "RIP Roberto Cabanas, 'an idol wherever he went'".
  1. Nalin Carney, January 10, 2017 at 12:57 a.m.

    I recall watching Cabanas play for the Cosmos. Back then I was new to the game .... and did not understand the big flap over Chanilia....with Cabanas playing right wing. It seemed to me that he did all the work and Chinalia got all the credit ! Go figure !

  2. aaron dutch, January 10, 2017 at 2:01 a.m.

    What an amazing player. I'm friends with Hubert Birkenmeier and Eski in their shop they have told me great stories about the Cosmo life. It was very special.

  3. Bob Ashpole, January 10, 2017 at 2:55 a.m.

    Great article. Great player.

  4. beautiful game, January 10, 2017 at 8:02 p.m.

    Cabanas was born to play football...a rough jewel at 19 with the Cosmos and shortly afterwards, a polished gem thereafter.

  5. Thomas Denigris, January 11, 2017 at 8:27 a.m.

    I was a very lucky sports writer back then, covering the Cosmos home games for a weekly newspaper in New Jersey. Not only was Roberto Cabanas an exciting young player to watch, he was an engaging young man to interview always with a smile on his face. A young man in a locker room often filled with rock stars such as Mick Jagger. A young man in a locker room filled with soccer giants such as Chinaglia, Bogie, Wim, Eski (one of the greatest outside backs ever!). Although the Comos had outstanding young Americans -- Ricky Davis, Jeff Durgan, David Brcic, Angelo DiBernanrdo, Hernan "Chico" Borja et al, Cabanas and his countryman Roberto were so much more technically skilled. What a great time for soccer in this country.

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