New York Cosmos legend Shep Messing talks to Samindra Kunti about the Munich Olympics, Viva Magazine, Tony Soprano, Pelé, smoking with Franz Beckenbauer, the current Cosmos and stabbing Mike England.
You were born in The Bronx in 1949 and grew up on Long Island, where you went to Wheatley School in Old Westbury. You were not predisposed to be a soccer player, let alone be a goalkeeper?
My career in soccer is a fantasy, a dream. It is as crazy as a story you would ever hear – to play as a goalkeeper for the New York Cosmos with Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto. Not one chance in a million from where I came from! I was born in The Bronx, a tough area of New York, and I grew up with gangs and guns. I was an athlete, but I didn´t see a soccer ball until I was sixteen. Then I moved to Long Island and if you were an American at the time, you played basketball, baseball and American football. I was a running-back in American football, a shortstop in baseball and a point guard in basketball. When I was sixteen, my high school cancelled the American football program. I had never seen a soccer game before and the soccer coach asked who the best athlete was in high school! He knew it was me and he asked if I´d play as a goalkeeper. At sixteen years old I started to play soccer and at eighteen years old I was an All-American soccer player at Harvard and on the US Olympic team.
Living the dream, studying law was not really an option?
I was in law school when I got back from the Olympics and the New York Cosmos wanted to offer me a little bit of money to play soccer. I was a little bit lazy about studying law and took a leave of absence to play one or two years and then I´d go back to school, but all of a sudden Pelé came. The whole world changed for soccer in America.
The 1972 Olympics were eventful. The US qualified for the very first time and played Morocco and Malaysia before losing heavily against West-Germany. You were suspended for the first two games for not cutting your side beards and marching in the opening ceremony. You considered the last game against West-Germany as some sort of a punishment.
Goalkeepers all over the world – whether it is Peter Schmeichel or Fabien Barthez – are little characters and I was a bad boy. I definitely broke curfew and was never on time in the hotel. We were the first American team to make it through the qualifying to the Olympic Games. The coach Bob Guelker was very disciplinarian. I always had long hair and long side beards. All of a sudden in Munich he told me to cut my hear. I said: “You are crazy, why do I have to cut my hair?” I got into a fight with him. He added that the opening parade was not for us due to our first game. I didn´t care what he said, cut my hair and marched in the opening parade. He suspended me for the first two games. The final game was in Munich at the Olympic stadium in front of 70,000 fans. West-Germany were basically Bayern Munich as professionals were allowed to play. It was a punishment, but I was glad to play at the Olympics. I gave up seven goals and broke my nose against Uli Hoeness with a shot three minutes into the game. It was the best moment of my life before a few days later terrorists attacked the Olympic village.
The Munich Massacre was surreal. It changed your perspective on the Olympic Games.
It is hard to put it into words – horrendous and catastrophic. I am Jewish. I had played the game against West-Germany three days earlier. At four o’clock in the morning there was a knock on my door and I opened it to two German soldiers with machine guns- the US building was directly across from the Israeli compound, about 30 yards away. From my window you could look into the Israeli building. I was horrified when I opened the door and they explained that there was an attack on the village. They were not sure whether it was contained to one area and they were taking all the Jewish athletes from the American team and putting us in protective custody .When we were released, the village was a scene out of a horror movie – the terrorists with the masks were visible from the sidewalk. Avery Brundage said that the Games must go on, while the terrorists were holding the Israelis hostage.
What did you think about the Games continuing?
It was a travesty for a lot athletes and friends. It was an outrage, it was Avery Brundage at his worst – nothing should interfere with his Games. Those athletes had already been killed. It was a time of chaos and great turmoil in the village: there were fist fights and I fought with a Russian athlete, who was walking next to where the hostages were being held and he was laughing and joking. For the Games to go on at that moment was insane. But it was a different world in terms of security and terrorism back then. The terrorists, who attacked the village, mimicked what we did two weeks before. We used to go into Munich at night and drink beer. There was one main gate and the guards knew us and we would be wearing our track suits. We hopped over the fence and waved to the guards so that we didn´t get caught by the coaches. That is how the terrorists entered the compound. They put sweat suits on and mimicked what all the athletes did most nights in Munich. It was the first time the horror of terrorism and sports interceded. I grew up as a young boy dreaming of playing at the Olympics and they turned into horror.
You returned to the US and went to play for the New York Cosmos, at the time not a well-known club. After three days of training coach Gordon Bradley offered you a contract in a Burger King…
I tried out at Hofstra, the very same stadium where the Cosmos now play. I was very good. Gordon Bradley said after practice on the third day to come and meet him at the Burger King outside the stadium on Hempstead Turnpike. Gordon got a cheeseburger and a coke, and bought me a cheeseburger and French fries. He offered me a contract of $2300 a year. I was smart and from Harvard. Having figured out negotiating, I told him I would think about it. Gordon looked up at me, took a bite out of his cheeseburger and said that he couldn´t care less. That was my first year at the New York Cosmos.
