On the morning of June 11, 1975, a pack of rubbernecking New Yorkers gathers on West 52nd Street. They’re standing outside the venerable “21” club, a former speakeasy turned posh canteen to presidents, plutocrats and Hollywood grandees, drawn there by the steady drone of a police helicopter overhead — and, no doubt, by the conspicuous gaggle of bulky gentlemen in telltale dark suits, sunglasses and coiled wire earpieces monitoring the entrance.
As some onlookers speculate about the identity of the eminence du jour — Frank Sinatra? Jackie O? Elizabeth Taylor? — inside “21,” a mosh pit of 200-plus reporters, cameramen and photographers waits impatiently for something to happen. They’re all crammed into an upstairs space called the Hunt Room, an homage to the massive elk and antelope antlers that are stuffed and mounted on the oak-paneled walls. All they know is that a news conference will be starting at 11 a.m.
Except it doesn’t. The mystery guest is, so far, 20 minutes late. But then Pele is always late. The man, who is all whirring feet and pumping legs on a soccer field, downshifts to “leisurely” when off it.
His job on this day is simply to show up and ceremoniously sign his name to a $4.75 million, three-year contract with the Warner Communications-owned soccer club, the New York Cosmos, that will make him the highest-paid player in the firmament. Anyone else in this enviable position might experience an adrenaline rush and pick up the pace — anyone but the mellow 34-year-old Brazilian.
By 11:35, Warner executives, cognizant of the toxic mood building in the Hunt Room, try to calm things down by assigning a PR guy to announce that “Pele is just on his way now” while whispering among themselves: “Where the hell is he?”
As it happens, he is still in his hotel room huddling with lawyers, who’ve found a last-minute snag in the contract. Pele, arguably the greatest soccer player in the sport’s history, doesn’t want to be identified as a soccer player, period: it’s the only way to avoid messy tax issues with the Brazilian government. Lest they risk losing him, Warner has to resolve the problem, and quickly, so it comes up with an ingenious plan: Atlantic Records, a Warner subsidiary, would list Pele as a “recording artist” for the label. (It isn’t that much of a stretch: Pele, an avid guitarist, already has two solid-gold hits in Brazil to his credit, and his friend Sergio Mendes had recently asked him to do a record together.)
ESPN’s Fernando Palomo discusses the legacy Pele leaves behind as both a soccer player and a global ambassador.
Back in the Hunt Room, tensions steadily escalate as the minutes pass. Film crews and reporters shove and elbow each other for prime positions near the podium, their voices rising along with their tempers. Cosmos general manager Clive Toye, a well-tailored and normally well-mannered Brit, is all but screaming, “Gentlemen of the press! GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS! Please behave yourselves!”
Toye, after all, spent three years pursuing Pele around the world in one of the great corporate chases of all time, logging 30,000 air miles, racking up $8,000 a month in phone bills, and finally having to solicit a telegram from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to his Brazilian counterpart imploring the latter to allow Pele, deemed an “unexportable national treasure,” to play for the Cosmos. At this point, Toye wasn’t about to let his long-sought prize get manhandled by some rowdy journos.
Meanwhile, outside “21,” a compactly built man steps out of a black limousine, dressed in a black brocade leisure suit with a red Big Apple pinned to the lapel. Security guards shield him as he moves from the car into the club. It is now 12:15, but despite arriving 75 minutes later than scheduled, Pele is still in no hurry; he stops at the restaurant’s kitchen to autograph a menu for the chef and shake hands with the mostly Latin American staff.
At last, he enters the Hunt Room, unnoticed amid the chaos: a brawl has broken out between two photographers jockeying for the same perch. Bodies are tumbling over tables and you can hear the brittle crunch of glasses shattering beneath someone’s foot. It is a mini-riot — over soccer, of all things — and it is happening in midtown Manhattan! Yet Pele remains eerily tranquil as he makes his way to the podium and stands there, smiling shyly, hands raised in the familiar “V” salute. Slowly the media horde becomes aware of the great man’s presence among them, and the pandemonium dies down. Brandishing a silver pen, Pele signs the newly revised contract.
Then he puts the pen down and faces the packed room, grinning widely. “Now you can say to the world,” Pele tells the suddenly hushed audience, “soccer has finally arrived in the United States.”
Pele may have famously arrived late to sign with the New York Cosmos, but the impact he had not just on his team or the league, but on the sport’s popularity, was quickly evident. George Tiedemann /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
Pele came to America at a time when baseball’s once unchallenged hold on the popular imagination was slipping away and the soccer-phobes in the media were panicking that that yet another sport — a foreign one, no less! — had arrived to further erode its hegemony.
