Rebellion and the Cosmos
How football in New York has become a battleground in the fight against the far right
“I think we need to talk about transformative possibility and the body, and particularly the idea of collisions,” wrote Matt Hern in his 2013 work One Game at a Time: Why Sports Matter. Hern, an anti-authoritarian community organiser and occasional sports commentator in Vancouver, was interested in how sport and politics intersect beyond the conventions of conversations in which the two typically dance. “To talk about collisions is to talk about risk,” he wrote. “Without risk, our lives become intolerable, safety-first regimes: hermetically-sealed, sanitised dystopias where nothing ever happens.”
Hern wasn’t using collisions to dramatise the discursive intersections of sport and politics in the abstract. He was referring to the physicality common to both. “In the residue of pain,” he wrote, “there is an inscription of vulnerability, and possibly tenderness.” Talk to any of the generation that took to the streets of Cairo to bring down Mubarak, and they’ll tell you about carrying the wounded from the clashes on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, or forming flying squads to intervene in gang sex-assaults, or the frontline role against police taken up by ultras. In sport and struggle, as in most things, risk is a bodily experience.
Collisions saturated the spring of 2016. Some beckoning dystopia, in contrast to Hern’s formulation. The UK was careening away from Europe in a fit of xenophobic self-harm. In the US, Donald Trump, a racist tantrum personified, faced his first – very temporary – black eye in Chicago. As riots kicked off outside the site of his campaign rally, his supporters inside the event traded blows with activists who’d made it past security. By the time the dust settled, Trump had cancelled the event and four people were in police custody.
For those who know what to look for, desperate and even dubious victories like Chicago, regardless of how small, typically forecast aftershocks – if only because, in the fleeting forward lurches, onlookers glimpse possibility. While the dynamic itself is somewhat predictable, the who, where, and how of its narrative triangulation rarely is.
The events of May 1968 in Paris, which nearly toppled the government of France, began with restrictions about overnight guests in university dorms. The Black Lives Matter movement’s earliest stirring was a schoolyard fight in Jena, Alabama after a noose appeared in a tree where students took their lunches. The NYPD flinching at the prospect of appearing on news broadcasts tearing down a Jewish anarchist’s ritual hut during sukkot in the early weeks of Occupy Wall Street opened the door to anti-capitalist tent encampments stretching from Los Angeles to Beirut, rewriting the discursive boundaries of American politics.
The alchemy of unforeseen collisions, it turns out, is very, very real.
It’s difficult to overstate the unlikeliness that, in 2016, New York City’s first major protest against Donald Trump was the brainchild of soccer supporters.
The city’s reputation for the pathologies of wealth notwithstanding, it still holds that to speak of New York City is to speak of a population the size of Sweden’s, and the most diverse aggregation of people on the planet. It is to speak of a rich, storied history of radical working-class struggle stretching back more than a century; a city that gave the world Emma Goldman, Bernie Sanders, and (more recently) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A veritable nation unto itself where just half a decade ago polls put support for Occupy Wall Street north of 60 per cent, and where the National Guard found itself taking instruction from anarchists in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The Columbus Circle action would have been an intuitive extension of those elements. But it wasn’t. Not in the conventional sense, anyway.
Nor was it spun from a football landscape in which one MLS club plays across the river in New Jersey and another at the Yankee Stadium where the NYPD’s notorious brutality is absolvedin near-weekly pre-game tributes and where baseball fans recently class- shamed an opposition player for having once paid his rent driving Ubers.
The several thousand who trekked uptown to Trump Tower that day were shepherded by supporters of an embattled, largely forgotten club with no fixed stadium, which – despite a brilliant history and recent silverware – was mostly renowned for toggling in and out of spectacular collapse: the New York Cosmos.
Founded in the early 1970s, the club famously signed a number of international stars including Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia for victory laps through the US for what were at the time eye-watering sums. In his autobiography, Johan Cruyff even copped to taking the pitch for them once, before bailing out in disgust over the club’s lack of rigour when it came to playing surfaces.
“My father was a fanatic of the Cosmos,” Jack Gaeta recalls, “before they were even the Cosmos; when they were the New York Generals, playing at Hofstra.” Gaeta was central to the 2010 rebirth of the Cosmos, initially coaching one of the academy teams and working closely with Gio Saverese, who would later lead the club to multiple league titles. Born in 1972, Gaeta remembers being seven or eight years old when the club moved to the Giants Stadium. He and his father had season tickets, attended every game. The Cosmos brought an indelibly New York swagger to the game, embodying the city’s diaspora patchwork and multiculturalism; the cultural eclecticism of the club’s roster was more than mirrored in the stands. As they captured imaginations, many observers were left wide-eyed. “Back in the 70s and 80s,” Gaeta explained, “the fanbase reflected the community – which it sort of does now – the ethnic, immigrant community.”
