Publicity stunt it might well be but Eric Cantona’s signature with the once defunct New York Cosmos certainly caught the headlines today. The club unveiled the 44-year-old former Manchester United striker as its new Director of Soccer, with, “overall responsibility for all soccer-related matters, including the proposed first team.”
It is of course a telling line – proposed first team – as the Cosmos has neither a ground, coach, team nor any fixtures to play. Re-formed in 2010, the club is a revival of the original New York Cosmos, which played in the North American Soccer League from 1971 to 1984.
Little more than a branding exercise until the ‘franchise’ – in the awful American parlance – is potentially granted a 20th MSL license in 2013, the Cosmos has built much of the club’s internal structure anyway.
Save for a team that is.
But in one sense the vision is a romantic one. The club of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and former Manchester City ‘star’ Dennis Tueart, naturally appeals to Cantona’s maudlin tendencies.
“I am very honored to join the legendary club New York Cosmos. It’s a big project, a wonderful project,” said Cantona, who scored 82 goals in 185 games for United.
“The Cosmos are very strong, beautifully made, with a great past. It’s kind of a mix between football and art.
“In addition to my artistic engagements, I will do everything that I can to help us first find our way to regain the number one position in the United States, and then for us to become one of the best clubs in the world over the coming years.”
Whether that dream is fulfilled depends heavily on entrance to the MLS, a closed shop with neither promotion, nor relegation. It is expensive too, entailing a deposit of $10 million, a license fee of around $75 million and proven funds to build a new stadium in the New York metro area.
It’s a dream that has more than a hint of reality though after a season in which TV viewing figures for the MLS Cup Final fell sharply. After more than a decade of progress, the competition needs another big market team to follow Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps for the 2011 season, plus the introduction of Montreal Impact in 2012.
“The focus is firmly on New York for the 20th MLS team,” Dan Courtemanche, MLS vice-president, told the Telegraph.
“There are multiple potential ownership groups and the New York Cosmos is one of those groups.
“But even if the Cosmos were to break ground on a new stadium tomorrow the 20th team is likely to be three to five years down the road, though.”
The New York Cosmos could well provide the impetus the MLS needs though, with plans for a stadium in Flushing, Queens well advanced providing finance can be raised.
The ‘franchise’ owner, Paul Kemsley, who effectively bought rights to build a club with the Cosmos’ name for $2 million, is upbeat too, claiming stellar names on the club’s executive management.
In addition to Cantona, Pelé is Honorary President and former Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry a Board Director.
“Three years ago, when I first had the idea of reviving The New York Cosmos, I couldn’t have dreamt that we’d be able to attract an icon the likes of Eric Cantona,” said Kemsley, Chairman of the New York Cosmos.
“He was one of my heroes during the 1990’s and is a further endorsement to the tremendous global attraction and power that The New York Cosmos carries. Our name already resonates throughout the world.”
Empty words without a team or playing field of course but the celebrity pull of the Cosmos, who played in front of more than 50,000 in its 1970s heyday, is still strong.
For Cantona’s part it seems unlikely that the new role is a day-to-day post, rather another celebrity name to add credibility to the project.
Even so, anything that brings the great Frenchman back into the football world is a boon. After all, beach football is no substitute for the real thing, even if the former Leeds United, Auxere and Marseille player coached the French national team to a modicum of success in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup between 2006 and 2008.
Turning his back on the 11-a-side game barely past his prime, Cantona instead found solace, if not fame, in acting. He appeared in, among others, Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett, and in Ken Loach’s brilliant Palme D’or nominated film Looking for Eric.
In recent years Cantona has also become more politically active, calling for a banking revolution and encouraging customers of the major banks to withdraw their money on 7 December 2010 in protest at the global financial crisis.
But it is the game that brought Eric to the fans and to the game he belongs. New York is simply the latest beneficiary.
The king, it seems, is no longer dead.