New York Cosmos CEO Carl Johnson reveals why new Director of Football Eric Cantona will help them crack America.
“I am very honoured to join the legendary New York Cosmos. It’s a big project, a wonderful project. The Cosmos are very strong, beautifully made, with a great past. It’s kind of a mix between football and art.”
And with that characteristically elegant statement, the King was back in the game. Eric Cantona, formerly of Manchester United and Leeds United, perhaps the most charismatic player ever to grace a football pitch was unveiled as the Director of Football for the New York Cosmos.
The Cantona announcement is the start of an ambitious bid by three Brits, former Tottenham vice-chairman Paul Kemsley, Beckham’s former manager Terry Byrne and Carl Johnson to to make football really matter to Americans. The Beckham experiment at LA Galaxy may have sold a few shirts and gossip magazines in the states but the team failed to win silverware and nobody’s going to worship losers.
The announcement, which came close on the heels of the news that Pele was to be the club’s President stunned a football world which had assumed that when the Frenchman left Man Utd for Hollywood, the transfer was permanent. The Cosmos may be yet to build a stadium, recruit a manager or even employ any players but if there’s one thing it has in spades, it’s our attention.
“Kids love it and the national team is getting better but there’s no Manchester United of the MLS. The New York Cosmos could be that domestic powerhouse.”
Who will be next, every football fan across the planet is now asking. Maradona as manager? Cruyff as assistant coach? Maldini and Romario as ball boys? This is a living fantasy football and the man living it is New York Cosmos CEO Carl Johnston. The 42 year old Londoner grew up supporting Tottenham – “I saw Martin Peters make his debut in the Seventies”, he says, visibly still thrilled about the experience of witnessing his footballing heroes. Now he is signing them.
Despite the years Cantona has spent out of professional football, appointing Cantona for Johnson was a no-brainer. “A legendary visionary like him will have a tremendous number of opinions and beliefs. He was a phenomenal player, so how can you not get emotionally engaged at the prospect of working with someone like him.”
Spotting legendary visionaries isn’t a problem for Johnson. As head of New York and London based marketing agency Anomaly – named in 2008 as #24 in the “World’s Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company magazine – he has pioneered an entirely new approach to his business. Rather than just create brands for clients, they prefer to build the products from scratch themselves. “We would rather invent the next VitaminWater than do the ads for VitaminWater,” he explains.
The Cosmos experiment began a year ago when former Tottenham vice-chairman Paul Kemsley bought the rights to the club from former general manager Peppe Pinton and approached Johnson whose clients already included Umbro and Manchester City Football Club.
Instead of being paid a fee for marketing the Cosmos brand, Johnson has taken a share of the club – a business model he calls “skin in the game”. “Sometimes professional companies get paid whether it succeeds of it fails,” he explains. “When you do it this way you could end up with nothing or you could end up doing well but either way you are absolutely committed. Your skin is on the line. This way means it fucking matters.”
The Cosmos may be yet to build a stadium, recruit a manager or even employ any players but if there’s one thing it has in spades, it’s our attention.
So what next for Johnson, Cantona and the Cosmos? Unable to join the MLS until 2013 because the Red Bulls franchise in New Jersey has exclusive rights to the region for another two years, the club has big plans for this summer. A series of ‘Inspiration’ games are planned. These, Johnson bills as ultra-competitive exhibitions games in which two teams of global superstars will play alongside and against players from the Cosmos’s budding youth set-up. By 2013, the Cosmos hope to be ensconced in a 30-40,000 capacity stadium in Queens and will then be ready to take on America.
“The really big win will be if we break football through its current fan base in the US. Kids love it and the national team is getting better but there’s no Manchester United of the MLS,” says Johnson. “The New York Cosmos could be that domestic powerhouse.”
The New York Cosmos, after all, does have a history of success. They were five-time champions of the North American Soccer League in a 10-year period between 1972 and 1982 before the competition folded in 1985. Cantona, too, is not the type to settle for anything less than victory. “I will do everything that I can to help the New York Cosmos 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,” the Premier League legend told the press on his appointment.
Ultimately for Johnson, Cantona and The Cosmos, mere silverware is not enough though. “In order to continue the path the original Cosmos set out, we aim to be bigger than just a team, we want a place in popular culture, in media, in entertainment, in celebrity and in fashion. The goal is to make a real dent on the culture of the United States.”
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