The first western club to tour China: New York Cosmos’ 1977 adventure

Pele’s farewell tour with the New York Cosmos in 1977 was the first time that a professional Western club had visited China. The Brazilian legend, alongside fellow World Cup winners Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer, were part of the Cosmos side that played friendlies against the Chinese national side in Beijing and Shanghai. WEF looks back at what happened on this ground breaking tour.

China XI 1 – 1 New York Cosmos
Gongti, Beijing, 80,000

China XI 2 – 1 New York Cosmos
Jiangwan Stadium, Shanghai, 50,000

In 1977 the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League, bankrolled by media mogul Steve Ross of Warner Communications, were probably the most expensively assembled club side in the world. Pele was signed in 1975, Italian goal machine Giorgio Chinaglia a year later, and both Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto arrived in 1977 to join “the most glamorous team in world football.” Facing this array of international talent was a Chinese side only just beginning to play competitive international football again after re-joining the AFC a few years earlier. The contrast between the two teams could hardly have been greater.

By 1977 Pele’s long career was coming to an end and, after winning the NASL , the Cosmos didn’t want to waste one final opportunity for a money spinning trip. With a visit to Japan already agreed, Warner Communications approached Chinese officials to discuss the Cosmos stopping off for a game in Beijing that would have both sporting and political implications. Pele had never played in China before so the Chinese persuaded the Cosmos to play two games with arrangements confirmed only a month in advance. And so, a team which epitomised spendthrift capitalism were set to tour the world’s most populous communist country.

New York Cosmos visit the Forbidden City in 1977

After a game in Venezuela and two in Japan, the Cosmos became the first American professional sports team to arrive in Beijing when they landed in September 1977 and were not really sure what to expect from this “mysterious country” as one player put it. The abundance of bicycles and people dressed in green and grey Mao suits certainly made a deep impression on them. Coming from a dressing room that Beckenbauer compared to Hollywood, this was a far cry from what the Cosmos’ international stars were used to. However, watching from windows was as close as most of the squad would get to this side of China, with their hosts giving them the five start treatment and laying on 13 course banquets.  The food wasn’t always to the liking of their guests though; keeper Shep Messing later recalling that “I was expecting Chinese food but it was very different Chinese food that you get over there.” Cosmos captain Werner Roth, perhaps tongue in cheek, backs this up saying that “some of the stuff still moved when it was on the plate.”

Their on pitch reception was also unexpected with the 80,000 strong crowd at Gongti silent for large parts of the game. Messing remembers that “you could hear a pin drop and then the loud speaker would come on and the crowd would erupt – it was like the people were being told when they could applaud.” They had much to applaud as the Cosmos had underestimated their less illustrious Chinese opposition and the sides drew 1-1, the Cosmos being rescued by a goal from Enligshman Tony Field three minutes from time. Although some reports describe this as a ‘diplomatic draw’, Roth has said that “They [the Chinese] were all over us physically and we got our egos handed back to us.” Indeed, in a post-match interview, Beckenbauer praised the speed, movement and defensive discipline of the Chinese. The same report in the Chinese press described “a competitive game played in a friendly spirit.”

Pele and Rong Zhixing

This game is also remembered in Chinese football history because of Pele’s praise for Cantonese legend Rong Zhixing. Pele paid tribute to goalkeeper Li Fusheng and midfielder Chi Shangbin but it was Rong with whom Pele swapped shirts after the game, calling him a world class player. A photo between the pair sealed the moment and made Rong the first to be called ‘the Chinese Pele.’

The Cosmos circus travelled south to Shanghai after the players had been taken on tours of the Forbidden City and Great Wall, with one player unwittingly seeing more of China than he bargained for. Injured during the game, defender Bob Smith was taken for medical attention and recalls “being driven through back alleys and seeing the real China, stuff you wouldn’t believe.”

This time without Smith, the Cosmos lined up to face China at Shanghai’s Jiangwan Stadium but lost 2-1. The Chinese went ahead early with a long range shot from Chi Shangbin, extended their lead thanks to a deflected shot from Shen Xiangfu (later to manage both Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua) and a second half freekick from Pele rounded off the scoring in what a Chinese newspaper report described as a tense but friendly game where both teams gave brilliant performances.

Franz Beckenbauer making friends

Following the conclusion of their Chinese adventure, the Cosmos jetted off to India to face Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan, but less than 10 years later both the Cosmos and the NASL had disappeared. Whilst the Cosmos were by far the most successful NASL club on pitch, off the pitch all NASL clubs were making losses as they were paying too much in salaries compared to the relatively small crowds they usually drew and the small advertising revenue they brought in.

It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine this as a possible parallel for the future of today’s CSL which looks increasingly unsustainable as more and more high profile players and managers move to China on bumper contracts. However, that this situation currently exists is due in some small part to the 1977 Cosmos tour as it was an important step in exposing Chinese teams to new ideas and styles of play.

Due to China’s withdrawal from FIFA and the IOC in the 1950s, China and its major domestic teams had been limited to hosting and visiting countries from the ‘communist block’ such as Vietnam and Romania. In combination with a gradual thawing of international political relations, the Cosmos tour was the first of a flurry of international footballing links for China with capitalist countries including Italy, France and England as, for example, West Bromwich Albion toured China in 1978. A more immediate link was a return tour by the Chinese to the US just a month later in October 1977 – more on this coming soon on WEF.

Sources: Werner Roth and Bob Smith quotes from this article, Shep Messing quotes from the Daily Telegraph. Photos from and Guangzhou R&F.

Author: Donald Ross

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club’s first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.

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