Just a couple of years earlier, fresh out of college, I took a job at the New York Daily News hoping to kick-start my journalistic career. Having grown up in a soccer-mad European family and played the sport in college, I naturally inquired about covering the Cosmos as a regular beat. Dick Young, the paper’s crusty, nationally syndicated sports columnist, put his arm around my shoulder and looked me square in my guileless face. “Don’t waste your time on soccer, kid,” he said. “It’s a game for commie pansies.”
It was also a game fans avoided in droves. When the Cosmos won the North American Soccer League title in 1972, the attendance was announced at 6,000, a number which failed to take into account that at least half of those in attendance had been given free tickets with their purchase of a Burger King Double Whopper. When I broke the news of Pele signing with the Cosmos, it was splashed across the back page, the first time a soccer story had appeared anywhere in the paper other than buried next to the hair replacement ads. If American soccer had been transformed overnight, so had I. No longer was I at the bottom of the sporting food chain, but rather the envy of my colleagues. Since I had access to the biggest sports star in the world I was even being interviewed by other American journalists who wanted to know more about this fellow “Peeley.”
Best of all, I had a book contract to collaborate with Pele on a memoir about his magical mystery tour of American soccer. For the next two years, I shadowed him as he crisscrossed the country on a self-declared mission to bring the beautiful game to the last outpost on earth seemingly indifferent to its charms. We spoke on airplanes, in limos, hotels and locker rooms, at his lavish Sutton Place apartment and his sprawling Hamptons estate. I even hung out with him at the notorious disco, Studio 54, until a burly, bullet-headed bouncer threw me out.
Pele would always make time to greet the crowds, especially as it was clear they were flocking to see him in action. Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images
In the course of my time with him, I came to know all the different Peles: Pele the Deity, Pele the Brand, Pele the Soccer Evangelist, Pele the Family Man and Pele the Party Animal. All were generous to a fault, unfailingly polite, surprisingly droll and — did I mention — always late?
Pele possessed an innate sweetness that was evident whenever you were in his presence. “How are you, my friend?” was his go-to greeting, whether he was meeting you for the first time or running into you at an airport decades later. I once asked him if he uttered those words to everyone he encountered. “Not everyone,” he replied impishly. “That would be about half the people in the world.”
Though Pele was regularly feted by the high and mighty — from heads of church and state to corporate billionaires — he never lost his sense of boyish wonder. The key to his success and longevity, he maintained, was to “stay as a child who loves the game.” In the end, he was essentially a private man — as private as the most famous person on the planet could be.
Afternoon light flooded the living room, polishing the chrome and glass that seemed to be everywhere in Pele’s apartment. The expanse of stark walls was interrupted only by a few framed photographs taken by his wife, Rose. Displayed on a large, hand-carved wooden coffee table was an arrangement of shells, minerals and fossils culled from Brazilian beaches. For the lair of a legend, the place was noticeably bereft of trophies or memorabilia. “Oh, for that I have a small room in my parents’ house in Santos,” he said. “It’s no good for children to think of their father as a star. Here in my home, I am just Edson.”
Then he excused himself and disappeared briefly into the kitchen. He returned to the living room balancing a tray of cheese and crackers to serve his visitors — Giora Breil, his business manager, and me. It seemed somewhat ironic that busy, obstreperous New York City was one of the few places Pele and his family could be at peace, free of the usual harassment that went with being at the center of the great celebrity freak show. “I feel like a schoolboy again,” he said, but he would soon feel differently; at this point, the news conference was still a few days away. For now, he was still able to relish the rare moments of relative anonymity. Later that afternoon, Pele had the urge to go to a sporting goods store and invited Breil and me to tag along.
Once there, Breil asked, “Do you want me to purchase something for you?”
“No,” said Pele, eyeing a massive fiberglass casting rod. Other than strumming his guitar, fishing was his favorite pastime. He picked up the rod and presented it to a salesman. “Will that be cash or charge?” the salesman asked.
“Charge,” Pele said.
“Your name, sir?”
Pele attracted interest from dignitaries and heads of state as much as the fans. He met two U.S. presidents: Jimmy Carter and, on the left of this image, he had a kick-about with Gerald Ford. Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images
To fully understand Pele’s genius as a soccer player, you’d need to have seen him at his spellbinding peak, conjuring magic with Santos and Brazil. I am a member of the “luckiest generation” to have witnessed him play live, and his outrageous athletic gifts — the feline grace, sinewy power, explosive acceleration, exquisite balance, telepathic vision — are burned into my frontal cortex.
