When Pele conquered America with the New York Cosmos
Pele was 34 and semi-retired when the New York Cosmos fended off interest from Juventus and Real Madrid to lure the world’s greatest player to the footballing backwater that was America in 1975.
“If you go there all you can do is win a championship. You come here, you win a country,” Englishman Clive Toye, then the Cosmos’ general manager, recalls telling the three-time World Cup winner.
And capture a nation Pele did. In just over two years, he transformed “soccer” in the United States from a sport barely anyone cared about to one attracting sell-out crowds of 80,000.
He won a North American Soccer League championship, launching an era of dominance for the Cosmos, and opened the door for a host of other stars, including Johan Cruyff and George Best, to play stateside.
The Cosmos were a motley crew of part-timers and journeymen pros playing in front of just a few hundred fans when flamboyant owner Steve Ross, boss of cinema giant Warner, and Toye decided they needed a marquee signing to spur interest in their team and the flagging NASL.
The pursuit of Pele took Toye around the world, including to Jamaica, Brussels and Rome, with the Englishman recalling that the Brazilian required an “enormous amount of persuading.”
“At first he asked what the hell I was talking about,” Toye, now 89, told AFP in September 2021, recalling his “win a country” pitch.
“But finally, finally, finally we got him to understand fully what that meant and what he could do. It was an incredible chase, but it was worth it.”
Pele, suffering some financial difficulties back home, signed a three-year deal worth around $4.5 million, although senior Cosmos executives have all cited different figures.
Brazil’s president Ernesto Geisel tried to block the signing and the Cosmos used their connections to get then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a keen football fan, to intervene to ensure the move.
Some 300 reporters crammed into New York’s plush 21 Club for a press conference unveiling Pele, where he declared: “You can tell the word that soccer has finally arrived in the USA.”
“It was a mob scene,” remembers Toye. “The place was absolutely jam-packed. You could hardly move. It was just utter, overwhelming chaos.”
Days later, on June 15, 1975, Pele made his Cosmos debut against Dallas Tornado at the dilapidated Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in New York’s East River.
Broken bottles lay strewn on the pitch following a city-organized function the night before, said Toye, who remembers Cosmos coach Gordon Bradley brushing garbage off the stadium’s seats before the match.
Large areas of the pitch were bereft of grass and the groundsman decided to spray paint the pitch green for the benefit of the CBS television cameras broadcasting the game.
Pele scored a powerful header to snatch a 2-2 draw in front of a 22,500-capacity crowd, with thousands of others reportedly turned away at the gates.
But he left the pitch perturbed.
“Pele came in and had this strange green stuff on his legs and he thought he’d caught some bloody disease! We had to explain to him it was paint,” said Toye.
The Cosmos began setting attendance records at grounds across the United States as tens of thousands of people flocked to see Pele.
“Getting him through a crowd of people onto the team bus to get to the airport on time was a nightmare,” recalled Toye. “We used to tell him the bus was leaving half an hour earlier.”
Pele and his teammates also became a fixture of New York nightlife, partying with celebrities like Mick Jagger and Liza Minnelli at Studio 54, as detailed in the 2006 documentary “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos.”
Pele scored 64 goals in 106 games for the Cosmos, winning the NASL championship in his third and final season in 1977, by which point Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto had joined the team.
He played his last game in a friendly with his long-time Brazilian club Santos on October 1, 1977, in front of a capacity crowd at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where the Cosmos had moved to the previous year.
Pele scored a free kick in the first half for the Cosmos before playing the second half for Santos. He broke into tears as he led 75,000 spectators in chants of “love, love, love!,” the New York Times reported.
The Cosmos won three more championships before dissolving under financial pressures in 1984. The NASL collapsed a year later.
Americans now play for top European clubs and that is Pele’s legacy, says Toye.
After Pele, “there wasn’t anybody in the whole country who didn’t know what soccer was. Lots and lots of kids started to play. Pele made our game important.”