In reality, anyone who had bothered to acknowledge those communities might have seen the Cosmos’s explosive resonance coming, miles out. Gaeta counts his father, himself an immigrant, among the original diehard of the club’s fans, but remembers no identifiable supporters group. Just throngs packed into Giants Stadium in that brief moment, when the rest of the US got soccer fever as well, turning out in droves to stadiums thousands of miles from New York.
And then, with the retirement of Pelé, the Cosmos sputtered and tailspun before dissolving in 1985, effectively taking the North American Soccer League with them. The communities whose imaginations it captured were left longing. “I think that core base carried over into the rebirth,” Gaeta argued. But now that base is expressed in a section and supporters groups such as the Five Points and La Banda. “They’re going to continue and stay with the club, whether it’s Second Division, MLS, or Fourth Division at PSL,” said Gaeta. “It still reflects that immigrant community, though that community has changed a bit since the 70s. But still, those guys are still the heart and soul of the club.”
For more than three decades, the Cosmos existed as a brand only, with Chinaglia’s former manager, Pepe Pinton, as owner. MLS allegedly played at buying the rights to the club several times. Their terms were full ownership, with a pay-off for Pinton, at which point the club would be shopped around to owners of the league’s choosing – owners who, as with every other MLS franchise, would own 49 per cent, with the league retaining majority control. Pinton held them at bay, apparently steadfast in protecting the Cosmos legacy, sensing the league would reduce it to a mere showpiece.
In 2007, having seen the success fans in Philadelphia had had in forming their own club – what would eventually become the Philadelphia Union – a crew of young New York fans formed the Borough Boys, a supporter outfit with similar hopes. Considerable energy was sunk into working with MLS officials, meeting benchmarks for fan organisations, and hammering out what a second New York franchise (alongside the Red Bulls) would look like. The league front office signalled enthusiasm. When new ownership stepped in at the Cosmos, Pinton notified the Borough Boys a resurrection might be in the offing, at which point they went all in with the club and adopted its colours. Less familiar with the lower leagues, the Borough Boys were dead set on bringing the Cosmos to MLS.
As the MLS process progressed, fans began hearing that relations with the front office had started to ebb. In good faith, the Borough Boys pushed forward anyway and petitioned MLS on behalf of the club, only to learn the Cosmos’s ownership wanted independence, with its eyes on the resurgent NASL. Unclear on the significance or value of the second division, the Borough Boys pressed forward with a meeting in pursuit of a stadium in Queens – a condition for MLS status. Around that time, rumours of league meetings with Manchester City began circulating and MLS stopped answering calls.
To hear fans tell it, they were played by the league and encouraged to build up fan organisation and infrastructure that MLS ultimately hoped to repurpose and redirect toward the foreign-owned New York City FC. Some Cosmos supporters relented and went along with it, jumping ship from the Cosmos project, ultimately helping form the Third Rail supporters group for NYCFC. The Borough Boys were having none of it. “We’re not second to anybody,” said Prez, an original Borough Boy and Brooklyn/Queens native. “We’re not the oldest city in the world, but we’re not second to fucking Milan. And that would never happen in Milan. Why would we accept it?”
A corner had been turned. As the Cosmos ownership moved forward on rebirthing the club for the NASL, the sting of the MLS betrayal and fair-weather fellow comrades had given way to a clarity among remaining core Cosmos fans. “We became much more opposed to the consumer culture of American soccer,” Prez explained. “We said no, and it left this big-name club scrambling to put a good face on having no real fans.”
The bad blood between the two clubs’ supporters was palpable before either had attended a game. Casting a knowing glance over his coffee, on a sidewalk outside Grand Central, Prez grinned. “Makes for a great derby, right?”
So, in the immediate wake of Chicago, when Facebook RSVPs began surging in response to a call for a protest outside Trump Tower in Manhattan, no one in New York City’s left landscape so much as blinked – initially. It made perfect sense that New York would draft in behind Chicago in the space created by the shutdown of Trump’s rally. Far larger, boasting far more resources and accumulated wisdom with which to innovate on the accomplishment.
But that wasn’t exactly what was happening.
For starters, the Facebook page had gone up before Chicago kicked off. Its timing was its own. Moreover, no one seemed to know who was organising it. The red flags this raised were numerous. Chief among them was the long history of police infiltrating movements to disrupt and discredit them. “I think especially here in New York, after Occupy and after Black Lives Matter, if we didn’t already know you collectively in the left, we were probably a little suspicious,” explained Jaime Taylor, a longtime activist, particularly well-networked by her work in a collective providing support for and tracking those arrested at protests.
Certainly with regard to presidential elections, the fear was well-founded. Activists at the 2008 Republican National Convention wound up entrapped in a police sting, care of an anarchist turned police informant named Brandon Darby, now managing director of the right-wing outlet Breitbart’s Texas wing. Perceived threats to a candidate have historically tended to bolster public sympathy, and setting aside the NYPD’s eagerness to clamp down on movements generally, the police unions had endorsed Trump with near unanimity. “Especially given that we know that the NYPD and everyone else who suppresses left movements in New York is breathing down our necks,“ Taylor said, “[we’d be] wondering who you were, what you knew, where you’d been the last few years.”
