Cosmos Trip to Middle East Raising Eyebrows

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By JACK BELL

Cosmos logoThe Cosmos’ loss to an amateur team in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a trip to the Middle East and a tweet from the player who delivered last year’s North American Soccer League title to the club has rubbed the wrong way some of the club’s most ardent supporters.

The Cosmos are in Saudi Arabia — soon to be joined by President Donald J. Trump, who is making the first stop on a trip that will take him to Israel and Europe — for a match on Saturday against Al-Hilal at Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh. (On its website, the club said the match would be carried live by beIN Sports at 1:45 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, though there was no listing for the game on the network’s website as of late Friday. BeIN is part of the Al Jazeera Media Network.)

The club and a handful of team officials received VIP treatment for their trip on Emirates Airlines, one of the Cosmos main sponsors, less than 24 hours after New York was ousted from the Open Cup by Reading United on Wednesday night. It was perhaps the club’s worst loss since its reboot season in 2013.

We’ve noticed, in our own channels, in the fan base, a growing number of fans who were happy the team came back under new ownership, but are now upset with this friendly and the exit from the Open Cup,” Luis Hernandez, one of the hosts of the Cosmos Country podcast, told EoS on Friday. “There’s been a growing amount of fans who are voicing a degree of distrust or anger, there’s definitely anger. They lost in the Open Cup to a D4 team, their earliest exit [in the Cup] and now they’re off to Saudi Arabia to play a friendly that doesn’t matter.”

Some fans’ feathers were further ruffled when Ryan Richter, the defender who scored the decisive penalty kick when the Cosmos defeated Indy Eleven last November to win their second-straight NASL title, posted a photo on his Twitter page that referred to Sela Sport.

Can’t really see another squad tryna cross us 🇸🇦🇸🇦🇺🇸🇸🇦🇸🇦⚽️⚽️🔑 @NYCosmos @SelaSport #nycoriginals #saudiarabia pic.twitter.com/DftfvVK8JT

The Saudi sports marketing company, which is based in Jeddah, was always believed to be part of the past ownership group, but its role was never detailed by Seamus O’Brien, who relinquished majority control of the club to Rocco Commisso in January.

A former member of the Borough Boys, one of the club’s supporters groups, asserts that the group was assured that Sela was no longer part of ownership. But the trip to Saudi Arabia in the middle of the NASL’s Spring Season coupled with Richter’s tweet simply looks suspect to some of the team’s fans. There is also a feeling that the invitation to the Cosmos extended by the Saudi government was somehow related to the president’s visit, though there is no evidence of a quid pro quo.

We’re pretty interested in that picture in particular,” Hernandez said, referring to Richter’s tweet. “Up to now, the past involvement of Sela Sport has been downplayed. Now, all of a sudden the Cosmos are in Saudi Arabia, and hey, we’re with Sela Sport. It’s all very suspect.

“Sela has always been a kind of mysterious organization. Some call it shaky, some shadowy, maybe it’s a little of both. Most people don’t know what they do or who they are. We were told that Sela was no longer involved, but here we are in 2017 posing for pictures. It’s highly suspect.”

Though the company generally tries to fly under the radar, Sela recently completed a deal with Spain’s La Liga to market the league in North Africa and the Middle East. According to a news release, Sela “is a sports marketing and management company founded in 1995. It manages the commercial rights of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, the Saudi Professional League and the Union of Arab Football Associations, among others. Sela also owns the exclusive commercial rights of the three biggest football clubs in Saudi Arabia [Al Hilal being one of them] in addition to Al Ahly of Egypt, while its other ventures have included organising games such as the Ittihad FC v Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid v Al-Nassr FC exhibition matches.”

For Hernandez, the lack of concrete information is nearly as bad as the optics.

Whenever we get knocked out of the Open Cup, that’s when questions about the long term come up,” he said. “A lot of people are wondering where the club is going and why it is in Saudi Arabia in middle of the season. There are questions.

“It just looks terrible. It just doesn’t look good.”