Major League Soccer’s claim to fame is the designated player. The likes of Steven Gerrard, Sebastian Giovinco, Kaka, and New York City FC’s trio of Champions League winners serve as the league’s headliners and are paid handsomely for their services on the field as world class talents, and off the field as marketing behemoths.
But for all of MLS’s top tier talent there’s no sign of a larger-than-life personality; the type of guy who’ll create goals and headlines.
It’s safe to say the modesty of MLS conflicts with the United States’ sporting culture. In the NBA, Russell Westbrook will verbally scuffle with a reporter just as often as he drops triple doubles; in MLB, Bryce Harper will speak his mind with the same free spirit he swings a bat with; and Marshawn Lynch’s media disdain was almost as ruthless as his running style in the NFL.
Some of MLS’s designated players deserve a pass on their diplomacy because of language barriers. But why do the seasoned English speakers dish out platitude after platitude? Yes, we live in the golden age of public relations, but still, football is about expression — both on and off the field.
For all the discretion practiced in MLS, there was a time in North American footballing history when a free-spirit reigned over the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL). His name was Giorgio Chinaglia — George for short.
George was an Italian born, Welsh-made, Lazio striker who left the esteemed Serie A for America’s upstart and eccentric top flight before his 30th birthday. Chinaglia ditched Rome because of constant threats aimed at his family from opposing fans.
Before the start of the 1976 NASL season, the soon-to-be-New York Cosmos No. 9 waltzed into then-owner Clive Toye’s office and delivered a now famous ultimatum: the club would either sign him or he’d buy his own team.
Right then and there, the US version of the Chinaglia legend was born.
Understanding the mythology of Chinaglia’s career in the United States is two fold. He remains one of the most prolific goal scorers North America has ever seen — 193 goals in 213 matches, four Golden Boots and an MVP proves as much. But his indelible disposition is why he will forever be etched into the minds of Cosmos fans.
Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Chinaglia was shameless in his quest to convince football novice America of his greatness. He had no qualms clashing with his more celebrated teammates — most notably Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.
It was O Rei in particular who was caught in the cross hairs of Chinaglia’s most notorious outburst. George wanted better service in the box, but Pele complained that his Italian teammate didn’t deserve it because of Chinaglia’s insistence on shooting from audacious angles. Instantly, Chinaglia retorted, “I am Chinaglia. If I shoot from a place, it’s because Chinaglia can score from there”.
The brazenness of the declaration forced Pelé to tears.
How fitting it was, then, that Chinaglia united with Pelé’s eventual arch rival in 1979 to play in one of the most unique matches ever hosted on American turf. 70,134 fans piled into the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 6 to watch Chinaglia’s Cosmos take on Argentina, the reigning World Cup Champions, not even a full year after the Albiceleste lifted the World Cup trophy.
The World Champions boasted their entire squad from the previous summer’s World Cup, minus Mario Kempes. In his place was a little know, 18-year-old kid named Diego Maradona. The broadcast announcer, oblivious to Maradona’s precocious genius, pronounced his last name ‘Maradonia‘.
Imagine that, Chinaglia — the brashest player in NASL history — and Diego Maradona — the brashest player in history — on the same pitch, dazzling thousands upon thousands of American fans.
Argentina wound up winning the match 1-0 thanks to a late Daniel Passarella goal, but the result has been long lost in translation. What hasn’t been lost, especially for the fans at Giants Stadium that June night was the thrill of seeing two remarkable players unabashedly expressive — both on and off the pitch.