The appearance of Cosmopolitan Antifa as the admin on the Facebook event, clarified practically nothing. The white nationalist Richard Spencer had not yet been decked on camera and antifascist organising in the US was thus not the target for trolls and imposters that it has since become on platforms like Twitter. The group NYC Antifa was well established, and known in relevant circles. But Cosmopolitan was an outlier no one could make sense of. Adding to the mystery, the group’s avatar had adapted the iconic, international symbol of antifascists – red and black overlapping flags – to a yellow and green colour scheme, set against white. Nothing about it made sense. As the numbers of those pledging to attend went up, left organisers became more and more anxious.
Whatever apprehensions the mystery may have prompted, several thousand people turned out to Columbus Circle on 19 March 2016. It looked like most such demonstrations in New York, but with a notable ubiquity of green and yellow in banners, placards and the like. “The thing that convinced me these kids were legit, in the end, was their tagline: No Pendejo NYC,” Taylor laughed. “No cop would’ve ever come up with that.” [‘Pendejo’ means ‘idiot’ but has come increasingly to refer to Trump].
At the centre of any political activity rests a critical, but often overlooked distinction: politics of principle and politics of necessity. The two aren’t by any means opposites, but they tend to leave different fingerprints on activity, objectives and outcomes. Moreover, they tend to flow from one’s relationship with institutional power. Politics of principle are often about ideology, typically abstracted, akin to a brand. And the most visible expression is in the realm of high politics – parties, statecraft, religious organisation and so on.
To a lesser extent, it’s expressed by those with less power, but who enjoy a psychological wage of immaterial status, such as whiteness. In both cases, principle figures as a totalising, universal explanation for politics, inasmuch as privilege backstops survival. In this equation, demands for safety, dignity or equality aren’t premised on any material need; they’re simply an entitled pursuit of “special rights”. Everything is reducible to mere ideology and thus easily dismissed, as needed.
Efforts that spring from necessity tend to be responsive to immediate conditions, often at the sites where those conditions are most acutely felt or where they threaten something valued. This, if only because those disproportionately negatively impacted by structural conditions have little access to conventional levers of power. So, people begin where they are, with what they have, often in the spaces over which they have the most control over their lives or in which they feel most free. It’s not an accident that the American civil rights movement was incubated in black churches.
Despite straining rather furiously to bury every indication, modern football in the US is more and more defined by this distinction.
The fragile resurrection of the Cosmos, in the shadow of MLS, meant a sort of exile for the club to Long Island. Even though Hofstra figured in the earliest days of the club, it meant younger, outer borough fans were suddenly weathering lengthy carpools on good days – the subway to the Long Island Railroad to a taxi on less good days – to what had become increasingly white suburbs. Nick Alexandrakos, a teacher, son of a union carpenter, and a native of the heavily Mediterranean enclave of Astoria, Queens, acknowledged the awkwardness, but saw the encounters as an interim necessity. “It was a multicultural bunch,” he said, describing soccer moms and dads from Long Island alongside Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Nigerians, African-Americans, as well as Borough Boys and diehards from Brooklyn and Queens. “You were filled with excitement,” he remembers, “because you had one eye on the game and one on the future, thinking... We’re on a path right now, back to New York City. Which made it okay.”
“It wasn’t even soccer-first people,” he noted, describing a friend – a baseball fan – who’d venture out to Long Island with them, invigorated by its contrast with the Yankee Stadium. “He was primarily a Spanish speaker. It was his first time walking into a stadium and hearing songs sung in his language. Even though it wasn’t strictly his culture, Latino culture was out in front.”
Prez is more blunt about the tacit balance struck in the stands. “We had a lot of people from different political mindsets. Not everybody agreed on everything. But we always agreed that you treat the person next to you with respect. Because if you don’t, you get your ass beat.” Tense moments weren’t hard to come by, and lines were most definitely toed. “There were times when people of a different mentality than us would come out and say shit about immigrants,” Prez says. Of Jamaican descent, the dissonance these moments produced wasn’t one of principled disagreement; it was about his right to exist. “And I’m like, yeah and you’re standing next to immigrants in the stands. So how do you really feel?”
Nathan McVittie, a media producer covering football, was working in the Cosmos front office as a graphic designer in 2013. He remembers the early stirrings within the Five Points section. “There were a few groups that ebbed and flowed, then fell away,” he remembers. “Through all the problems the Cosmos had, there was a group that came out that was kinda... punk football.” He’s quick to note that it wasn’t initially defined as antifascist. Just a group of “punky football fans that believed this certain thing, but weren’t pushing it.” Between the group’s tenacity and devotion to the club and McVittie’s quiet admiration, their recurrent brushes resulted in a close friendship. McVittie eventually left his job with the club and moved back to England, keeping tabs on the Cosmos from afar, while attending Clapton CFC games in London. He cites it as a sort of watershed moment for him, where the frequencies he’d been exposing himself to began to converge and force an opening, a realisation that, “Football can be more than football.”
