An Interview With Cosmos Legend Andranik Eskandarian
Saturday was much like any other Saturday here in beautiful Glendale, California. I had watched EPL on the telly, finished up the NWSL Semi final, worked on the World Wide Soccer Podcast and drove to the local Armenian deli to pick up some pastries and coffee.
As I entered the establishment my eye noticed a poster on the glass door for an up coming event. The Iranian Armenian Football Hall of Fame Party. Four Soccer players were being honored and all four had a photo. My eyes zoomed on the one instantly recognizable face on the poster. The player that I had been hearing about since the day I stepped foot in California. The player that everyone in the city I now call home knows and idolizes. The one player that when you pass old men talking about soccer in coffee shops and kebab houses will always mention with the same reverence as a war hero or ex president or the bloke who once saved their life.
The photo was of Eskandarian in his old NASL Cosmos uniform and he was being honored....that night! So I picked up the phone and called a bloke by the name of VJ Khachikian who was in charge of the event and asked him if I could come to the banquet and dance and...maybe get an interview with the legendary player. The phone call to VJ was pretty surreal. I told him my name and that I was with Football.com. To which he replied “What is that?” It was a total Benny Hill moment and I explained that I write for the best soccer website in the world and that I had been looking to interview Eskandarian for years. Decades actually. VJ asked if I spoke Farsi or Armenian to which I replied no but If I could speak with the player I could work things out. The banquet was a few hours away so the odds of me getting a proper invite would be difficult so I was already planning how I could buy the $70 ticket, and try to get an interview as a guest of some kind. Not needed...VJ told me to be there at 830pm and he would have Andranik Eskandarian ready for a one on one interview for as long as the guests allowed him to be away from the spotlight.
I showed up to The Ararat Center early and introduced myself to everyone I could. I was a bit under dressed as this was a proper banquet. I sneaked a peek into Baghdasarian-Shahinian Hall where tables were set up in the style of any Hollywood gathering and brilliantly the center piece on each table were flowers and an Adidas Soccer ball. I was in the right place. Persian TV was setting up in front me. There were men inside the center that looked like old soccer players. You could imagine that in their younger days they could have been football stars in a far away country on teams that probably don't exist any more. As each person walked in and around the foyer they would bump into another old player type and immediately eyes would light up and hugs and kisses would be exchanged. Wives were introduced to other wives and of course I could only imagine the rosy colored stories that were being exchanged. Meanwhile I just stood there trying to look like I wasn't really excited about meeting Andranik Eskandarian. I couldn't fake it! I was grinning from ear to ear. I was excited!
In Glendale, California everyone knows Andranik Eskandarian. Sit in a coffee shop and talk soccer for a few minutes with your mates and almost all the time someone will ask you if you've ever heard of Andranik Eskandarian. In these situations it's best to say “no” because as soon as you do...you will be regaled by stories of this soccer player. I've heard hundreds of stories about him while sitting at Starbucks alone. Old Timers have sat and told me about his time on Ararat Tehran in 1970 and how he played so well that two years later he joined Esterghal and wowed fans there. I have heard countless stories of his two appearances for the Iranian National team in the 1978 World Cup. I have heard arguments about his style and technique when he played Scotland and Holland...and that he was unlucky to get 2 yellow cards that kept him out of playing Peru in Iran's third and final match in that World Cup. I've heard everything about his player from People that absolutely love him. Now with all these stories (and I mean ALL these stories) I always was told that Eskandarian was the nicest person you could possible meet. I never once heard that this former Cosmos player was anything less than a gentleman. Each story ended with “he's class” or “you wouldn't know that he's a star by the way he acts” and the word “humble” was always used.
Now here I was literally waiting in the wings to talk to the man that I heard so much about. A banquet room full of people waiting to honor him and I was hoping to just shake his hand and ask him a few questions.
