The Cosmos were, for a brief spell in the seventies, as hot as Reggie Jackson. They played soccer, yes, but they also partied at Studio 54, hung out with models and Mick Jagger, and otherwise exemplified the hedonism of the era. Their stars were Pelé from Brazil, Franz Beckenbauer from Germany, Giorgio Chinaglia from Italy—and Shep Messing from Roslyn (Long Island). Messing spoke to Hugo Lindgren about the new documentary about the team, Once in a Lifetime, and his unforgettable contribution to the Cosmos myth.
So before Pelé showed up, you were the most famous Cosmo—but not for anything you did on the field.
Uh, that’s true. This pitcher for the Yankees I knew, Jim Bouton [who wrote the notorious tell-all Ball Four], called me and said there was a magazine called Viva looking to do a nude layout of a pro athlete. He didn’t want to do it, but thought maybe I would. I said, “How much?” and they said $5,000, which was a lot more than I was making at soccer.
Did posing nude turn you into a star?
No, it got me fired. Before Pelé came, it was the most publicity the team had ever had, but they said I violated a morals clause in my contract, and I got cut. I had to play in Boston for two years.
How did you get back to New York?
When Pelé first signed with the Cosmos, we played them twice, and I made a bunch of saves, including a penalty kick. When their goalkeeper got hurt, Pelé was like, “I want that guy.”
The team, when you rejoined it, was all international superstars. Did you feel unimportant?
Definitely not. There were only three Americans on the team, and they needed us to show them where to go, what to do. I showed Pelé the Hamptons. I taught Beckenbauer how to smoke a cigarette. I said, “Don’t worry, Franz, nobody knows who you are here. You can have a cigarette.”
In the movie, Chinaglia comes off like an incredible jerk. What was it like to play with a guy like that?
He thinks of himself as a Tony Soprano character. He’d go after hecklers in the stands, and we’d have to go in there to protect him. But if he was your friend, he was your friend.
Did you ever play in the World Cup?
I played on the U.S. team a bunch of times, but we never got close to the World Cup. It was the Stone Age for American soccer. I remember one time, I got a call on a Friday from the national-team coach, and he said, “If I give you gas money, can you get up to Hartford for Saturday night? We’re playing Italy.” We lost, 7-0. But we weren’t embarrassed. I thought I had a good game.
Why did the Cosmos fall apart?
There was no business model. After Pelé retired, the tent just kind of folded up. We were like Studio 54. For a moment everybody wanted us, and then they were on to something else.
Once in a Lifetime
Opens July 7