By the time the Cosmos faced NYCFC at home in the 2015 Open Cup at Hofstra, supporters of the clubs had been back and forth online for a year or so, talking trash and trolling. They had even played each other in a few charity fan tournaments, stealing each other’s flags as trophies – juvenile fan rivalry antics. Just before the derby, the mood began to change. Voices who’d never chimed in on Twitter or other platforms began engaging from the NYCFC side, with a different tone, different reference points. Prez describes feeling a pronounced shift; a tension, a dread. “In the lead-up, it just felt different.”
Patrick Infurna, a 27-year-old football journalist and content producer who’s worked with everyone from COPA90 to Hertha Berlin, recalls it being nothing like any Hofstra game he’d attended, describing it as “a war zone”. Initial harmless pranks and petty stealing and vandalism of each other’s props exploded at half-time when NYCFC fans tried to force a sort of apology out of the Five Points section. It turned into a shoving match. One NYCFC fan spotted Infurna’s brother alone, off a bit from the group. “He walks up to my brother, puts his hand on his neck literally in a choke, then starts talking shit,” Infurna said. “So my brother grabbed his wrist with his left hand, and then sent him to hell with his right.”
Chaos ensued. “I don’t say this with any pride, but it turned into a brawl. Way too many people, just swinging,” Infurna recalled. The escalation was apparently immediate, near-vertical. “They came with brass knuckles, tactical gloves,” Prez recounts. “People were being whipped with dog chains.” The fighting stretched most of the length of the stands, from one supporters section to the other. Hofstra’s was a relatively modestly sized stadium with a capacity of a few thousand. But by all accounts, there were upwards of 50 people involved. Maybe 70 or 80. No one seems to remember exactly how it was diffused; probably on account of adrenaline. Some were ejected from the stadium and banned. Others hid among casual fans and slipped out unnoticed after the final whistle.
NYCFC supporters forums online describe it differently. First-hand accounts of having scarves and props snatched away by Cosmos supporters read like statements given to police. As though they were muggings, alongside open admissions that only flags, scarves and horns were taken. Beyond accounts of the brawl itself, bruises and scratches are reported, consistent with what might be expected from juvenile pranks. It could be that the away fans genuinely experienced these incidents as somehow threatening and serious. But even in a casual reading of these forums, one quickly comes face to face with the shift in tone Prez noticed: Cosmos fans are roundly and openly described in dehumanising terms.
“Maybe it’s the way I was raised (amongst humans) but I was taught one of the lowest things you can do is go after scarfers...”
Elsewhere, posts take deep dives into the logic of carrying a knife to show Cosmos supporters they’re “messing with the wrong person”, even projecting the (wholly imagined) alternative of losing one’s wallet. One post alleges tough guy posturing on the part of Cosmos supporters, then notes the author’s ability to walk past them without anyone saying a word to him – as though he’s not simply describing people who did nothing. Others suggest reporting fans to the police. Many congratulate themselves for being associated with MLS, while denigrating the Cosmos for their “shit hole” grounds, grounds NYCFC fans threw garbage onto, according to one post. The thinly veiled racial and class elitism is difficult to miss.
You can observe a sort of mirror within a mirror within a mirror here, inasmuch as a construction of a respectable fan – who is and isn’t worthy of inclusion – is sketched into view, its boundaries enforced quite literally with the threat of police, a construction articulated by supporters of a club whose years in existence had yet to break double digits, within a league that could just barely claim two generations of fans. That league being MLS, whose front office was essentially colonised by the NFL in a sort of triage against competition. At the top, the league pedigrees were increasingly incestuous: Arthur Blank, Robert Kraft, Don Garber. A cultural inheritance, as it were, in which the priority demographic is so starkly racialised that even the most modest assertions of black dignity resulted in tantrums as high up as the White House, all the way down to people burning their homes to the ground setting Nikes on fire in protest against Colin Kaepernick’s endorsement deal.
It’s here that orientations of principle and necessity began to collide in the Five Points section, in ways very similar to their concurrent collisions out in the world. The well-worn principle of keeping sport sport, cleaved off from history and the events of the world, is tenable so long as history and the world aren’t happening to you. In effect, an orientation of privilege. A choice one can make because one has choices.
When the remaining Borough Boys and their allies in the Five Points began bringing antifascist banners to games, it wasn’t about propagandising in the name of some overt political orientation or ideology. It was a candid assessment of the broader political moment and the ways it had begun saturating everything. It was the demarcation of space and a set of expectations. “In the American political spectrum, antifascist means you’re this way,” Prez explained, referring to popular media constructions of antifa as some sort of cabal or ideological outfit. Having attended games in Europe, as far east as the former Yugoslavia, he’d arrived at a different set of reference points. Given the politics of the present moment, in any kind of space where a black man is not risking racist violence, certain political contours are already at hand. “If I can be in a section next to a white guy, it’s already an antifascist section. Our section is for everyone.”
