By J Hutcherson - As a general rule, everyone but supporters of the winning side ignore the results of friendlies. They’re too easily explained as training matches of little importance, especially when they’re held during the off-season.
After all, how motivated would anyone be to take a match seriously when it takes place in a foreign environment better suited for a vacation than a soccer game.
The matches are too often one-sided and the teams unevenly matched, with the away side caving to the home team, allowing the local support a nice night out and a feeling that their side could compete with the world’s best. And there is also the non-verbal agreement that it is bad form to rout the opposition. Why bother when the result counts for little more than a piece of trivia. After all, having a bad night on a foreign field in a friendly counts for nothing compared to dropping a league game to questionable opposition.
However, there are some exceptions to this rule. On a cold December night in 1954, the English side Wolverhampton Wanderers played the Hungarian side Honved in a midweek friendly. Five members of Honved’s side were also Hungarian internationals, part of the team that handed England their first home international defeat a year earlier. As such, the match was broadcast live across England, underneath the newly installed floodlights at Wolverhampton’s Molineux ground.
Regardless of the friendly nature of the match, the English treated it with the sanctity of a cup final, demanding revenge for their humiliation at the hands of the Hungarians. Wolverhampton’s 3-2 victory was celebrated with the same enthusiasm given to a national team triumph. On that night, the friendly nature of the match was set aside, with the clubs playing for pride and bragging rights.
The next day Wolverhampton were not winners of a mid-week friendly against a side that had traveled halfway across Europe to play them, instead the English press declared them club champions of Europe. In those days before the European Cup, a side from an industrial town in the Midlands had defeated the best Europe had to offer.
Twenty-nine years later, a similar friendly would take place. This time the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos would be taking on a full strength Hamburg SV squad at Giants Stadium outside of New York City. Less than a month before, Hamburg had defeated Juventus 1-0 to claim the European Cup, and for many this would give the Cosmos a chance to show just how good they were.
Much like the Wolverhampton side of the 1950’s, the Cosmos were champions in a closed league. By ignoring the U.S. Open Cup Competition and not enforcing FIFA’s laws with the rigorousness that the Federation demanded, North American Soccer League sides had no entry into official tournaments - the kind of tournaments that might lead to official international match-ups in the run up to the Intercontinental Cup. Instead the NASL sides had to make do with home friendlies, international tours, and their own Transatlantic Cup, a competition that, not surprisingly, was usually won by NASL sides. The sides that toured the United States and that NASL teams met while on tour were usually of poor quality. The few exceptions were either great names in decline or severely weakened clubs more interested in a training exercise than a competitive match. In fact, on one of the few occasions when the Cosmos encountered a full strength European powerhouse, they had lost 7-1 at Bayern Munich in 1978.
What the Cosmos needed if they were ever going to escape their reputation as a hefty paycheck for out of their prime stars was a match against top-flight competition. Regardless of the friendly nature, the Cosmos got that chance in June of 1983 when they met the newly crowned European champions.
At the time, Hamburg was the prototypical German side. Franz Beckenbauer, who had played the previous two seasons for Hamburg, returning to the Cosmos at the start of the 1983 season, compared Hamburg to a machine. They were a side that constantly pressured opposing offenses with a deceptive offside trap, using the confusion up front to launch effective counterattacks downfield. Their strategy was so successful that they had lost only two matches in the previous Bundesliga season. Beckenbauer predicted a tough game, with the Cosmos working hard along the back to stop the waves of Hamburg counters. He pointed to recent NASL losses against inferior opposition as a sign of the Cosmos beating themselves, allowing too many “unforced errors.” All involved realized that such lapses would be duly punished by the Hamburg attack.
Hamburg’s manager, Gunter Netzer, was not taking the contest lightly. Realizing the significance of the unofficial North American champions taking on the European champions, he knew that some would view the match as a championship of sorts. His side would be prepared to show the Cosmos just what it takes to play with Europe’s best.
And so on the night of June 16, 1983, the two sides met. For the Cosmos it was a chance at vindication, while for Hamburg it was another opportunity to show the technical proficiency for which West German sides were known.
For the first 25 minutes the match went as planned. Hamburg controlled the run of play while the Cosmos looked confused at the back and were unable to break the Germans’ offside trap. Hamburg had a comfortable two-goal lead when Roberto Cabanas got one back for the Cosmos. Despite flashes of skill, the Cosmos were outmatched and headed into the halftime break down 2-1.
When the Cosmos emerged from the dressing room for the start of the second half their outlook had changed. As Beckenbauer said later: “The Cosmos are not a bad team. We adjusted well after the first 20 minutes or so. We were too afraid of them, but then we realized we can play with them.”
Within 10 minutes, the Cosmos equalized on a goal by Italian international Giorgio Chinaglia. The Cosmos striker was suffering from jetlag after a marathon return to New York from Italy, where the day before he had completed purchase of his former side Lazio. Ten minutes later Dutch international Johan Neeskens put the Cosmos ahead by a goal.
Cosmos midfielder Vlado Bogicevic attempted to explain what the side was feeling as they found themselves half an hour from disposing of the European champions. “I remember when we lost 6-2 to Stuttgart and 7-1 to Bayern Munich in West Germany in 1978. So tonight I said, ‘These people are going to have to pay,’ and they paid.”
But the Cosmos were far from finished with Hamburg. The final ten minutes of the match saw the Cosmos score four more times, leaving the field with a 7-2 victory over the European Cup holders. When asked by reporters about his side’s performance, Hamburg’s manager said: “They’ll find excuses for us in Germany, but the truth is that we were embarrassed.”
Unfortunately for the Cosmos, and soccer in this country, the next day saw no great adulation for the team’s achievement. After all, few in this country understood American soccer, much less European football. Besides, two weeks earlier the lackluster Toronto Blizzard had defeated two-time European Champions Nottingham Forrest 2-1 in Toronto. The Cosmos result was barely worthy of mention in the New York press, and for the rest of the country, it made no impact whatsoever.
By that 1983 season the Cosmos’ season attendance average had fallen from a high of over 47,000 in 1978 to just over 27,000. The previous season had seen the side win their last NASL championship. Within two years, the Cosmos would be left without a league to play in and by the next they would be a memory. Nevertheless, for one night in the summer of 1983 they had taken on and beaten the best in the world.