After Missed Opportunity, Cosmos Get Second Shot at Cuba

Carlos Mendes
New York Cosmos Captain Carlos Mendes. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Cosmos)

Clive Toye was overseeing his North American Soccer League club’s training in Haiti in the spring of 1978 when the reply he had been anticipating for months finally came.

It was the Cubans inviting Toye and his club for an exhibition game—or “friendly,” in soccer lingo—to the Caribbean island nation resting 90 miles south of the Florida coast. At the time, Cuba was 16 years into a crushing embargo imposed by the United States under President John F. Kennedy, and the NASL was only a decade into its existence. Toye, whose new book “Anywhere in the World” documents the global growth of soccer, had also just recently left his native Britain where he had a burgeoning career as an accomplished soccer writer for the preeminent newspaper at the time, the Daily Express, for a fresh start in the states.

But the invitation was bittersweet.

Several months earlier, Toye had communicated with the Cubans his desire to stage a match between the Cuban national team and the New York Cosmos. But when the reply finally came, Toye had already resigned from the renowned New York club that featured Brazilian superstar Pelé and had taken up the same position with the Chicago Sting. The Cubans’ delayed response came too late for the Cosmos, which years earlier had played high-profile matches against China and Russia, inspiring comical Cold War headlines like “The Russians are Coming!”

Toye, appreciative of the gesture but unsure of what his new role would mean for the prospects for the trip, informed his counterparts in Havana of his recent move to the Windy City. To Toye’s surprise, the Cubans were equally enthusiastic about a Cuba-Sting matchup, mostly out of respect to Toye, who’d made the original inquiry on behalf of the Cosmos.

“I would do anything that was legal to attract attention to soccer,” Toye told the Press in a phone interview the same day that several top officials of FIFA, soccer’s governing body that oversees the World Cup, were arrested in Zurich, Switzerland, and charged with corruption.

Ever the quick thinker, Toye rented a World War II plane known as the “Dakota” and within days, the club was traveling to Havana via Port-au-Prince in Haiti, the beginning of a whirlwind journey that included amicable conversations over Cuban cigars minutes after landing there and punctuated by an unmemorable soccer match that Toye concedes today wasn’t particularly attractive on the eyes. (The Sting lost 2-0.)

“I don’t know how I did it,” recalled Toye, now 82, and residing in Florida.

David Kilpatrick, the Cosmo’s official club historian, said making soccer relevant to New York City at the time was “no small challenge,” but he credits Toye with building the club’s brand.

The Cosmos, he added, “of course accomplished that, but along the way they did so by very much leveraging their representation of New York with trips overseas.”

The seemingly long-shot Cuba inquiry, like many of the other intrepid marketing maneuvers Toye pursued as part of his herculean mission to promote the NASL, and the game in general to a skeptical American sports audience, proved effective. It prompted an abundance of news articles—more so than any one ordinary game could generate, he said.

“It really could’ve been and should’ve been the Cosmos” playing in Cuba, lamented Kilpatrick. “And had Toye stayed with the club beyond ’77, it would’ve been.”

Clive Toye and Pelé
Former New York Cosmos president Clive Toye with soccer legend Pelé. (Handout/Clive Toye)

As luck would have it, nearly 40 years after the Sting’s trip to Cuba, the Long Island-based Cosmos are heading to Cuba Tuesday for an international friendly against the Cuban national team, but under tremendously different circumstances.

President Barack Obama announced last December a thaw in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Since then, officials, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have visited Cuba seeking potential business ventures, especially in telecommunications—an area in which Cuba is extremely lacking—and the popular rental site Airbnb announced listings in the under-developed island, perhaps betting on a flood of curious travelers eager to witness life in the closed-off country, once considered a boogeyman. Cuba had been on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1982, but last week the Obama administration removed the country from the list, with the only remaining countries being Iran, Sudan and Syria.

The Cosmos, which play their home games at Hofstra University‘s James M. Shuart Stadium but are hoping to one day build a stadium to call their own, will become the first professional sports team in the US to visit Cuba since the two countries agreed to revive diplomatic ties. The last US-based sports team to make the historic trek to Cuba was Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles in 1999.

Asked what his first reaction was when the news was announced in March that the Cosmos would be traveling to Cuba, Toye joked: “It was a little late.”

“I’m just sorry they didn’t invite me so I can get more Cuban cigars,” he quipped before admitting that he gave up smoking three years ago.

For the Cosmos, the voyage to Cuba has generated a deluge of press coverage—exactly what Toye had in mind four decades earlier.

Although it’s a business trip, some members of the squad understand the importance of the game, considering the dramatic political changes slowly taking shape.