Meanwhile, many in the Five Points sensed a noose tightening. “We kind of realised that this was more than just a soccer thing,” Alexandrakos explained. “It was also a political act, going to a Cosmos game.” Rather than fear, it provoked a deep gratitude. “The Cosmos supporters section gave me an opportunity to bring together my love of soccer, my love of New York City and a very real interest in confronting inequality.” Prez backs that assessment with a near ferocity. “My journey politically is deeply connected to my journey with this club,” he said. “My entire fucking identity, the way I dress, the way I fucking talk, the people I talk to, the people I don’t fucking talk to... it’s all related to this club.”
The needle dropped with Donald Trump’s emergence as a frontrunner in the Republican presidential landscape. Were it not enough that New York City is already keenly self-referential in its orientation, well aware of its outsized cultural footprint in the US – if not the world – there was an evident sense of embarrassment that Trump was a New York problem, unleashed on the world. Worse, his rise to political prominence had emboldened the fringe right wing. Hate crimes spiked in the city, as they did elsewhere. Parks in Brooklyn Heights were vandalised with swastikas. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was stepping up snatch-and-grab detentions outside the Brooklyn courthouse and – not satisfied with simply terrorising immigrant communities in New York – had begun actively targeting immigration activists. There was a real fear ICE could show up to games and haul people out of the stands. It wasn’t even out of the question ICE agents living on Long Island were in the stands, as fans.
“We do what we can to protect our community; people within our section who’ve been affected by recent politics,” Prez said. The more the Five Points felt embattled, the more that vigilance deepened and became an entrenched commitment. “We’ve tried to extend that to the city as a whole.”
Thus was born Cosmopolitan Antifascist Action, or CAFA.
The question then became, So what, now? The trajectory of their evolution had reversed the convention of bringing political struggles into the stands. Where precedents existed for that, they were fairly anecdotal. CAFA opted to seek guidance where they thought it might be on offer and make the rest of the path by walking. They reached out to East River Pirates, the New York supporters group for the German club St Pauli. Feelers were put out with potential contacts in New York’s antifascist networks. A relationship was formed with Pride Raiser, an independent supporters project raising money for LGBTQ charities, with CAFA specifically generating funds for queer and transgender prisoners. Direct solidarity work began with the Immigrant Defense Fund and Coney Island Lighthouse Mission – a Catholic anti- poverty project on the coastal southern edge of Brooklyn.
Infurna remembers a very specific conversation in which the idea of organising a protest came up. But he remembers it being on the order of a pipe dream; a long-term wouldn’t it be nice scenario, easily years from realisation. “Imagine if we could bring the drums and the organised chanting and the organisation we have on match day,” he recalls daydreaming out loud. “Imagine if we could bring that to demonstrations in New York.” He hoped for a day when movements in the city would know they could count on CAFA to bring out numbers, noise and support for actions. “It was romantic, but it was what we wanted to do.”
It didn’t take much bantering to line up 20 or so people in the group willing to take the first step. “So, we met at this bar, and were like let’s start this thing,” he says. The feeling seems to have been that it wouldn’t come to much; just leg work, inching toward this vision of being something that could have a presence in street protests. No one was prepared for it to be even remotely successful. A Facebook event was created, to be shared through their networks, with the hope of getting on the radar of New York’s antifascist networks and forging a few germinal connections. No one would take them seriously, but someone might at least be curious.
The summer political conventions were a few months out and the Democratic presidential nomination was still up for grabs, with polls showing Hillary Clinton neck and neck against Trump; Bernie Sanders beating him handily. So progressive hope not just to sideline Trump but flip the script away from the centrist Democratic status quo was surging even within the progressive wing of the party establishment, an engine for the news cycle and mainstream narratives. At the ground level, direct action became more frequent, from the streets to the insides of Trump’s rallies, where he urged supporters to violently remove disrupters, promising to pay any legal bills.
Then Chicago happened.
Watching from England, McVittie had a bird’s eye view of what increasingly looked like a perfect storm. “Overnight, they had this sort of viral thing blow up on Facebook, for a rally, and they were in the middle of it,” he recalls. “It wasn’t designed to piggyback off anything. Everything just happened at once.” So quickly, in fact, and with such clumsy modesty, that some of their. own people wound up in attendance without knowing who was behind it. Alexandrakos was one of them. “I saw Pat [Infurna] there, before I even really knew he was involved with the Cosmos at that level. He was onstage in a Borough Boys scarf,” he remembers.
It broke something open for him. As though the badge had forced its way back into the city. No money changing hands. No deals with the devil. “It became something more than watching 11 against 11 on the field, or the long railroad out to the middle of fucking nowhere.”
Looking back, Infurna laughs at his failure to see what CAFA was stepping into, but relishes the naivety. “We know it was a moment in time, and it was a spark, and we just happened to try to do something at the right time,” he said, acknowledging the central role of happenstance, “but it was proof of concept that we could get thousands of people mobilised.”
