Werner Roth has seen more than his 15 minutes in the spotlight, on and off the soccer field. But one of his biggest moments he never expected – nor initially wanted.
After retiring as captain of the world famous New York Cosmos – including the 1977 North American Soccer League championship team with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia - Roth was given an opportunity to portray a soccer player in the 1981 feature film “Victory.”
Brought into the project by Pele, Roth headed to Budapest, Hungary, expecting to be a cast as a non-descript French player in the film starring Sylvester Stallone and set in World War II. But after arriving on set, legendary director John Huston had other ideas.
“John Huston hadn’t cast Baumann,” Roth recalled a scene in the hotel lobby after Huston didn’t cast Baumann, the captain of the German team, who wore swastikas. Roth was uneasy about bucking Huston, especially sitting in jeans, a T-shirt and wraparound sweater while Pele lurked nearby in a blue tuxedo.
Still, Roth was resistant, and when Huston learned Roth spoke German, “that was it.”
“No, he’s the bad guy,” Roth protested. Huston, however, immediately made a camera viewfinder with his thumbs and forefingers, trying to get Roth to visualize the moment. “I’ll give you the final scene with Stallone. You…and Stallone!
“So what can you do?”
Adaptability was a trait that served Roth well as leader of one of the most famous soccer teams in history and earned him universal praise from teammate and opponent alike.
“Werner was one of those guys, that he was game for just about anything,” said Rick Davis, former teammate with the Cosmos and U.S. National Team. “He had an entrepreneurial spirit. He’ll give new things a try. While publically he didn’t want that part, deep down inside, he was probably thinking, ‘Yeah, this might be cool.’”
Born in Yugoslavia, his family moved to Germany when he was five and they stayed two years before immigrating to the United States. He grew up in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens in New York City and became as American as everybody else in the ethnically ingrained area, playing for Brooklyn Technical High School and then the German-Hungarians in the semi-pro German American league.
In 1972, he was signed at 24 by the Cosmos in the still nascent North American Soccer League. Three years later, his life changed dramatically.
“My interest at the time was not exclusively football,” Roth said. “Until 1975, when Pele showed up, it was not a profession. I never expected it to be. Soccer for me was a pastime. I loved doing it. I wanted to be a player on better teams.
“I was aware of the game in the rest of world, but it was not something I was dependent on. In 1975, I took it seriously. Most players had never experienced professional soccer. The foreigners that came here were always expecting to go back. In the three years that Pele was there, pro soccer had potential of making it in America.”
Despite only playing 15 internationals in three years with the U.S. National Team, Roth was voted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1989 after playing only seven seasons with the Cosmos.
But he won three titles, including the crown in 1977 in which he captained the squad with Chinaglia and World Cup champions Pele, Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto.
“He was as good as any American player who played the position (of central defender),” said former teammate and Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing. “It’s hard to say he was underrated, after being selected into the Hall of Fame with three championship rings. But on pure ability, there was never any better player in America.
“If you think about it, he played on a team with two of the world’s best central defenders, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer, and he pushed Beckenbauer into the midfield and Alberto to right back.”
Besides the title the Cosmos won in his first season in 1972, Roth would captain the internationally renowned club to two more crowns, in 1977 and 1978.
“He was the best American player,” said Eddie Firmani, Roth’s coach with the Cosmos in their heyday. “He had the character, the charisma, the ability to play and the ability to captain.
Werner was the best captain you could have had. When you have a good captain, you keep him. He could converse with all the troublemakers, the star players, the medium players. He could deal with all those players.”
Roth’s playing ability along with his personality earned him the respect in a locker room that some said was too small to fit all the personalities – but provided the “glue” according to Messing that held it together.
Davis said he saw the respect Roth carried almost immediately. While on an exhausting post-season tour of Asia, the team was finishing a training session with a scrimmage when the call went up: next goal wins.
“With that, Franz (Beckenbauer), with the outside of his right foot, bends a ball to me,” said Davis, a much-hyped 18-year-old American prodigy at the time. “All I have to do is control it, and put it in a small-sided goal. Franz put it perfectly from 60 yards, and I muffed it. Then Franz yells out, ‘If this is the future of American soccer, sell the franchise.’”
The next thing Davis noticed was Roth walking over to Beckenbauer and saying something to him in German. Later in the locker room, Beckenbauer came over to Davis and apologized for humiliating him.
“Two or three days later, I asked Werner what he said to him,” Davis said. “He just smiled and told me something to the effect, ‘We’ve all been there.’ The point to Franz was, ‘The kid’s doing the best he can, cut him some slack.’”
The charisma that won the Cosmos two championships, combined with rugged handsome good looks and a disarming personality – as well as a friendship with Pele - would get Roth into the movies. His fame would even warrant a role as himself in a dramatic film called “Manny’s Orphans” in 1978.
With a degree in architecture from New York’s famous Pratt Institute, Roth retired from soccer after the 1979 season and started a namesake sportswear company. He would meld his relationships and his soccer knowledge into a post-playing life as a business and project consultant on soccer-related ventures. He even utilized his architecture training.
After marrying actress Robin Mattson – best known, according to IMDB, for roles in soap operas as “scheming blondes” – in 2006, the couple moved three years later to California where Roth has been developing a film about his experiences with the Cosmos as well as a soccer project called Futbol Academia.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” Roth said.
Futbol Academia is a player development training protocol, he says, that works with programs already in place, but “transfers the responsibility to (the player), then gives them the tools to optimize.”
It’s an individualized program for year-round training, since preparing players for high-level competition “no longer works part-time.”
Roth has been working with the San Diego Flash of the fourth-division National Premier Soccer League and with the NPSL regarding a broader relationship.
Now 65, he is looking to leverage his lifetime of soccer experience to a generation who might only know him as the guy who was punching Pele in an old movie.
Considering his achievements in his previous soccer career, his former teammates certainly aren’t discounting his chances for success.
“He was, on a fundamental level, speaking the same language,” Davis said. “When I came to the Cosmos, he knew what I was in for, having gone through it himself. In the early days, he was a huge help.”