Tomorrow is Pele’s birthday — or maybe it was yesterday. Depends on where you fact check.
It’s a bit like football’s Christmas Day — we’re unsure of the first time it happened — but it seems to be generally understood that Pele will turn 74 tomorrow and he’ll be celebrated once more as an idol and a relic.
The New York Cosmos will mark their ties to him this Saturday evening in Long Island during the last home game of their regular season.
It will round off a big week for the North American Soccer League outfit after Monday’s eyebrow-raising capture of Raul’s signature.
The former Real Madrid and Spain goal machine is of course well past playing at the top level but once he eventually lines out for the Cosmos at the beginning of next season, he will be a handy addition to their line-up, considering the level of football they play at.
It’s worth recalling the playing legacy he will bring to the US: 16 years at Madrid until 2010 — six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues; 102 caps for Spain and 44 international goals.
More intrinsic to this new phase of Raul’s life, however, will be the youth coaching duties worked into his contract.
Reportedly, Real Madrid were keen to get him back there as a technical director but the Cosmos somehow managed to turn his head, which once again says a lot about their outsized ambitions.
That sounds cynical, so it should be said for the purposes of balance that there is a lot about what the club does now which is highly impressive. After some big talk to herald their return to professional football, they have modified their tactics in orderto ensure a sustainable level of growth.
They seem contented to get it right in the North American Soccer League and not get distracted by winning the 2013 title in their first season back in action.
The NASL is essentially the second tier of soccer in the US but seems to be momentarily marooned, a lack of any promotion-relegation relationship with Major League Soccer keeping the Cosmos and their cohorts away from the top table.
The joint initiative between Manchester City and the New York Yankees which spawned New York City — their debut also coming in 2015 — was a setback for the Cosmos, who at one point held pressing ambitions to be accepted in the MLS, in spite of the historical loyalties to the NASL, the heyday of which was defined by Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and several more big names.
It’s no accident that the state of New York will soon be home to the two most prolific Spanish scorers of all time, David Villa and Raul occupying the two top spots in their national team’s scoring charts.
The Hispanic population in the city and its surrounding suburbs has been constantly growing for half a century.
Increasingly, La Liga is church for any young Latino male and successful Spanish footballers are box office.
But where to from here and how much is Major League Soccer feeling the heat?
There was a verbal scuffle last week between Jurgen Klinsmann and MLS chief Don Garber, who was miffed at Klinsmann’s very understandable concerns that Clint Dempsey moving to Seattle would harm his ability to compete at international level.
This conclusion by the US coach was “incredibly detrimental” to the efforts of the MLS, according to Garber, his barbed response exposing an insecurity that’s only natural in a still burgeoning league.
The sheer size of the US means top level sports has always had to wing it to an extent.
Last night, the World Series began in Kansas but professional baseball pre-dates this world famous concept by almost half a century.
The World Series pits the winners of the more ancient National League against the winners of the American League, a body that was seen as overly ambitious upstarts at the end of the 19th century.
Maybe soccer will go the same way if its popularity continues to grow. And maybe Major League Soccer will one day have to coexist with other divisions or leagues in order to cope with the demand.
The League of Ireland probably won’t ever have that same problem but Friday will be a day toremember.
Sadly I won’t make it to Oriel Park but there will be a gathering of Cork City fans at Mr Dennehy’s in Manhattan’s West Village.
If you’re in the area, drop by. Even if you’re a Lilywhite.
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