In June 2016, the Cosmos faced NYCFC away at Fordham University in the US Open Cup’s fourth round. They won. What made headlines, however, occurred outside the stadium, where the rivalry took bloody turns before the players had even walked onto the pitch. “I think people really underestimated how intense that rivalry had gotten,” Infurna said, as if verbalising it for the first time. Given what had happened at Hofstra the previous year, Fordham University’s stadium had taken serious precautions, with the away section fully cordoned off and separated from the home fans by security standing shoulder to shoulder.
Outside the stadium, however, there appeared to be little structure or strategy.
Anticipating a potential repeat of 2015, the Five Points Crew met up in the Bronx, renting a school bus from an ally of the club, to arrive at Fordham as a group with some semblance of protection. Their ride decked out in green, some of them having climbed to the roof, their entrance was deliberately provocative, not entirely innocent. In the end, it probably didn’t matter.
“They were waiting for us,” Infurna said, up to and including someone he recognised from the Hofstra clashes, who’d since been linked to local Proud Boys – the far right ‘fraternity’ founded by the former VICE mogul Gavin McInnes, known for bigoted mob violence across the US. “We knew immediately who we were up against,” Infurna said, describing the scene awaiting them in the Bronx. “It wasn’t the Third Rail. These were known fascists with SS tattoos and Fred Perry gear.”
Accounts vary as to the chronology of what followed, and only brief, edited footage circulates online. Projectiles were launched in both directions, order depending on who is asked. What can be seen in the video is a handful of NYCFC fans throwing punches across a shoddily constructed barricade, with Fordham University security scrambling to intervene. “When we got off the bus, it just kinda popped off,” Infurna recalls. “They came for real violence. When they hit one of our guys, he was hurt bad. Not because this Nazi was some great martial artist, but because he was wearing tactical gloves with lead or plastic knuckles or some shit.”
Hofstra immediately banned the Cosmos from playing MLS clubs at its stadium, fearing future escalation should the rivalry return to Long Island. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post tabloid ran a story the following day headlined Cosmos Kicked Out of Home Field Over Hooligan Fights.
While it’s hardly a stretch to read cynicism into the editorial line of the New York Post, it’s difficult to gauge just how deep it ran in this case. Certainly, at that moment, the history of hooliganism in Europe had enough currency in the US to function as a lede, whether or not the story it told was particularly meaningful. There are no quotes from anyone present at the clashes, just the then Cosmos COO, Eric Stover, lamenting the breakdown between the club and Hofstra. The article makes no mention of white nationalists or nazis. Beneath the veneer of journalism and the economy of conventional wisdom, a reader is still left with the fact that choices were made, by people who had choices. The choice not to sound an alarm over fascists attacking outer-borough immigrants, for instance, or the choice of positioning the latter as the annoying ne’er-do-wells of an otherwise “respectable” sporting establishment.
It would take nearly three years for anything approaching a significant headline to mention white nationalists or Proud Boys within NYCFC fan culture despite near-constant documentation and discussion online. The missed opportunities to deny racists a recruiting ground in the Yankee Stadium are numerous. A full three weeks before the Athletic ‘broke’ the story, Proud Boys leaving a Republican club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were caught on video assaulting anti-fascists protesting outside. The event? A fundraiser at which Gavin McInnes reenacted the murder of a Japanese socialist by a sword-wielding ultranationalist.
Nearly half a year later, once the Athletic’s story had been taken up by HuffPo and the Guardian, MLS’s commissioner Don Garber publicly wrung his hands over the scandal at a pre-game press event at DC United’s stadium. His claim was that the racist behaviour reported in these stories was not happening in MLS stadiums and that the league would refuse to be engaged around the beliefs of fans, monitoring only behaviour. Notwithstanding its woeful inadequacy as a response – or its lack of concern for marginalised communities facing intimidation by threat of violence within NYCFC’s stands – Garber’s declaration wasn’t entirely true.
In 2019, antifascist NYCFC fans were dragged out of Yankee Stadium for political displays, just yards from known white nationalists who’d been banned for violence, somehow allowed back into the stands. The Chicago Fire were plotting the unprecedented step of mounting a corporate takeover of their supporter group, Section 8 (itself a reference to the public housing subsidy programme in the US), to freeze out the section’s anti-capitalist politics. And what had become known as “NYCFC’s nazi problem” – its indifference to fans living with the threat of fascist violence, and its light hand with the far right, with the oft-repeated Republicans buy shoes, too – was metastasising into an MLS problem.
When it exploded in the 2019 fan fight with MLS over its attempt to ban the antifascist Iron Front symbol in stadiums, with supporters sections staging arguably title-determining silent protests and televised walkouts, clubs were left scrambling to not look like NYCFC, while defending a policy most had had no role in writing. The results were predictably embarrassing for everyone involved. Garber continued the line that bans on political symbols were about keeping the game apolitical, while claiming (when pressed) that the Make America Great Again hats favoured by Trump supporters were not necessarily political. Yet these are hats routinely worn in the commission of hate crimes, and the slogan was used by men who’d sent mail bombs to liberal politicians and media outlets, by men who carried out massacres in synagogues and newspaper offices. Players supported the fans, showing up to matches sporting the Iron Front flag on T-shirts, posting solidarity messages on social media.