You were living the dream, but what was it like at the New York Cosmos? There is the Cosmos before and after Pelé. You must have been feeling like pioneers, spreading the beautiful game on American soil?
There are only two players who played before Pelé and with him: Werner Roth and me. Before Pelé the Cosmos were a wild bunch of different players from different countries: great and tall striker Randy Horton from Bermuda, Josef Jelinek from Czechoslovakia, Americans Werner Roth and Siegfried Stritzl, Malcolm Dawes from England. It was about spreading the word – going to schools and the community, putting up clinics. The Cosmos showed New York and the US the game we loved. It was the time of our lives as there was no pressure: 1500 to 2000 spectators at the game and no scrutiny from the media. It was the best of two worlds: paid and professional soccer with parties at night and no pressure. It was turned upside down the day I woke up and read in the New York Times that Pelé was on our team. That is like a bunch of bad loose bears waking up and finding that the greatest player in the world is on the team.
You were the most famous Cosmos player before Pelé ´s arrival – from the moment when Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton called you and got you to do a semi-nude photo shoot at Viva Magazine.
Pelé still teases me about it. The Cosmos were a bunch of fun-loving and hardworking players, who didn´t make a lot of money. My friend Jim Bouton called me and said that the Viva Magazine wanted to do a nude photo shoot. They paid $5000. Bob Leseffer was the photographer and I walked into her apartment. She said: “Stand Up and take your clothes off.” I didn´t think I would get in trouble – nobody would see or read the magazine. I was teaching part-time at a high school and playing for the Cosmos. One month later at my high school all of the fifteen and sixteen old year girls all of a sudden went racing out of school to buy this magazine. The girls all came back screaming, ran to the bathroom and locked the door. The next thing I knew the principal fired me. Then I went to the locker room and coach Gordon went crazy. I was put on waivers by the Cosmos. General Manager Clive Toye said I violated a moral clause in the contract. What was he talking about? He told me the Cosmos were trying to get exposure in New York and I got the Cosmos more exposure in one magazine than they had gotten in a whole year. But he fired me. My father was a lawyer and we ended up suing him and won. He wrote me a note that I will never forget – I still have it framed. It said: “Dear Shep, this is the most amicable lawsuit I have had in my life and if I ever sign Pelé I will make sure his father is not lawyer.” This was two years before Pelé was signed. Obviously Clive Toye was already in pursuit of Pelé. Yes, I became famous but not for the same reason as Pelé.
When you were at the Boston Minutemen and you picked up that New York Times, you must have been thinking – Damn it, I could have played with Pelé.
I was known as a bad boy and I hitchhiked to Boston. Hubert Vogelsinger had coached at Yale and I played against him with Harvard. He gave me a chance and signed me at Boston. I was the best goalkeeper in the league that year. I was on the top of my game, had redemption but to pick up the newspaper to see that Pelé signed for the Cosmos made me sick to my stomach. How was this possible? I simply had blown my chance. Life goes in funny ways and Boston played against the Cosmos twice that year, first in Boston and then at the Yankee stadium. I stopped Pelé four or five times at Yankee stadium. Games were decided by a shootout and Pelé took the final penalty kick. I dove to my left, got the fingertips of my right hand on the ball and pushed it off the crossbar. Boston won. Pelé will tell you that I never got a touch to the ball and that he just missed. After the game we hugged and exchanged jerseys. Two weeks later Bob Rigby broke a collar bone and Pele wanted that American goalkeeper in Boston. I got the phone call I thought I´d never get again – from Clive Toye and Gordon Bradley. They wanted me back. Pelé told me later that he had some type of unwritten code in his contract to sort of handpick the team as the Cosmos grew.
You had Carlos Alberto Torres, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia and Pelé in front of you at the Cosmos. That was definitely the end of the Stone Age in American soccer?
It was not only the end of the Stone Age, but also the start of the golden times. What happened to American soccer in general in the seventies was due to the Cosmos: first came Pelé, then Chinaglia, then Franz Beckenbauer and then the last piece Carlos Alberto. In that very short period of two years the Cosmos went from 15,000 to 20,000 fans to 70,000 fans. More importantly, the Cosmos went to the back page of the New York Post and the front page of Sports Illustrated. All of a sudden soccer was not only known, but soccer was in and cool. It was a revolution in American sports and entertainment. It was lightening in a bottle : the Cosmos captured the imagination of New York, the US and the world. We were the Galacticos before Real Madrid, the American rock stars of sports.
