His appearance on the field was greeted by fireworks, his uncanny passes by grateful cheers and the goal he stunningly headed into the net—well, it was carnival time beneath the Triborough Bridge. This was Pelé Sunday afternoon in New York, adding another chapter to his career as soccer's celebrated folk hero. Playing his first game as a member of the New York Cosmos, he managed to momentarily transform Downing Stadium, a moldering Depression-age relic on an island in the East River, into the improbable center of world futebol.
Pelé's performance included an assist and a goal that enabled the Cosmos to salvage a 2-2 tie with the Dallas Tornado. It didn't matter that the game itself was a mere media event, an exhibition set up to showcase the Cosmos' extraordinary coup to TV audiences in the U.S., Japan and much of Latin America. Nor did it matter that the crowd of 21,278—some 1,200 fewer than capacity—would have been swallowed up in Maracana stadium, in Pelé's Brazil. And while many in the crowd didn't know a scissors kick from a wall pass, that was exactly the point: it was to promote soccer in the uninitiated U.S. that Pelé agreed to play with the Cosmos.
Admittedly out of shape from his eight-month retirement, the 34-year-old Pelé was joining a team that had a depressing 3-6 record in the North American Soccer League. Roaming the field with little wasted motion, he dribbled past swarms of Tornado defenders and threaded soft, accurate passes through the smallest openings. The only trouble was that the other Cosmos all too often seemed unprepared. It appeared that the bandy-legged little man was not so much promoting U.S. soccer as exposing it.
But soon he had his teammates obeying him almost as much as the ball did. Early on, Pelé had headed the ball into a goalpost, narrowly missing a score, his momentum hurtling him into the wall of photographers that lined the field to snap away at him. Then he slipped a sleight-of-foot pass to 5'4" Julio Correa that produced another near-miss. Goals by Altamont McKenzie and David Chadwick put Dallas ahead 2-0 at halftime, but Pelé was clearly galvanizing the Cosmos. In the second half he suddenly chipped a perfect lead pass to Mordechai Shpigler, a rawboned Israeli, who booted a squibbler past Dallas' flailing goalkeeper, Ken Cooper, to make it 2-1. Nine minutes later Shpigler reciprocated, lofting a pass that a twisting Pelé, suspended in midair, headed into the net.
June 22, 1975
That was the final goal, and Pelé responded as always, by leaping high and punching the air. The game had also been billed as a platform for Kyle Rote Jr., "soccer's first American superstar," but Rote, like everybody else, was utterly overshadowed. The fans had come to see Pelé, and they ended the game as they started it, filling the air with chants of "Pé-le, Pe-lé."
The excitement over Pelé's presence had actually begun with his arrival in the U.S. five days earlier. In places where soccer is sacred—meaning most of the civilized world—Pelé's rise from poverty to the pinnacle of his sport is legend. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, he became the only man to play on three World Cup championship teams and the first to score 1,000 goals. He has been received at Buckingham Palace, given a parade down the Champs-Élysées and hailed everywhere as The King or The Great One. His very name has become a superlative; if people call you the Pelé of, say, the kitchen, you may be sure they like your cooking. And now he was going to play on Randalls Island, of all places.
Given soccer's lowly status in the U.S., however, nobody quite expected the mob scene that occurred beneath the mounted antlers and bear's head of Manhattan's 21 Club, which is where the New York Cosmos chose to unveil their own prize specimen. As Pelé ceremonially signed his Cosmo contract, 300 newsmen and hangers-on jostled for inside position and, in a resulting fistfight, a Brazilian cameraman had his glasses broken. In Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium that same night Pelé, wearing street clothes, was introduced before a Cosmo game with the hometown Atoms. A crowd of 20,124, double the usual turnout, cheered Pelé but booed the swarm of photographers who followed him around the field, obstructing their view.
The supercharged atmosphere was reminiscent of the American tours of The Beatles and the Pope—especially the latter. Pelé is hardly an imposing figure, standing not quite 5'8" and peering out beneath a wedge of neatly mown hair with wide, almost childlike, eyes. Still, he managed to remain serene amid all the commotion he was causing and he had about him a messianic sense of purpose. As he publicly intoned time and again, "I came to your country because I realized I was the only one who could help soccer here. Spread the news that soccer has finally arrived in the U.S."
But only his words were lofty. Unfailingly polite, Pelé was forever flashing his twinkling smile and fielding questions either in self-conscious English ("I don't speak well your language") or, more often, through interpreters. Posing for pictures one day in Central Park, he was besieged by scores of soccer-playing youngsters, whom he earnestly implored to "play the game often." And during the Cosmos' 1-0 overtime loss to Philadelphia, he projected an image at odds with what New Yorkers have come to expect from the picaresque likes of Joe Namath and Walt Frazier. There in a private box sat Pelé, holding hands with his wife Rosie.
But Pelé could carry the common touch only so far. For one thing, while the other Cosmos were getting around by bus, he was arriving at workouts by limousine. Then, too, he was shadowed by Julio Mazzei, a friend and adviser he refers to as "Daddy." Mazzei is a former trainer of Santos, the Brazilian club on which Pelé played for 18 years, and the Cosmos hired him for Coach Gordon Bradley's staff, leaving the impression that Pelé had one boss, the rest of the team another. Far from resenting any of this, the Cosmos acted like a sandlot baseball team suddenly playing alongside Babe Ruth. Approaching his new teammate, Gil Mardarescu, a midfielder from Rumania, crossed himself and said, "I dreamed of some day just shaking your hand. But to play with you, this is a miracle."