Alexander Reid Ross, a geographer at Portland State University and author of Against the Fascist Creep wasn’t at the Portland Timbers games where the confrontation saw sharp escalations; he was too busy coaching his son’s soccer team. But he had a front row seat to fascist violence in Portland’s streets and a scholarly command of the historical tailwinds at work in MLS. “It’s soft bureaucracy, you know?” he explains. “Because the nazis are so authoritarian, they end up making the rule, right? They’re so rule-oriented that even though they’re breaking rules, they come off as though they’re breaking rules in order to enfranchise stronger rules. So, organisations that are trying to maintain their own hegemony and the institution of the league try to keep things from reaching what would look like degeneration, in their minds.”
He anticipated the eventual failure of the league’s strategy, in large part because the present moment is so acute and visceral. Were it 2004, a year into the anti-war protests that followed the US invasion of Iraq, the fan response to MLS might be more muted by virtue of the politics being so abstracted. “People wouldn’t have that much to say about it, probably,” he suggested. “They’d just be like, Yo I’m just taking my kids to watch the game, or whatever. They’d have a beer, do some chants.” But in Portland, for example, the memory of people stabbed to death while defending Muslims from racist harassment on public transit is still fresh. The revelations of police collaboration with right-wing militias that regularly threaten the city, and who have at points derailed legislation with threats of armed violence, loom large. What the Timbers Army has done in sort of spearheading the #UnitedFront supporters movement in many ways channels that collective trauma.
“The pressure from the league is sort of corollary to the pressure on antifascists from the President,” Ross said. “There’s a kind of general consensus that Portland is doing it wrong, you know? From the President of the United States, to CNN, it’s like people are constantly wagging their fingers at us. And it doesn’t change what we do. It just makes us feel more embattled. The soccer issue is just another part of that, where Portlanders feel bereft in a country that is massively shifting to the right wing.”
On 8 November 2016 Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. That same month, the Cosmos won the NASL league title, in a final during which chants of “Fuck Donald Trump” could be heard from the CAFA section of the Five Points during the playing of the national anthem.
The bittersweetness with which the year appeared to be closing didn’t last. Harrowing reports about the Cosmos’s financial condition began circulating almost immediately, of payroll not being made, of lawsuits over back rent on office space. Word was the club had lost as much as US$30 million since resuming competitive play after its rebirth. One third of that was lost in 2016 alone. According to Jack Gaeta, they were nearly $4 million in the hole. The organisation was gutted front to back with everyone from players to front office staff shown the door.
It looked bleak. Supporters were bracing for the worst, getting absolutely torched on the internet while raising money for laid-off Cosmos staff. 2016 looked to be their Icarus moment. Lacking other options to stop the financial haemorrhage, the club came within a hair’s breadth of being bought by a group of investors – investors who, it turned out, were connected to NYCFC and MLS, circling like vultures, intending, it was believed, to kill the club, sealing off the possibility of it ever coming back. “[They wanted to] buy the Cosmos for dead,” Gaeta said. “The whole intellectual property, everything. Just to shut it down.”
In a last-minute Hail Mary of sorts, Gaeta called on the cable media billionaire Rocco Commisso, now owner of Serie A’s Fiorentina. The two knew each other from their years in Columbia University’s soccer programme. They’d been in more regular contact in recent years, so Gaeta passed along that the Cosmos were up for sale and asked if he’d be interested. It quite possibly yanked the club out of oblivion. Rocco stepped into the fray. The 2017 NASL season was on.
Before anyone could exhale, the US Soccer Federation downgraded the North American Soccer League’s Division II status to provisional, after the league registered only eight teams; two-thirds the required threshold. The club was hit with more staffing cuts. Within a month of saving the club, Gaeta was unemployed.
The supporters who remained with the Cosmos could scarcely come up for air without taking another kick to the teeth. But in the ruins and rebuilding, an accelerated clarification occurred in the identity of both the club and its fans, binding the two in an unprecedented interdependence. Stephen Miller was their unwitting, antagonistic muse.
On 2 August 2017, in response to a series of pointed questions from the CNN reporter Jim Acosta, Stephen Miller defended his warped, revisionist interpretation of the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, with a telling loaded retort. Clearly lobbing red meat to an alt-right audience, he told Acosta that his line of questions reflected his “cosmopolitan bias” – a historically antisemitic euphemism. Delivered in the White House press room.
Alexandrakos practically leaps out of his seat at the mention of it. “Oh yeah. That’s codename for Jewish!” he said. “I almost couldn’t believe it was happening; that it was so brazen. It was so out there, so blatant.”
