‘Pele changed everything’: Werner Roth tells the story of the NY Cosmos

Rich Laverty

There are few people in the world who can say they played with Pele, there are even fewer who can say they acted with him in one of the most popular football films ever.

Yugoslav-born American Werner Roth is one of a very exclusive club. Now 73, the former USA international resides in Los Angeles, but in the 1970s he captained the New York Cosmos, with all its glitz and glamour, to two NASL Championships in a side which included not only the Brazilian legend but the likes of Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer.

Roth admits he could barely have imagined what the Cosmos would become when he was one of the first players to sign up for the new franchise, never mind when he first arrived in the US after World War II.

“In Yugoslavia, everyone played soccer,” says the former defender. “If you had a ball, you played, and if you didn’t have a ball you found a kid who had a ball.”

After initially living in Germany for a couple of years, Roth and his family settled in the Queens neighbourhood of Ridgewood.

“Soccer had been played for over 100 years in these communities. Very few Americans played, but there were all sorts of different ethnicities. The sport only had cultural significance to the ethnics and immigrants that populated America, but no significance to Americans themselves.”

Before living out his heydays with the Cosmos, Roth played semi-pro in the German American Soccer League, which had run in New York since 1923.

“It was started by a bunch of German knitting bosses,” he recalls. “They came over from Europe and operated knitting mills and were very supportive of soccer. They were a big reason why so many Eastern European immigrants came here, they wanted to bring over some of their culture.

“Very few leagues had real pitches, but we did, you could get a few thousand spectators. We played against Italian-Americans, Romanian-New Yorkers, Greek-Americans, literally every nationality, but very few Americans.”

He adds: “They would bring players in, give them jobs, but get them to play for their club on the side. We got paid a little bit, it was semi-pro, but it was out of this ethnic community the original Cosmos was built.”

The league was more commonly known as Cosmopolitan Soccer League, where the Cosmos name came from, and the first team was made up primarily of players from the league, including Roth. Despite only surviving from 1970 until 1985, it went on to become one of the best-known soccer franchises of all-time.

Former Carlisle player Gordon Bradley, who had coached the New York Ukrainians in the local area, and English football writer Clive Toye, formerly Chief Sports Writer for the Daily Express, were both heavily involved in the creation.

Toye had been General Manager for the Baltimore Bays before being employed in the same role for the new Cosmos side, while Bradley was hired as the team’s first head coach.

“A number of leagues started off the back of the 1966 World Cup,” recalls Roth. “That incredible match between England and West Germany was shown all over the US and the response the market here saw in terms of interest was enough that two professional leagues started in 1967.

“Clive came over in that initial British group in the late 60s. The leagues floundered a bit, they merged, but then everything folded. I was trying out for the Washington Whips in 1969, a friend of mine, Jorge Siega, was playing there at the time earning $10,000-$15,000 for the summer, which was huge in those days.”

But the league folded before Roth could put pen to paper and he went back to his day job, alongside college, and back to his German-Hungarian side, before Bradley rang him a year later when the Cosmos were being put together.

The Cosmos needed players, and Siega would become the first to sign for them. But their ambitions were greater.

“Gordon, Clive and Phil Woosnam [NASL Commissioner] were dispatched to Mexico for the World Cup. They went to the final, Brazil v Italy, their objective was to find a white knight.

“They do all this pitching but nobody bites, but after the final Clive had an idea, he was an idea man. He still had his old media credentials, so he made his way down to the dressing room like you could in those days and makes his way to the Brazil team and asks Pele if he’d ever consider playing in the US. Pele didn’t speak English – he probably just gave him a funny look and Clive got escorted out.”

Yet another chance meeting would set Toye and Bradley on the road to stardom later that same day.

“Clive ran into David Frost, they knew each other and David was big in the US at that time. David didn’t have the money to get involved himself but he knew someone who did, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. They were two Turkish-American football aficionados and music aficionados; their business was music but their passion was football.”

Pele's New York Cosmos debut. June 1975.

New York Cosmos’ Pele waves to the crowd before making his NASL debut. June 1975.

