The Peerless Pelé Comes to Gotham to Put U.S. Soccer on the Map

It looked like a South American revolution in the cradle of North American liberty. On a recent evening more than 20,000 fans displaying varying degrees of hysteria were packed into Boston University’s Nickerson Field, a forlorn bandbox built to hold only 14,400. Shirtless men and brightly clad women brandished beer cans and Brazilian flags at the object of their affections, a grinning 34-year-old, 57″, 160-pound black who was christened Edson Arantes do Nascimento but who as just “Pelé” is worshiped as the greatest player of the world’s most popular sport—soccer.

They had come to see the new multimillion-dollar superstar of the New York Cosmos duel a longtime rival, Eusebio, formerly of Portugal, now with the Boston Minutemen. After a scoreless first half, Eusebio booted a free kick into the Cosmos’ goal to give Boston a 1-0 lead. Then, moments later, Pelé threaded through the Boston defense like a sapper, darted in front of the goalie with a defender right on his back and lofted a push shot for what appeared to be a score. With a fearful roar the mob poured onto the field and swarmed over the Brazilian wonder. Fortunately his instincts told him to fall limp on the ground, but by the time Cosmos general manager Clive Toye, Boston police and other soccer officials were able to get to him with a stretcher, Pelé had suffered a pulled knee muscle and a sprained ankle, had his shoes and uniform ripped—and learned that his goal had been disallowed on a technicality. He was hustled into the Cosmos’ dressing room, and a semblance of order was restored. Boston went on to win 2-1 in overtime, but that didn’t matter. What did was that Pelé’s very precious life had been risked.

Since that night the Cosmos have not been doing all that well, standing third—as of last week—in the Northern Division of the 20-member North American Soccer League. But even that hardly matters, because a soccer revolution appears to have begun in the U.S.A. Its inspiration—Pelé—is a cheerful, unassuming athlete celebrated for his prowess from Moscow to Mozambique, from Belgrade to Brisbane, but virtually unheard of in Fort Wayne and Flagstaff. Until recently, that is, when the Cosmos shelled out an estimated $4.7 million for three years of Pelt’s wondrous skill with a round ball. Needless to say, the Cosmos have not earned that kind of money in their two-year tenure in Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, an East River atoll which in another day might have served as a penal colony for the criminally incorrigible. But bankrolled by Warner Communications Inc., a $720 million entertainment conglomerate, the Cosmos are counting on Pelé’s strong right foot to kick soccer over the top as a major American sport.

American superstars appear, by international lights, to be mere sandlot dandies beside Pelé, known at home as “The Black Pearl.” After all, Henry Aaron has yet to be received by Queen Elizabeth; Arnold Palmer does not hold the French Légion d’Honneur, Muhammad Ali has never been the cause of a truce in a civil war; and it is most unlikely that Joe Namath will ever gain an audience with the Pope. If Americans don’t yet understand all this, it is because they don’t understand soccer (or “football,” as it is called abroad, or futebol, as it’s known in Brazil) and the madness it inspires in every other corner of the globe. Pelé’s statistics are awesome. In his 18-year career with the Santos club of São Paulo and the Brazilian national team, Pelé scored 1,220 goals in 1,253 games—roughly the equivalent of Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth hitting 2,500 home runs. As a spindly, jug-eared teenager, he transformed the mediocre Santos club into the most powerful team in South America and went on to lead the Brazilian national team to an unprecedented three World Cup titles.

In 1974 Pelé dampened something of the rapture that has attended him in Brazil by refusing to play on the national team (although still playing for Santos at the time). “I had helped Brazil to win three World Cups,” he says in a mélange of Portuguese and halting English. “I had done my part. I thought it was time the younger guys got a chance.” If that displeased many of his countrymen, they became positively rabid when he came out of his brief retirement for the Yankee dollar. But Pelé was motivated by his intense missionary’s love of the game and a hard-headed businessman’s practicality (he has investments and property holdings throughout Brazil and a fat Pepsi-Cola promotion contract, and has banked upwards of $10 million during his career). “This is the only country in the world where futebol is not a major sport and in which my name is not merchandized,” he says. “If I had received the same offer from other countries I would not have gone. But I hope to contribute tremendously to the sport in this country.”

Whether the soccer revolution he has set off will succeed remains to be seen. Americans are fiercely loyal to their homegrown sports. It is even questionable, given the rigors of the game and encroaching age, whether the magnificent Pelé in his mid-30s can sufficiently maintain his skills over the next three years to outshine, say, Kyle Rote Jr. of the Dallas Tornado. (There are detractors who say Pelé is a shadow of the miraculous player he was.) But Pelé is Pelé, singular and confident; he believes in himself and the adaptability of the American athlete. “The quality of futebol here is of course not yet international quality,” he says. “But I think Americans are intelligent and can learn quickly. Futebol is much like basketball, a game of constant motion and shifting alternatives. I’m amazed at the change in the five years since I was here…so many more children playing soccer in the streets.”

