Part Two: Chinaglia, from Carrara to the Cosmos.

Giorgio Arrives in New York...
David Kilpatrick | Club Historian | Oct 11, 2017

As we look forward to celebrating Italian Heritage Night on Saturday, October 14 when the Cosmos host FC Edmonton, we look back at the club’s Italian heritage and connections, beginning with the single-most influential player to wear the Cosmos shirt, Giorgio Chinaglia. The first 2,000 fans will receive a commemorative Chinaglia t-shirt, and so this week we concern ourselves with memories of the club’s greatest goalscorer, the legendary #9.

On October 23, 2014, the Italian American Museum in Little Italy was presented with a jersey donated by the Giorgio Chinaglia Foundation, which is now prominently displayed, visible from the street on the corner of Mulberry and Grand. Part one took a look at Chinaglia’s rise to fame. Part two begins with his arrival in New York.

Chinaglia joined the Cosmos in 1976 at the peak of his powers.  His arrival was befitting his unconventional reputation.  Warner Communications President Steve Ross pushed his signing, against the inclination of then-General Manager Clive Toye. 

In his New York debut at Yankee Stadium on May 17, 1976 against the Los Angeles Aztecs (who featured another legendary footballer, nearly signed by the Cosmos a year before, Northern Ireland’s George Best), Chinaglia scored twice in a 6-0 win, a sign of things to come.  Despite joining the team midseason, Chinaglia finished his first season in New York as the league’s leading scorer. 

He would score the game winning goal in Soccer Bowl ’77 and score another title match goal in Soccer Bowl ’78 as the Cosmos Country phenomenon took soccer to another orbit in New York. 

On May 20, 1979 the Cosmos honored Chinaglia with “Giorgio’s Day.” The striker scored twice that day against the Tulsa Roughnecks.  The next day a lengthy cover feature for the May 21, 1979 issue of Sports Illustrated appeared (yes, once upon a time soccer players would appear on the cover of SI).  In the piece, Chinaglia explained his craft to J.D. Reed, speaking for strikers everywhere and for all time in the simplest way: “Putting the goddam ball in the net is the game. It is the toughest thing in the world to do.” 

Chinaglia became a US citizen in 1979.  He used to keep a copy of his citizenship papers in his locker at Giants Stadium next to a bottle of Chivas Regal.

On August 31, 1980, Chinaglia broke the NASL single-game scoring record, scoring 7 in an 8-1 playoff win against the Tulsa Roughnecks.  1980 was his best season, scoring 76 goals in 66 games. 32 goals were scored in the regular season, 18 were scored in 7 playoff games, and he scored the game winning goal in each of the 5 games that took the Cosmos to the Soccer Bowl, where he scored twice in the 3-0 win over the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at RFK Stadium in DC. 

 

The poet and naturalist writer Diane Ackerman, describes Chinaglia’s physique in a May 31, 1981 feature profile for The New York Times:

Giorgio Chinaglia (kee-NAL-ya) is not built like most soccer players, who need bellows for lungs and legs so thoroughly developed that each muscle stands out like a clove of garlic. At 6 feet 1 inch, he is tall for a game in which height is not necessarily an advantage. He has hulking shoulders; large, pan-shaped muscles across each thigh; a bobbin-small waist, and, thanks to a childhood deformity of the upper spine, a deep-set neck that nests his head low in his shoulders. Chinaglia looks wrought-up when he is merely standing still, and, when the ball comes near him, his rage to score becomes palpable.

What he did better than anyone was score goals, and Ackerman paints a complex picture of how his celebrations revealed personality beneath the persona:

Most times, he lifts his clenched fists high, then gestures rigidly with them in an abbreviated form of the Italian expletive the world knows so well. Sometimes the arms pump as if he were operating a heavenly slot machine and the hips wiggle. He jumps, he dances, he leaps into the arms of teammates, he kisses everyone, sometimes full on the lips.

Occasionally, though rarely after the first goal of a game, Chinaglia's response to scoring changes intriguingly. He approaches the crowd quietly, spreading his arms wide, palms revealed, his body open and vulnerable and, on his face, the look of a 5-year-old who is asking thousands of strangers to find his performance acceptable.

Ackerman, the poet, becomes fascinated with the ecstatic experience of the goal scorer:

Relaxing at the round table in his office at the Warner Communications building in Manhattan, Chinaglia smiles and erases the air with one hand. ''When I score, I don't know what the hell's going on.'' he says. ''Everything is blurred. I know when I've scored even before the ball crosses the line. In films, you can see me turning before the ball goes in. I know when it's a goal. But I'm aware of nothing, not the goalkeeper's face, certainly - it's not a challenge between me and the goalkeeper, or between me and the other team, for that matter.'' He lights a cigarette and continues. ''Then for two or three seconds I feel such intense joy.'' His large, open hand seems to weigh the intensity, then drops in despair. ''It's very hard to explain.''

Chinaglia scored 7 in his first-ever indoor league game, a 14-10 win over the Chicago Sting on December 8, 1981.  Although indoor soccer was arguably a distraction for the Cosmos and perhaps detrimental at a time when pro soccer was at its most fragile and vulnerable, Chinaglia showed he could score at will indoors as well.

He also scored the only goal in Soccer Bowl ’82 against the Seattle Sounders. 

As a child with a Chinaglia poster on the wall, I was confused by the trend at Giants Stadium to boo the superstar striker.  Only later would I learn some of the reasons why.  He would speak of himself in the third-person, and his behind-the-scenes influence on Warner President Steve Ross helped orchestrate the departure of many, including team-builders General Manager Clive Toye and Head Coach Gordon Bradley (just on the cusp of seeing their dreams come to fruition in the middle of the triumphant 1977 season).  He was loved and loathed with equal intensity. 

His dear friend and personal assistant, Peppe Pinton explains:

It was a hate/love relationship [with the fans], which is what made the sport, brought the people to Giants Stadium. Giorgio knew that. He would score goals, he would dance, give the finger, give the arm, he would applaud, he would kneel down, he would run to the coach. Everything to bring attention. And that attention at Giants Stadium, sold the stadium, made the front page. This sport took off.

It certainly took off here in Cosmos Country.  With Chinaglia up front, the Cosmos hosted 70 consecutive home league games of 30,000+ from 1977-1981 at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands.

As he rose to power like a Corleone, Chinaglia seemed to embrace the role of villain or antihero, and his larger-than-life character was one of Shakespearean complexity. 

Part three of “Chinaglia, from Carrara to the Cosmos” reflects upon his enduring legacy.

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