Paul Kemsley brings in Pelé and Eric Cantona to revive glory days of New York football team
|Failed property tycoon goes for Cosmos glory|
It is a football club with no players and no stadium, and it hasn't played a match for more than 25 years. But the New York Cosmos – the team once described as "the nexus of soccer and showbiz" – has announced its first fixture since 1984, at Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium on 5 August. The match – a testimonial for United's Paul Scholes – is the first step of a plan to rebuild what was once the most glamorous franchise in football, and the man with the plan is Paul Kemsley, the British property wheeler dealer best known as one of the three business friends of Lord Sugar called in to interrogate semi-final contestants on The Apprentice. The return of the Cosmos is also a comeback opportunity for Kemsley. His £500m Rock property empire collapsed in May 2009, struck down by the global financial crisis. He quit his TV role as Alan Sugar's "rottweiler" shortly after the collapse. While the administrators sifted through the financial wreckage, Kemsley headed west to New York to buy and sift through the sporting remnants of the Cosmos legacy. As the two-year administration of the Rock group of companies ends and Kemsley's fallen empire is finally dissolved, he is ensconced in a loft in New York's fashionable SoHo and hoping to shrug off the Rock failure – together with an embarrassing legal dispute over a spread bet that anticipated a Lehman Brothers recovery – and instead invest his time and part of his remaining fortune in recapturing the Cosmos magic. Kemsley may be lacking some of the essential football ingredients but he is not short of confidence. "It's gonna be huge. The Cosmos are back," he told guests at a party to pay homage to the soccer team of the 70s earlier this year. "It is the reverse of conventional football thinking," said one person familiar with Kemsley's plans. "With the Cosmos the aim is to build the brand and then build the team around that. It will not be cheap, it may not work, but it will be interesting." The cost of the Cosmos venture does not seem to trouble Kemsley. Over the years he has built a network of powerful and wealthy friends, many sharing his interest in football. Once the vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, Kemsley counts currency trader Joe Lewis, Daniel Levy of ENIC International and Sugar – all with Spurs connections – among his allies. He once owned a racehorse with Spurs manager Harry Redknapp. Billionaire fashion retailer Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley, the founder of the Sports Direct retail empire and owner of Newcastle United, are among his closest friends. Kemsley declined the opportunity to discuss his plans for the Cosmos and how, and by whom, those plans would be financed. But the bill could run into hundreds of millions of dollars if the Cosmos are ever to grace the professional soccer stage again. The biggest temptation for Kemsley is that he will try to run with the Cosmos before the team even laces its boots. The long-term brand building philosophy may have sound business credentials but it does not square with Kemsley's ambition to rapidly turn the Cosmos into "the number one soccer franchise in the world". The former property tycoon wants to buy a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise. MLS is the US professional football league, which had its first season in 1996. Its 18 franchises will be expanded to 19 next year, when a team from Montreal enters the competition, and the MLS owners have made no secret of their interest in a return for the Cosmos. With a 20th MLS franchise in the offing for the 2013 season, there is now an appetite for a re-emergence of the Cosmos and an intra-city New York rivalry with another MLS team, the New York Red Bulls, now home to former Arsenal star Thierry Henry. To emphasise the point that the Cosmos are back, one of Kemsley's first appointments was that of Pelé as the club's honorary president. It was the Brazilian football maestro who rescued US soccer from oblivion. The North American Soccer League, formed in 1968, had struggled to make an impact but its fortunes were transformed when the Cosmos persuaded the Brazilian out of semi-retirement in 1975. Pelé was joined at the Cosmos by the Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia and by Franz Beckenbauer, who captained the German team that won the World Cup in 1974. The Cosmos swept all before them on the field, playing to sell-out crowds of up to 70,000, and were followed off the field to Studio 54 by the chic and the celebrated, from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol. But the good times were short-lived. The league expanded too rapidly, wage bills soared and the golden age of American soccer, which had lasted just two years, began to lose its lustre when Pelé retired in 1977. Seven years later the league closed down. The Cosmos were disbanded in 1985 but such was the power of the brand that its new owner G Peppe Pinton was able to sustain a programme of youth academies and merchandise sales under the team's name. Today, the academies have been restored on the east and west coasts, and Kemsley has appointed Eric Cantona, the former Manchester United star, as the Cosmos' director of soccer. There are regular rumours that he is lining up aging United stars to join the new Cosmos party, if not in the MLS then as part of a charity and exhibition squad loosely based on basketball's Harlem Globetrotters model. Cantona summed up his appointment as follows: "The Cosmos are very strong, beautifully made, with a great past. It's kind of a mix between football and art."