But in June 1975, Pele was 34, eight months removed from a competitive match after retiring from Santos the previous October, and the question persisted: How much had time — and the battering he routinely took at the hands of the game’s bounty hunters — eroded his physical condition and diminished his skills?
The answer came in Pele’s first practice session with his new teammates on Randall’s Island, once a quarantine area for smallpox victims and now a pile of rocks and dirt that passed for the Cosmos’ field. A polyglot collection of soccer vagabonds from England, Trinidad, Poland, Israel and Uruguay along with a few token Americans, the Cosmos were languishing near the bottom of the North American Soccer League (NASL) when Pele joined them halfway through the season. At that first practice, the players were busy placing bets on whether coach Gordon Bradley would waive the customary $25 tardiness fine for Pele, who was a half-hour late. Bradley, a former no-nonsense British defender, had been tasked with marking Pele in an exhibition game back in the mid-1960s when Santos toured the US. Asked which of Pele’s wondrous abilities he most admired, Bradley replied, “Pele takes a kicking better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
The beautiful game lives here. Stream top leagues, tournaments and teams.
Sign up for ESPN+
TUESDAY, JAN. 3
• La Nucia vs. Valencia (1 p.m. ET)
• Cartagena vs. Villarreal (1 p.m. ET)
• Club Polideportivo Cacereño vs. Real Madrid (3 p.m. ET)
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 4
• Linares Deportivo vs. Sevilla (1 p.m. ET)
• Oviedo vs. Atletico Madrid (2 p.m. ET)
• Intercity vs. FC Barcelona (3 p.m. ET)
At long last, Pele appeared, climbing the half-dozen concrete steps up to the field. The expression on his face, normally fixed in a radiant smile, was one of utter bemusement. Slowly he navigated the pitted terrain. Maracana, it wasn’t. “Welcome to your new home,” Bradley yelled out to him.
When the players started to applaud, Pele put up his hand in a gesture that said stop. “Please, no, I am one of you,” he told them in a voice commanding enough to indicate he wasn’t just offering up a piece of gee-whiz humility. “We must be a team together.” But his fellow players, many of whom had grown up with Pele posters on their bedroom walls, were clearly in awe. Once the scrimmage got underway and Pele began to orchestrate the action, they suddenly developed two left feet. Passes went astray, shots were shanked, tackles mistimed.
Then it happened. Pele was done trying to assimilate; he surged into the penalty area awaiting a cross-field pass from the left flank. But instead of the ball being served just in front of him so he could meet it with his head, it was whipped in behind him, shoulder high. He leaned back gracefully for a second or two, as if settling into a chaise longue on some crystalline Rio beach. Then, with his left leg floating up and his back parallel to the ground, Pele’s right leg catapulted him into the air. He scissor-kicked sharply, caught the ball with his right instep, and drove it over his laid-out-flat body into the net.
“What just happened?” asked goalkeeper Kirk Kuykendahl, slack-jawed and frozen in place as if in a wax museum.
What just happened? Pele had suddenly reached back across the years to pull a face-melting moment of jogo bonito out of his memory bank. “Not a bad start to your Cosmos career,” I said to him as we headed to the sleek black Cadillac waiting to ferry us back to Manhattan. “The bicycle kick is not easy” Pele responded. “Today I just want to do something to make the people happy.”
Pele was a celebrity who transcended sport, hanging out with famous pals like musicians Sergio Mendes, left, and Elton John, right. When Pele signed for the Cosmos, Warner Bros. listed him as a recording artist in the contracts so he could avoid tax issues back in Brazil. Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Pele had been making people happy since he rocketed into the soccer stratosphere during the 1958 World Cup — at the ripe old age of 17 — and was anointed “O Rei” (“the King”). He was the ultimate crowd pleaser, a showman who played with a sparkle in his eye and a boundless exuberance in his feet. Now a middle-aged man by soccer standards, he had to husband his energy for the moments that counted, but today he felt he needed to show his teammates that he was more than just a pricey hood ornament for American soccer. “I have a feeling of responsibility on my shoulders,” Pele said. “I know the public will expect much. I will do my best.”
He was sitting slightly hunched over in the back seat of the limo, flanked by his wife, Rose, and his longtime friend and adviser, Julio Mazzei. Known as “Professor” because he invested Pele’s actions with metaphysical significance, Mazzei was the fiercely protective gatekeeper who shielded Pele from the magnitude of his own popularity, saving him from his tendency to oblige every fan, quick-buck artist or political hack who came his way. Almost anyone could see Pele publicly, but to see him privately, you had to go through Mazzei. For him, Pele hadn’t changed since the day they met in 1956 at Santos, where Mazzei was the team’s trainer. “Pele,” he said, “is the same boy who grew up with nothing and couldn’t believe he was being paid to do something he’d do for free.”