How were the dynamics between those Galacticos -Pelé Chinaglia, Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto -on the field?
Everybody loves Pelé! How can you not love Pelé , except for Chinaglia?! He was the jealous and temperamental striker from Lazio and he wanted Pelé to move away so he could score the goals. He was Tony Soprano. At the end [of the shoot] of the movie [Once in a Lifetime – The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos], we all were at the back of a theatre and Giorgio Chinaglia at that time of his life looked like Tony Soprano -balding, heavier and a cigarette in his mouth. The producers and directors were afraid that Chinaglia wouldn´t like how he was depicted. Chinaglia stood up, took a drag of his cigarette and clapped his hands. He loved being Tony Soprano. Chinaglia was volatile: he´d fight with the ushers, the fans and Pelé. Behind closed doors, in the locker room, Chinaglia and the others were a great bunch of players. Franz Beckenbauer said it the best: “I´ve done everything in my life – championships for Bayern Munich and the world cup for Germany – but the New York Cosmos was the best time of my life. At Munich it were all German players; at the Cosmos it was fourteen nationalities and Pelé.” For Franz Beckenbauer to say that, is pretty unbelievable.
You were the rock stars, partying at Studio 54 and hanging out with the likes of Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger. Did the Cosmos exemplify the positive hedonism of the time?
Yes, the Cosmos were rock stars. This was the late seventies in New York. The music clubs, the swinger clubs and the orgies. Great memories.
Did you make Franz Beckenbauer smoke his first cigarette?
Franz Beckenbauer had very curly hair. At home he would comb it straight back, but I had an Afro. One day Franz and I were walking down Fifth Avenue and he asked where I got my haircut?! No one in New York knew who he was and I told him to come along to my barber in Greenwich Village, where the hippies were. For the first time in his life he walked out of a barber shop with curly hair. I was smoking a cigarette at that moment and it looked like he wanted one. I said: “Franz, nobody knows who you are. You can have a cigarette.” We walked down the Village with Franz puffing his cigarette and having the time of his life.
Pick one game that represented the team spirit and symbolized the way the name of the Cosmos resonated around the US and the world.
I pick two games. The last professional game of Pelé ´s competitive career. It was the last year of his contract and for all the parties and the good times, there was pressure. World class players felt the responsibility to send Pelé off as a champion. In the locker room before the Soccer Bowl , the final game against Seattle out in Portland, there were a lot of nerves from Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Chinaglia. Pelé was quiet. We huddled up – how can you not win a championship for Pelé in his last game? That game was electric and dramatic. The Cosmos got the first goal, they tied. It was a packed house and the pressure to win the game was weighing on us. Chinaglia got the winner. Pelé was in tears at the end of the game. It was sheer joy for all of us – if we hadn´t won that game for Pelé to let him go out as a champion, we could never have looked in the mirror again for the rest of our lives. The second game was very different. His farewell game, an exhibition game against his only other club, Santos, at the Giants stadium. Pelé played half the game for the Cosmos and half the game for Santos. That was a world event – the impact of the Cosmos on New York and the World: 77,000 fans in the pouring rain, televised around the world and Mohammed Ali, Kissinger, Mick Jagger and Pelé ´s father in the midfield during the ceremony before the game. Pelé was in tears and he took the microphone, and said: “Thank you New York, thank you America and please repeat after me – Love the children, love the children, love the children.” That was Pelé ´s final game. When the game ended, Erol Yasin, the other goalkeeper, and I just instinctively picked up Pelé on our shoulders. The rest of the New York Cosmos and Santos teams paraded Pelé in a victory lap around the stadium as 77,000 fans cheered and cried.
Pelé was the protagonist in those two games. While at the Cosmos he was no longer at his peak, but still very formidable. Was he the perfect soccer player?
I agree. Maradona and Messi are not comparable with Pelé. He did it longer and more consistently. If Messi does it for another ten years, he may be in the conversation. Pelé had the soccer brain, the explosive power of Maradona, the skills with the ball of George Best, the dribbling ability in five different gears, the leaping ability and the vision in terms of passing the ball. Pelé was a superhuman player – they tested him in Brazil: : physiologically he was off the charts. He had a vertical leap higher than Michael Jordan – 48 inches [Michael Jordan´s vertical leap is actually 48 inches as well], he had a peripheral vision of about 220 degrees. Pelé could literally see in behind his head. As an athlete he was a physiological freak, as a competitor there was no one more competitive.
Why did it not work out for the Cosmos after Pelé?