I had all my notes prepared and I wanted to ask him about his Cosmos days. I wanted to ask him about the World All Stars match in Giants stadium where he played against the Cosmos. Eskandarian was on vacation and played so well that The Cosmos asked if he could stay a few extra days and play against Boca Juniors. The Cosmos were looking to sign Argentine defender (and World Cup Champion) Alberto Tarantini but at the match Eskandarian assisted Georgio Chinaglia with a goal and impressed so much that The Cosmos bigwigs asked him to sign for the New York franchise. Eskandarian was in talks with a Spanish club but opted to stay with New York.
I wanted to ask about the time an idiot fan, during the Hostage Crisis, ran onto the field in Fort Lauderdale and tried to beat him up only to have Eskandarian's teammates come to his aid.
The questions were buzzing around in my mind and folks were moving in and out of the banquet hall. One guest came up to me and started talking about the Guests of Honor. Other than Eskandarian, three others were being honored- Garnik Mehrabian, Karo Haghverdian and Arshavir Maleky. All accomplished footballers and all highly respected in the community. One guest told me that this was the inaugural Hall of Fame ceremony and that hopefully the event would continue year after year to honor the folks in football that inspired two nations. One guest told me that he was very happy Eskandarian was showing up. “He rarely stays for more than a day...” and “he rarely gives interviews.”
One of the hosts told me that I would have the first interview and that Persian TV would have the second and that was it...no other interviews.
Still waiting I asked a host what Eskandarian was like and his first word was “humble.”
830pm rolled around and Eskandarian walked into the Hall and was soon enveloped by people wanting to hug him and shake his hand. The room suddenly filled with excitement. Folks moved into see him and after 5 minutes of hustle and bustle, VJ escorted him over to yours truly and said “Simon from Football.com”
I started talking but more folks came over to say hello and shake his hand. He greeted them all with hearty hand shakes and hugs and hellos then turns to me and says “lets go over there so we don't get disturbed while we talk...” and the interview begins.
Simon: You're a legend of Iranian Armenian Soccer. We're in Glendale right now...what's it like being here at this moment at the Iranian Armenian Football Hall of Fame Party?
Andranik: Well...this is very exciting...I see a lot of my friends and some of them I haven't seen in probably twenty years, twenty five years . These people have always been nice to me...and I don't know why...but I really appreciate it. This is the nicest thing. When they asked me to come...there was no questions...I packed and said I would be there no problem.
Simon: I've been looking forward to talk to you sir ever since I came to America. The one team here in America I knew was The Cosmos. You played alongside some legends, Carlos Alberto, Chinaglia... Bogey....
Simon: Of course...Beckenbauer...but it must have been great being one of "Glendale's own" playing for the best team in the world at that time...What was it like being a soccer player in the 70's and 80's in America?
Andranik: In the beginning I didn't know where I was going because as soon as they asked me to join them and I went into the locker and I see that most of the people didn't speak English. They were from 13 or 14 different countries...I was a little bit shy...but as soon as I went into the game all of us knew how to play soccer and we clicked like that! And started winning and enjoying and it became excellent.
Simon: I'm not old enough to really remember...but honestly...was it great football?
Andranik: Well...(pauses for a moment to think) I'll let the people judge.... I don't want to say anything but the people to this day come, young people, they are Cosmos fans...they say they never saw soccer like that. They were enjoying...I don't know if it was great because of the personalities or because of the way we were playing. But really I can't answer that. But the (fans) were really enjoying themselves...there was always seventy thousand people and every state we were going to there were sold out with sixty, seventy thousand people.
Simon: Were you friends with all the Cosmos players?...do you remember the American players that didn't get much time?
Andranik: I was friends with everybody...Till this day I'm friends with all of them...It was personality to personality difference. Some thought the foreigners were a little bit selfish...but that wasn't the thing with the Cosmos.We were one team and everybody was respecting each other no matter which country
you came from or what your background was.
Simon: The Cosmos had a Turkish manager (Yasin Ozdenak as well as goalie Erol Yasin) when you played. Was there ever any problems?
Andranik: Actually they loved me...I didn't know they were Turkish first. As I said...I walked in I saw different people....and all the people were the nicest I've ever seen. There was always respect (between us) and actually...from my heart...I can say...They always loved Armenians. Even though they were Turkish, they would say in my ear that we love Armenians.