Frost introduced the two sides at a cocktail party in New York City and as Roth says, “These guys were on the same wavelength.” But were wary given how many previous leagues had folded.

“They asked Clive, ‘Why would this league succeed where others have failed?’ Clive replied with one word – ‘Pele’. He said they’d get him, he said he’d spoken to him and that he hadn’t said no, which wasn’t really a lie,” Roth laughs. “That got the interest of Ahmet and Nesuhi though.”

The Erteguns were executives for Atlantic Records, a part of Time Warner, and a meeting was set up with Warner to bankroll the Cosmos.

“There was a lot of luck involved, chance meetings which set up other meetings, but it fitted into Warner’s plans to make the organisation international and Clive’s idea of this dream team just slotted right into that in terms of brand recognition.

“We had no idea what it would become, who was running it. The 1971 team down to a man was from the ethnic German-Hungarian league. I’d started an architectural design job in New York City so when Gordon first called I hesitated because I didn’t know how it would end up, but I had some spare time at the end of the season so played a couple of games.”

The club showed more ambition heading into 1972 and recruited players such as Randy Horton and Josef Jelinek, and they wanted Roth to join on a permanent basis.

“My boss loved football, he was very supportive. He gave me time off to train and travel, I played the whole ’72 season and we won the Championship that year. We had a good team, again a lot of guys from our earlier league, but a lot of good friends.”

With success came more clarity of just who was running the show. Warner bosses Steve Ross, Jay Emmit and Caesar Kimmel started to make themselves known at games as the club grew and grew.

“They used to come to games, pick up our tabs after games, they loved the camaraderie,” recalls Roth fondly. “We weren’t pros then, we didn’t put up a pro posture, we loved to party together, drink beer together, travel together and hoped we could win some silverware on the way, and they liked that.

“They would show up at away games and we’d be like, ‘What are you doing here?’, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, we have a private plane.’ It was all new to us, they used to invite us to their offices and we’d just talk about music, they really bought into it. Ahmet had stacks of albums in his office. I was a big rock fan, Led Zepellin, Rolling Stones. He started inviting me down to see bands at the China Club in NYC, it was all just so unknown and unexpected.”

1973 and 1974 were below par years for the team as more internationals started to get mixed in with those who had come up from more humble beginnings, or as Roth puts it: “These guys were getting paid a lot of money and we weren’t getting paid shit.”

But it all changed in 1975.

“Pele arrived. Randal Island, where we played that season, we had 7,000 people in the stand and the Warner helicopter landed on the field and out popped Pele in his white tuxedo, followed by Steve and Jay and the Erteguns. The place went crazy.

Pele before New York Cosmos v Rochester Lancers. 1977.

Pele looks at the crowd before the New York Cosmos take on the Rochester Lancers. August 1977.

“Pele was one of these people who are rare, a rare human being, exceptional in every measure that you would measure someone. Empathy, self-deprecating, a sense of humour, turns anything he touched into gold. He’d taken a year off and maybe remembered that weird English guy chasing him around the dressing room and decided he fancied an adventure!”

Roth continues: “He put soccer on the map here without even stepping on the field. His signing got worldwide attention. You could see onto our stadium from the bridge above it and there would be thousands stood on the bridge just to watch Pele, everything just changed.

It took time because there was a significant gap between the level of Pele and the other Cosmos players, but they won back-to-back NASL Championships in 1977 and 1978, with Roth captaining the teams both years after the further additions of Carlos Alberto and Beckenbauer.

“Clive wanted the best young Americans and the worldwide stars, and to an extent it worked. It started something. George Best went to LA, Johan Cruyff to Washington, clubs were starting to emulate what we were doing but at a great loss. Everyone thought it was the answer until it came crashing down. The late 70s were the peak of the adventure for us, but it went downhill fast.”

As a German speaker, Roth became Beckenbauer’s room-mate and a good friend during their time together, but admits it wasn’t always as amazing as people may have assumed from the outside.

“That stardom can fade quick when you work together,” he says. “Pele, Carlos and Franz were such normal personalities, the idolisation wears off quickly and you have a job to do, we wanted to win. Getting to know them was fun, but it was the same as getting to know Bobby Smith or Tony Field.