Pelé's first workout with the Cosmos was held during a rainstorm inside the gym at Long Island's Hofstra University. His chauffeur got lost, and he arrived 35 minutes late. He apologized to Bradley, who waived the customary $25 fine. Huddling with the Cosmos, Pelé said, "I've always been a team man, and I still am. Please don't expect me to win games alone. We must work together."
For the next day's practice, at Downing Stadium, Pelé was on time. During an intrasquad game, he called to teammates by name and applauded their good play. Still, any pretense that Pelé was among peers was forever undermined when, positioned in front of the goal, he took a sharply angled, waist-high pass from Midfielder Johnny Kerr. Pelé bicycled himself into the air and sent an overhead kick screeching past second-string Goalkeeper Kurt Kuykendall. Players on both sides cheered while Kuykendall asked, "What happened?"
The credit for bagging Pelé goes to the Cosmo general manager, a moonfaced Englishman named Clive Toye. He laid the groundwork in 1971 when, accompanied by NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam, he flew to Jamaica and asked Pelé, who was appearing there with Santos, to "remember the Cosmos" when making future plans. Toye should be applauded less for vision than for audacity. At the time the NASL had just eight teams and was gasping for survival.
Since then U.S. soccer has enjoyed some grass-roots growth while the NASL has expanded to 20 teams. In an ardent courtship, Toye met with Pelé over the past year in Frankfurt, Brussels, Rome and S√£o Paulo. On his 75,000-mile quest he emphasized that the Brazilian was in a history-making position to "move American soccer into the jet age." As for what movee would pay mover, Toye freely waved the corporate checkbook of the Cosmos' owner, Warner Communications Inc., a $720 million a year entertainment complex that churns out films (The Exorcist), records (Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones) plus such odds and ends as Superman comics.
That Warner last week signed a real-life Superman became quickly apparent. After the Pelé breakthrough, the NASL's Boston Minutemen promptly succeeded in landing a superstar of their own, Portugal's Eusebio. The Cosmos' cramped offices swiftly turned into a beehive of activity. When they were not out scouting schools for Pelé's children—Kelly Cristina, 9, and Edinho, 4—harried Cosmo officials struggled with the avalanche of media requests for Sunday's game. And offers were pouring in for Pelé to play exhibitions, endorse sport shirts, stage clinics—everything but kick field goals for the Jets.
All of which made Warner Communications' investment look sound. Pelé signed for an estimated guarantee of $4.5 million, in return for which he will play 100-odd games over three seasons and put himself in Warner's hands for merchandising and public-relations schemes. The Cosmos were dickering with Yankee Stadium, among other possible new homes, and were plotting tours to Asia and Europe. Citing the worldwide interest in Sunday's exhibition, Toye crowed, "We've overnight become the most valuable franchise in sport. Our market for TV and postseason tours is global."
The only sour note was sounded in Brazil, where some of Pelé's countrymen were upset over what they regarded as his defection. A couple of Brazilian newspapers speculated that the country's national hero was motivated less by mission than money, as though the two were somehow incompatible. Asked about reports that he was in financial trouble, Pelé confessed only to relatively minor losses in a single rubber-products investment. "I came out of retirement because I missed soccer and because I saw playing in the U.S. as the new challenge I needed," he said. "If I needed the money, why did I take so long to sign?"
The best guess is that the Cosmos deal retains for Pelé the status he has held all along: one of the world's richest athletes. A onetime $2-a-month shoemaker's apprentice, he has large holdings in Brazilian real estate and manufacturing, and he feels right at home in the corporate world. Another deal pays him $150,000-plus a year to promote Pepsi-Cola's youth soccer program, which is how he came to be training one afternoon at PepsiCo, Inc.'s headquarters in Westchester County, a parklike setting where secretaries sunbathe in front of Alexander Calder and Henry Moore sculptures.
All the talk about big money and promoting soccer has obscured another reason for Pelé's joining the Cosmos, one that dawned on him as he and Rosie strolled, a couple of years ago, along Los Angeles' Hollywood Boulevard. Suddenly he realized that he was not being mobbed, and that the U.S. was one of the few places in the world this could happen. He lifted his astonished wife into the air and shouted, "I'm free! I'm free!"
It sounds strange that anybody would move to New York for peace and quiet, and such a prospect seems especially unpromising considering Pelé's hectic first days as a Cosmo. Indeed, as the crowds cheered him on Sunday it became apparent that however he might ultimately fare in helping soccer catch on in the U.S., Pelé himself has already done so hugely.
But when you are a living legend, solitude is relative. In the limousine that carried him from PepsiCo headquarters back to Manhattan, Pelé said, "Everybody needs a moment by himself. It's impossible for me to get that in England or Germany, but maybe it will be different here." Then doesn't he really want to make the U.S. as soccer-crazy as the rest of the world? "Of course I do," he replied, his expression placid as always. "But the United States has lots of famous people in movies and sports. Here I will be just one of many stars."
But also one of the biggest.