Infurna remembers it very clearly. The New York Cosmos were founded before virtually anyone in the Five Points was born, so he couldn’t feel any credit in naming the club. “But it’s perfect. As perfect as it gets,” he said. “We know that right-wing ultras in Europe use it as an insult for left-wing clubs or things they don’t like. So this word cosmopolitan is not just a good fit for multicultural, borderless, nationless ideas and people. It’s also provocative. It bothers people opposed to what we stand for.” Prez broke into a broad grin at mere reference to the synergy. “I love it. We love that shit,” he laughed. “We live in a cosmopolitan city, and we take our community and our club as seriously as we want to be taken. So we do what we can to protect our community, people within our section that have been affected by recent politics, and we’ve tried to extend that to the city as a whole.”
That vigilance, however ambitious, was hardly misplaced. Just weeks after Miller sounded an antisemitic dog whistle from a White House podium, 250 white nationalists, neo-nazis, klansmen, and fascists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia with torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” as part of the Unite the Right rally scheduled for 11 and 12 August. Before the weekend was over, an antifascist named Heather Heyer was killed when a neo-nazi ploughed his car into a group of counter-protesters. Dozens more were injured throughout the weekend, including a black man gang beaten by pole-wielding white nationalists. Police later charged the beaten man over his own attack, before public pressure saw the charges dropped. Trump would issue a press statement claiming there were “good people on both sides”. Attendees of the rally have since been implicated in a number of violent hate crimes across the country.
By the time Charlottesville had happened, a year and a half had passed since CAFA brought thousands out to Columbus Circle to protest Trump. They’d spent most of that time reflecting on their failure to replicate that kind of engagement or success since. Across many meetings, they took in the state of the club, the condition of its fan culture, and opted to double-down on both, returning to a more soccer-facing orientation. ”Our bigger mission was never to say, ‘You can only be part of this if you’re capital-A Antifascist,’” said Infurna. “We wanted to bring in football fans who are already skilled at organising groups of people, skilled at various levels of confrontation – things that our work actually needs.”
It was at once humble and extraordinarily self-assured. Having tasted the visibility and credibility of bringing thousands into the streets, they could have chased the approval and social capital of association with more established activists in New York, at the expense of where they came from. They didn’t. With this recommitment, they took on a new name: Brigada 71.
The name was intended to root them in more conventional supporter group reference points, with nods to both the year of the Cosmos’s founding and the antifascist International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War. Given the club used Coney Island’s MCU park as its home in the 2017 season, the group took as its sort of patron saint Milton Wolff – a Brooklyn native and the last commander of the Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades.
Unlike in MLS, the front office has embraced it – at least tentatively, perhaps more resigned than enthusiastic. The club’s woes would be challenging for any fan base, but especially in the US, where soccer has less popular currency, where it’s less likely to be water-cooler conversation than other sports, the constant toggling in and out of all manner of collapse exhausts the casual attention span. As the front office plugs leaks and duct tapes everything to the floor, it’s dependent on the fans who stick it out. Brigada 71 knows this.
“I think leftists, and maybe anarchists in particular, have this ability to take a chaotic situation and turn it into something beautiful,” Infurna said. Had Cosmos gone the way of MLS, or even just achieved institutional stability, the club’s identity would probably be totally different. “I think that what we’ve been able to do has been a bit of a double-edged sword. But it’s been directly correlated with the absolute crisis that the club has been in.”
It’s easy for people to forget that the club effectively had a half-season in 2018, before discovering the Federation was taking NASL off life-support. “Because we are one of the groups that’s stuck around, because we’ve stuck it out, we’ve stuck by the badge, by the players, by the administration,” he said, pausing to find the words, “I don’t want to talk about it like we’ve carried out some kind of coup, but when the casual fans don’t stick around, the hardcore support becomes much more prevalent in the big picture of what the club is.”
Not for nothing. When the leftist German club St Pauli organised a string of friendlies for its 2019 US tour, a New York appearance was a given. They could’ve played NYCFC or the Red Bulls. It would have driven considerable press coverage, and would have been an obvious move for either New York club, in terms of increasing international brand awareness. Instead, St Pauli fell to the New York Cosmos B squad, in front of maybe a thousand fans, on a week night, at Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In effect, an antifascist derby in the shadow of NYCFC’s home. Its symbolic significance was lost on no one. “I think that whole Venn diagram of punk, of rebirth, of football, of the political – all of those things overlapping are what make up the sum of the Cosmos, now,” said McVittie.
“We were always this family, regardless of what we thought of the world. And that just continued to grow,” insisted Prez. “It became about protecting the club, and now it’s become about protecting our family – the section, the people within the section, the people outside of the section. Treating the world, or at least treating New York as our section.”
The last day of October, word began circulating that the Cosmos were applying to play in the National Independent Soccer Association for the 2020 season, alongside similarly community-identified clubs like the Oakland Roots, Detroit City FC, and Chattanooga FC.
Another rebirth. With Brigada 71 in the wings.