Simon: I remember watching a “season preview” film made by the Cosmos and when Chinaglia was interviewed you would see his name and below that it would say “Italy” and when Beckenbauer was interviewed...below his name would say “Germany”...The you were interviewed and it was just “Andranik Eskandarian” with no country below your name...No “Iran”...Did you perhaps represent more than one country?
Andranik: I had a little bit of a problem...when I played in Iran...they called me the one Armenian player on the National team of Iran. Always they would mention that! (But) as soon as I came to the United States...they would say...The One Iranian player in America...so that (caused) a few problems during the Hostage Crisis...and had a few people attacking me on the field...and off of the field....but as I said we had big fans and everyone had a great time.
Simon: What do you fondly remember about playing soccer in America in the 1970's?
Andranik: Americans appreciated what ever we were doing on the field. You had your own fans if you played well.
Simon: You were in the finals at RFK...what was that like?
Andranik: I played the final in Washington...and San Diego. RFK was excellent! Especially because we won! (Andranik's face lights up even more when he says that and he laughs which in turn makes me laugh)
Simon: (Still laughing!) Do you remember that?
Andranik: Of course! That game...actually...I had a little bit of an injury...I had a cortisone shot and my coach said you have to play. Physically...maybe...I was not able but with those shots I was able to play. But we didn't want the other team to know I was not able to play...
Simon: Who was the best player you ever marked in the NASL?
Andranik: Many of them...I can name them...you will be amazed...
Simon: Okay I'm ready....
Andranik: First game I marked George Best!
Andranik: Second player I marked was Johan Cruyff...and it was in Los Angeles. Besides marking him I had two assists for the Cosmos. We beat them 2-0 or 2-1...But there were so many players from overseas like Cubillas. My job was to mark these players...and I marked them! (laughs)
Simon: Okay...I have to ask....How did you mark (George) Best? Do you remember your game plan?
Andranik: (Laughs) This...you will have to ask my wife! (laughs some more) I don't like any forward to have the ball around me.
Simon: Tell me about the Iranian National team and the World Cup in 1978. This was the first time Iran had reached the World Cup and you played against Scotland and Holland......
Andranik: Listen...were weren't an experienced team. We went there and we did excellent. In my opinion we were not prepared but we did an excellent job. I'm looking now at the talent....
Simon: (Interrupting)Like Ali Parvin...
Andranik: Beside Ali Parvin...All of them...we had excellent players...we had (Mohammad) Saderi...we had a lot of good players. It was unbelievable!
Simon: Do you follow the Iranian National Team now? Or the Armenian National Team?
Andranik: To be honest with you, once I left Iran I had less contact with...I barely speak Persian. I've been practicing these past couple of days so I can make a speech here. Hopefully I'll be good!
Simon: I'm sure you will do well. Every time I talk to people in Glendale about soccer they always mention your name.
Andranik: I love all these people. They have been very nice...very generous. I don't know how to thank them enough...because honestly...they've been so nice to me. Sometimes I wonder why! I'm not good looking.......
Simon: (interrupts) You're a legend! And it's funny...when I talk to Iranians...they tell me you're an Iranian legend and when I talk to Armenians they say you're an Armenian legend....so you transcend borders and nationalities...which is one of the reasons (I think) you're being honored.
Andranik: I appreciate you saying that....
Simon: One more question...I haven't read too many interviews with you...are you keeping away from soccer these days?
Andranik: I don't really like interviews. I get a call for an interview and many times I just run away....(laughs)
Simon: Well it truly is an honor to talk to you...
Andranik: I'm glad I'm finally talking to you...
Simon: It's a pleasure to finally meet you sir.
Later that evening, the man Eskandarian called his “inspiration”, Mohammad Boyati handed him his trophy and inducted him into the Hall of Fame. Eskandarian thanked him and told the crowd “ For all my success in football...I'm indebted to the footballers and coaches who have come before me...”