A steady, misty rain was working its way up and down Main Street in Hackensack, the kind of day that left a craving for spring. The sun felt a million miles away, at least until you set foot inside storefront No. 213, where a smile and memories of the Eighties came at you in a rush.
This is Hubert Birkenmeier’s Sport Shop, and to anyone who followed the Cosmos a generation ago, the name needs no other introduction. Back when professional soccer ruled greater New York, Birkenmeier was the goalkeeper of the world’s most celebrated team – the Cosmos.
These were more than a collection of elite athletes; they were rock-stars whose cult flocked to them every Sunday. While the Yankees and Mets were struggling to attract fans, sell-out crowds of 70,000-plus would pack Giants Stadium to take in this soccer-styled buffet table. From Pelé to Giorgio Chinaglia to Franz Beckenbauer, the Cosmos appealed to every demographic and fueled America’s love-affair with the global game.
Today, kids everywhere are playing soccer, largely because of the seed the Cosmos planted with their parents. That’s why Birkenmeier is still recognized around Bergen these days. He’s one of four former Cosmos who live in our parts – Andranik Eskandarian, Vladislav Bogicevic and Fred Grgurev are the others – reminding followers how brilliant those Sundays used to be.
“Those were great times,” Birkenmeier says. “We enjoyed those years – not just us, but our fans, too. It was fun for everyone. We came from 13 different countries, but on the field we all spoke the same language. The fans could relate to that.”
In a glass case near the store’s entrance are pictures of the good old days; a younger, darker-haired Birkenmeier making a full-extension save, Eskandarian – or Eskie, as he’s still known nowadays – leading a sweep up field. All the images have that 15-minutes-ago crispness in the memory banks, even after three decades.
The Cosmos, after all, were everywhere. They played in Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in ’75 and Yankee Stadium in 1976, before settling in at the Meadowlands in ’77 for a prosperous eight-year run. Birkenmeier, who’d played in his native Germany before coming the U.S., calls the Cosmos, “the best team I was ever part of.”
Indeed, this group of former World Cup participants, All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers won four Soccer Bowl championships between 1977-82, thanks to their signature long passes and flashy offensive style. The team was the brainchild of Steve Ross, then chairman of Warner Brothers. For a while it seemed like the Cosmos were the Harlem Globetrotters; the rest of the North American Soccer League was the equivalent of the Washington Generals, there only to absorb a weekly beating.
That’s how futuristic it was to assemble an-all world team like the Cosmos, even if the exorbitant payroll ultimately sunk the franchise as the NASL was folding in 1984. But don’t get the alumni started on what’s happened to soccer today; ask about the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, and Eskie just rolls his eyes.
“It’s boring, it’s too physical – the athletes play like they’re only interested in not losing. Who could enjoy that?” says the former defender. “Also, the players keep changing teams, it’s impossible to really follow them. I love soccer, but I couldn’t tell you then name of even three of (the Red Bulls’) players.”
“To me, real soccer is 15 shots on goal, three or four goals a game,” he says. “You like to see teams take chances (on offense) with long passes. That’s exciting, that’s the way we used to play. But you don’t see that anymore.”
Birkenmeier and Eskandarian are used to thinking alike; they’re still teammates, in fact, running the Hackensack shop as a tandem. Birkenmeier opened the store in 1982, while still playing for the Cosmos, but left town to play indoor soccer after the league’s demise.
Birkenmeier sold the store to Eskandarian, then returned as an employee three years later upon his retirement. The two are still as athletic as ever; Birkenmeier serves as goalkeeper-coach to the U.S. national 14-year-old squad. And the Iranian-born Eskandarian still plays three times a week in an over-40 league.
The Ties That Bind
Oh, and they do keep the alumni network alive, staying in touch with Bogicevic, who runs a soccer camp in Hardyston, and Grgurev, who owns and operates a restaurant on Manhattan’s upper west side.
Grgurev, 58, has the longest ties to the Cosmos, having played in two stints for the New York Arrows (the Cosmos’ predecessor) in 1972-73, before re-joining the parent club in 1978.
He missed playing with the great Pelé by just one year, but by then the Cosmos’ phenomenon was surging. Grgurev recalls how easy it was to tap soccer’s deep reservoir in greater New York, and how, given the right circumstances, another golden era could easily hatch.
“I have no doubt you will see people love soccer again, you just have to know how to manage it properly,” Grgurev says. “There’ll never be another team like the Cosmos, but what it will take is for the U.S. (World Cup) team to beat Brazil or to beat Germany. Then the great American players will want to stay here instead of leaving to play in Europe.”
The grass-roots movement is already engaged. An estimated 16-18 million people play soccer in this country, most of them kids and high school and college-aged students. All that’s missing is a bridge to the Cosmos-like obsession, although everyone agrees, David Beckham, the star of the current-day MLS, couldn’t do it by himself.
In the meantime, Birkenmeier and Eskandarian feed the beast one soccer cleat at a time. There’s a steady stream of customers at the shop, from parents and their kids to the over-40 players who buy equipment to send back to their native countries.
Of course, everyone knows who they’re dealing with: walking into 213 Main Street is like stepping into a time tunnel. Once a year, the four Bergen-based Cosmos get together to re-live the Seventies and Eighties, which, if you ask them, was really no more than 15 minutes ago.
“I can’t believe so much time has gone by,” Eskandarian says with a smile. “Those are days we will never forget.”
This story originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of (201) Magazine.