Clive Toye, the shrewd vice-president and general manager who spent four years patiently wooing Pelé, also looks boldly to the future. “There are 700,000 kids out there playing soccer now in Little League-type programs that the National American Soccer League helped found,” he says. “The league has expanded from eight to 20 teams, but we needed a dramatic stroke to call attention to the good things that have happened in the game.” Enter Pelé.

It seems that Pelé’s entire life has been a running dramatic stroke. The son of a farmer and small-time soccer professional known as Dondinho, Edson Arantes do Nascimento grew up in the dirt-poor interior town of Três Coraçoes (Three Hearts). He skipped school to play back-lot games of peladas (with a futebol made of a sock stuffed with rags), flunked out in the fourth grade and was apprenticed to a cobbler. In 1951 a onetime Brazilian star, Waldemar de Brito, spotted him playing with a group of construction workers, trained him and in 1955 took him to São Paulo for tryouts. The Santos club badly needed a new inside left for their upcoming game with Rio, so the coach paid out of his own pocket for the skinny youngster who had picked up the playground nickname Pelé (which has no special meaning).

Thus he became a professional at 15 and repaid his mentors by scoring four goals in his first big-league outing as Santos routed Rio de Janeiro 6-1. In his first international game, against Argentina, he scored the first winning goal for his country.

During a compulsory year of Army service in 1959, he found himself playing seven games in 14 days for Santos, the Army and the national team—a remarkable feat, especially considering the fact that even his spare frame sheds an average of four to six pounds a game. By 1960 Pelé was Brazil’s highest paid soccer player, making over $50,000 a year in salary and benefits.

The legend began to swell. Both Toye, a longtime soccer writer for the London Daily Express, and Gordon Bradley, the Cosmos’ coach, caught Pelé’s act early and were reverently impressed. “I’ve heard every player in this game including Georgie Best criticized for some deficiency, but never Pelé,” says Bradley. Adds Toye, “A good player will be thinking maybe two moves ahead; Pelé thinks 10 moves ahead.” Gordon Banks, a former goalie on the England International team who has met the full brunt of Pelé charges, says flatly, “He’s the greatest footballer in the world.”

Pelé carried Brazil to another World Cup title in the 1962 Chilean games, confounding opponents with diving head shots, scissor kicks and his incredible backflip “bicycle” kick. Fame had its penalties. Women pursued him everywhere, but he waited suspiciously until he found one that he was sure cared nothing for his stardom. Then in 1966 he married Rosemary Cholbi, the daughter of a stevedore (they have a daughter, Kelly Cristina, 9, and a son, Edinho, 4). It wasn’t easy for a figure who had the status of a national institution to play the dedicated family man, but Pelé has always given it his best shot. He is a nonsmoker and nondrinker, and his wildest avocation is playing the guitar. He accepts only those invitations he feels he must accept. (They have come from virtually every court and presidential palace on five continents. He has already visited the White House and obligingly dribbled a soccer ball on his head for a marveling President Ford.)

Kids mob him everywhere, and he found an instant coterie when he showed up recently to practice in Manhattan’s Central Park. He will stand and sign autographs and even join the kids in pickup games until the longest day is done. Hundreds of them literally wept when he left Sweden after the first World Cup, and more British children cried when the injured Pelé couldn’t pull off a third straight cup in London in 1966.

But there was joy in Biafra when Pelé agreed to play two exhibition games if they would stop the fighting (each side had him for a day). They loved him in London when he paused during a stroll with Prince Philip to chat with English schoolchildren. At home they adored him more feverishly than before on the day he lined up a penalty kick, fired and scored to become the first player in history to reach 1,000 goals. The night in 1970 when he and his teammates retrieved the World Cup for Brazil, crowds thronged the streets of Rio and São Paulo chanting “Pay-LAY! Pay-LAY! Pay-LAY!” until a soft pink dawn rose over the worshipful land. And on June 10, 1975, the morning after Pelé left Brazil to join the Cosmos, the principal São Paulo paper carried the mournful headline: BRAZIL’S FIRST DAY WITHOUT PELE.

Five days later, in a special exhibition game to promote U.S. soccer, Pelé led the New York Cosmos to a 2-2 tie with the Dallas Tornado before a near-sellout crowd of 21,278. (Pre-Pelé it might have been 9,000.) He dominated the field and scored the tying goal, his 1,221st, with a soaring head shot.

Some 10 days ago Pelé injured his left thigh in a league game the Cosmos lost to the Toronto Metros. The Cosmos informed the St. Louis Stars that they would have to play an exhibition game without Pelé. Thinking of the crowd that had bought out the stadium to see Pelé, St. Louis called off the game.

Beaten by the Portland Timbers—2 to 1 with Pelé scoring—just before the Toronto loss, the Cosmos looked pretty awful. Sitting in a whirlpool bath after the match, Pelé confessed, “We played the worst game since I’ve been here.” And in his quiet way he added, “I hope it won’t happen again.” It won’t—if the little fellow who learned to kick a sock stuffed with rags has anything to say about it.

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