“To travel to a place that not many people have gone to—and not many people know about—makes it extra-special,” Cosmos captain and Mineola native Carlos Mendes said inside the club’s practice facility at Mitchel Field shortly after the trip was announced. “The first thing you concentrate on is the game and the match-up, but at the same time that’s a big bonus to have that opportunity to travel to a place that not many people haven’t.”

Traveling to faraway lands is almost as customary to the Cosmos as the US men’s and women’s national team hopping from one foreign country to the next. The Cuban match-up will mark the 42nd time the club has competed in an international friendly, according to Kilpatrick, the team historian. The globetrotting club has racked up tons of mileage since its inception in 1971, journeying to Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East.

The trip also comes during a time of heightened awareness in the US regarding the sport. A poll conducted by Harris Interactive in January found that soccer is now the fifth most popular sport in the US, tied with basketball and hockey, but still light years behind pro football, far and away the country’s most beloved sport. However, soccer has made considerable strides over the last several years. The game increased in popularity by 4 percent, from 2013 to 2014, while professional football and college football dropped 3 percent and 1 percent, respectively, the poll found.

But the poll did not measure Major League Soccer or the North American Soccer League’s support in the US, only the game itself, which has dozens of leagues around the world, such as England’s Premiere League and Spain’s La Liga, both of which can be seen on cable in the US and feature star-studded clubs with a dearth of international talent.

Still, as the growing support for the US men’s international team during last summer’s World Cup showed, the game is on the rise.

“There’s a lot of great high-quality soccer out there for the American viewer,” said Kilpatrick, a lifelong Cosmos fan and former member of the Cosmos Kickers’ Youth Fan Club.

As for the much-anticipated match-up between the former blacklisted country’s international squad, the conversations that led to such a historic decision could essentially be traced back to Toye and the path he paved by turning the Cosmos into an internationally recognized club.

It was in January when Cosmos head coach and sporting director Giovanni Savarese approached the president of the Cuban national federation during a trip to Jamaica and inquired about a friendly between the two squads.

“At the beginning, he said, ‘Okay, let’s talk about it,’” Savarese recalled at a Manhattan press conference announcing the match.

“Where are you coming from?” he recalled the Cuban sports official asking him. “I said New York, and we are the New York Cosmos. His eyes opened up, and he said, ‘We would love to play with the New York Cosmos. We would love to have you here.’”

Just mentioning the Cosmos name evokes nostalgic memories among the club’s many admirers.

“The more you get talking to people about the Cosmos, especially when you leave the country, people will come up and talk about experiences seeing them,” said Kilpatrick.

While he was visiting England last summer, Kilpatrick said he was approached by several people who recalled the Cosmos trip to India in 1977. Those games meant a lot, they told him. He recalled a separate conversation he had with a sports writer from Australia regarding the Cosmos, which caused the reporter to genuflect before him.

“For us, it’s great after so many years that we’re the ones chosen to participate and connect people,” Savarese told the Press in an interview. “It’s exciting to be the club going there, but it’s not coincidence why this happened, because right away when we mentioned we’re the New York Cosmos they wanted to make sure that it happened. For us to be there, for soccer to be the sport to bring back the two countries in this particular event, it’s exciting. We feel privileged as a club to participate.”

Clive Toye smoking a cigar with Brazilian soccer superstar Pelé in the background. (Handout/Clive Toye)
Clive Toye smoking a cigar with Brazilian soccer superstar Pelé in the background. (Handout/Clive Toye)

The trip may give Savarese the opportunity to dispel a characterization of the Cosmos that still gnaws at him. People often mistake their globetrotting ways with an exhibition team like the Harlem Globetrotters, he said. The Cosmos are a professional club in a professional league, developing young talent and vying for championships. He’d like that message to stick.

“We always go to these places but we go with a soccer mind,” he said. “To be able to play good matches, to prepare against the Cuba national team for the Gold Cup, for us to be able to play a match, it’s going to keep the team ready to continue playing the season. If it doesn’t make sense soccer-wise, we’re not going to try to make it happen.

“We want to be a respected soccer club, football club, as we’ve been in the past,” the head coach added. “And we’re making every effort to make sure that we maintain that in our mind: that we are a soccer organization before anything else.”

The historic outing in Cuba could help dispel that perception, and it may create the perfect opportunity for the Cosmos to continue the ambitious mission that Toye engineered four decades ago.

UPDATE: The Cosmos defeated the Cuban national team 4-1.

FULL TIME: #NYCosmos 4, Cuban National Team 1. Lucky Mkosana, Seba Guenzatti and Hagop Chirishian with the goals for…

Posted by New York Cosmos on Tuesday, June 2, 2015