That´s the same answer as to why it should work out for the new Cosmos. Those Cosmos many years ago really transcended the sport in the US. There were no twenty million kids playing soccer; there was no youth soccer in the seventies in the US. The Cosmos were a phenomena , but, like a satellite or a meteorite, the Cosmos had a burn out. Soccer was not popular. Studio 54, Pelé, Beckenbauer and the Cosmos became a fairytale that captured the imagination of the country. Once Pelé retired and Beckenbauer was gone, the Cosmos and the NASL went down. In 2013 these New York Cosmos are looking at a different landscape: soccer is big in the US with a world cup team and television. It is hard in the US to have a history like the New York Cosmos. Nobody has that. In the US the Cosmos are still the team that everybody knows.
After the home game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies you noted some similarities between the old and the new Cosmos. You highlighted Marcos Senna as a player who can decide the game in a “nanosecond” like Pelé and Chinaglia did. You praised the fighting spirit and never-die attitude. Is this shadow of the past not a problem for the New Cosmos? It will always be about Pelé, Beckenbauer and the golden seventies.
I look differently at it: I grew up in The Bronx, a hundred yards from Yankee stadium, iconic in the US. When I was a kid and sneaked over the fence, there were monuments in the centre field. Every year the New York Yankees have to live up to the great past that they have, but they continue to do it. The message for these New York Cosmos is to be proud of the history and the legacy of the club, but not to be burdened and create a platform to form their own identity. The New York Yankees always remember their legends, but it hasn´t stopped them from winning 27 World Series Championships. These New York Cosmos should always remember Pelé, Carlos Alberto, Beckenbauer and Shep Messing, but shouldn´t be burdened by the legends. Rather they should be spirited by their history. The Cosmos came back against Tampa Bay with a very dramatic win. They won without Pelé and Beckenbauer.
Goalkeeper Kyle Reynish was caught in no-man´s-land twice against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. In which way has the art of goalkeeping changed over the years?
The nature of the goalkeeper´s position always changes, but it always comes back to basics. There was a generation where England had the best goalkeepers, then it was the Eastern Block with Poland and Russia. There was a time when the Premier League preferred taller goalkeepers – six foot four like van der Sar and Schmeichel , but in the end it always about the basics. You have to be tough, smart and aggressive. A goalkeeper today has to be better with his feet. The difference between two even teams is the goalkeeper. Kyle Reynish bounced back from a very poor first half with two mistakes. Most of all a goalkeeper has to have a very short memory and he made two good saves in the second half that preserved the victory for the Cosmos. That earns you credit.
How do you assess the season so far?
All coaches had a head start on Giovanni Savarese, who started in the second half of the split season. He has done a remarkable job. There were defensive and offensive problems at the start of the season, but game by game there has been improvement. This Cosmos is growing. Will it be the same team next year? The best players will stay and reinforcements will come. But the immediate success this season is very unexpected. The Cosmos are on a path to the Soccer Bowl. Marcos Senna is the linchpin in the midfield. Some help up top is needed – Nuno Gomes would be unbelievable.
The old Cosmos fell apart as there was no business model to keep them sustainable in the early eighties. New York now has the New York Red Bulls in New Jersey, the newly launched New York City FC, backed by the New York Yankees and Manchester City, and the New York Cosmos. Problematic in a sense that three soccer clubs in the metropolitan area of New York are economically not viable?
There simply can´t be enough quality soccer in New York. The population of the Tri State area is probably about twelve million. Soccer should be the biggest sport in the metropolitan area and can easily have three clubs. London has twelve. I think New Yorkers are sophisticated soccer fans. If the Red Bulls, the New York Cosmos and Manchester City provide quality soccer, there will be more than enough fans to support three clubs. The Cosmos are doing it the right way. They are not concerned with the MLS or another club. The Cosmos are focused on building their own soccer club. When you look at the Tri State area, Belmont is an ideal location for the Cosmos [in the future]. There are a million fans on Long Island, there is Queens and Brooklyn. For the Red Bulls New Jersey is their market and for Manchester City – who knows where they end up playing?
Last question: what is the craziest thing Shep Messing ever did during his soccer career?
Goalkeepers are quirky and superstitious and they are not above cheating when they have to. In every game I ever played, including the championship game against Seattle in Portland, I carried in my goalkeeper shorts a large – maybe three inch – safety pin. I would have that safety pin pinned to the band of the inside of my shorts. On a corner kick – if there was traffic in front of the goal – I would take the safety pin out and stab the opposition with it to get room for myself. Mike England, who had played for Wales, was giving me a rough time and I stabbed him in the back of the hip near the 80th minute. He never came close to me again. The referee would never see it. One little jab of the pin and back into my shorts. You do what you have to do to win the game!