“Franz was great though. After games we’d take a whirlpool together and talk about the game. The dressing room was always crazy after a game so we’d spend half an hour in there just relaxing. One game, Ahmet comes in and says to Franz, ‘Henry Kissinger is outside and wants to see you’, so Ahmet brings him in. Here we are, two naked guys in a whirlpool and the first thing Henry says is, ‘Gentleman, do not get up!’

“But you get used to that, you get bored quickly because it becomes so normal. Everyone has their own lives, you go back to your own country with your family and you lose touch.”

Roth suffered a serious knee injury in 1979 and didn’t play again, while the Cosmos would fold as the league imploded in the mid-1980s.

Roth was working for the International Special Olympics Association when another chance opportunity came up which would open up the second amazing experience of his life, with Pele once again at the forefront.

“I took Pele to dinner to ask if he’d become the chairman of the football side of this association, come to some events et cetera. He was very supportive but said if he did that for me I had to do something for him.”

Pele was in the early stages of shooting a film called Victory, which in Europe would come to be known as Escape to Victory.

“He was filming in Budapest with Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine. John Huston was directing and I’d been interested in the film business. At that time John was the Pele of the film business. Freddie Fields was producing and he invited me to LA, I read the script on the flight home and he wanted me to be Baumann, the Germany captain, because I spoke German.

“He was a Nazi, the last thing I wanted to play in my first movie,” Roth laughs. “I met with John, Freddie and Pele in Budapest. My bag had got lost on the way so here I am in jeans, an old t-shirt and a wraparound sweater. Pele is dressed to the nines, we go to the Intercontinental hotel, even the waiters have tuxedos on, John has a tuxedo on, but Freddie had this kind of Mexican wraparound on and suddenly I didn’t mind what I was wearing!”

Roth wanted to play a French kid who he believed had some interesting scenes and a “great dying sequence”, but Huston had other ideas.

Escape to Victory Allied team Bobby Moore Pele Michael Caine. January 1981.

The Allied Players in Escape to Victory: Osvaldo Ardiles, Paul van Himst, Bobby Moore, Pele, John Wark, Sylvester Stallone, Co Prins, Michael Caine. January 1981.

“He told me, ‘You are Baumann’, and I’m like, ‘John, I don’t want to be Baumann,’” he laughs. “But he told me about his final scene where Baumann takes a penalty after Stallone. He told he would direct that final scene and it would be a back and forth close up between me and him, this climactic ending, how can you say no to that?”

Roth spent six weeks on set in Budapest and got to not just work with some of the best actors and footballers of the time, while also getting to watch one of the best directors at work.

“I got to sit in on the editing process and watch John do his stuff. Who wouldn’t want to work with all those people? It’s funny, I ran into Michael Caine in New York years later. I was going to Washington for a screening of Victory at this soccer group, they’d invited me down to introduce the movie.

“I went and said hello to Michael and told him what I was doing and he said, ‘Why would you be screening Victory?’ I don’t think he was happy with that movie but I told him a lot of soccer people loved that movie.”

After that, Roth moved away from football and started a football shirt business in North Carolina, before his involvement with the Special Olympics saw him involved in the USA bid to bring the 1994 World Cup to the country.

“We were successful, but there were hurdles. The NASL had folded and soccer kind of disappeared in the late 80s and we hoped a World Cup could be a major incentive for the game in the USA.”

Roth still hasn’t let go of his passion for both soccer and film though, and admits he has been working on a script for a Cosmos movie for nearly six years.

“I live in a film town, but soccer has been a hard sell here forever and it’s only now starting to open up with the success of Ted Lasso.

“We had a deal about three years ago with a French company but we couldn’t get the IP rights from the new owners of the Cosmos. A producing partner and I are writing a script, he has connections in LA and we hope with Ted Lasso now it has some traction. We will just try and write the best script we can and shop it around.”

Given Roth’s stories about the Cosmos, there’s no doubt it would be a hit.

By Rich Laverty

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