When I asked Pele if that ethos still held true today, he laughed. “No, money is necessary, but is not the most important thing. When Warner made the invitation for me to come here, I realized that it was a chance for me to do something I have never tried before, to introduce the sport I love to a new country. There were many, many offers after I retired from Santos. But if I go to Italy, Spain, Mexico, what do I get? More money. It’s nice, but nothing new.”
Yet as much as Pele wanted to spread the gospel of soccer, his motives were not purely altruistic. He had a workingman’s regard for money and the security it provided, ever since he lost almost his entire fortune to a series of disastrous investments by his financial advisers. It was no secret that he needed a big payday from Warner to make him whole. I remember visiting Pele shortly before he signed his contract and coming upon him doubled over with laughter as he and Mazzei fixated on an electronic pocket calculator. “Look,” Mazzei yelped, “there are not enough zeroes …”
Pele had wanted the $4.75 million in cash. You can’t stuff deferred payments into your mattress.
The fields Pele first played on were a nightmare, with Cosmos staff literally spray-painting the mud green to look more like grass. Pele didn’t seem to mind: after all, he had a job to do. Focus on Sport/Getty Images
The limo rolled down the East Side Drive and Pele sank back into the leather seat, the fatigue from his first training session tempering his voice into a low murmur. “No man can make time stand still,” he mused. “I am not the same player I was 10 years ago. I do the same things, yes, but not so often. But I would not play if I did not think I could play well. I will never embarrass myself on the field.”
The Cosmos were quite literally banking on that promise. American soccer had strapped Pele to its back like a skin diver’s oxygen tank. He was the sport’s breath of life, expected to pump up enthusiasm and attendance figures wherever he appeared.
“The seed will be in the ground, whatever happens,” he said of his audacious dare to make soccer a “major” sport in the US. “The seed could be a big tree. It depends on the treatment given to the little seed. We will see.” And then he gently laid his head on his wife’s shoulder and drifted off for the remainder of the trip, or so it seemed.
Even after traveling with Pele for two years, I was never sure whether he was truly sleeping or simply shutting his eyes to close off the rest of the world that wanted to touch him, talk to him or cop an autograph on an airline napkin. “Once, I see him sleep from Brussels to Tokyo,” said the Peruvian midfielder Ramon Mifflin, who played with Pele on Santos as well the Cosmos. “You know how long this is? Twenty-six hours. Half a world. Pele never opened his eyes.”
ESPN’s John Sutcliffe compares Pele’s impact on soccer to Muhammad Ali’s lasting legacy in boxing.
It was June 15, 1975, a watershed day for American soccer. Pele was about to make his official debut as a Cosmos player in a match against the Dallas Tornado at Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island.
Two hours before kickoff, I realized that in less than a week Pele had already changed the game in this country. There were scalpers outside the stadium — real, in-the-flesh ticket scalpers! — getting as much as a $100 for a $6 ticket. Inside, two men in CBS-TV windbreakers were down on their knees, painting green over the brown patches of dirt while Clive Toye hovered over them, pointing to areas that hadn’t been filled in yet. Knowing the game would be televised in 22 countries and covered by more than 300 journalists from around the world — including one on assignment from a journal written in Esperanto — Toye wanted to make sure the pock-marked field was as gussied up as possible.
“Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel,” Toye exclaimed. “Pele has Randall’s Island!”
Before an overflow crowd of 21,278, more than four times what the Cosmos drew in their previous game, Pele came click-clacking out of the tunnel into a spectacular ovation, buttressed by banners proclaiming “O Mais Grande” (“the greatest”) and “Thank you, Brazil,” while fans here and there waved the green and gold Brazilian flag. Right from the start, Pele seized the flow of the match, absorbing the patterns around him, shouting instructions, waving his teammates around, drifting back to a kind of combination midfielder-striker. The problem was that the other Cosmos players were unable to find the rhythm or the confidence to join Pele in taking the game to their opponent. They were passing him the ball and basically saying, “You do the rest.”
It wasn’t until the Cosmos surrounded Pele with other luminaries of the sport like Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, just behind Pele in this shot, that they began winning. Yet those victories came with plenty of drama as egos expectedly flared on this all-star NASL team. George Tiedemann /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
The moment that would be remembered long after Pele had exited the American stage came 20 minutes into the second half with the Cosmos trailing 2-1. Mordechai Shpigler, the former Israeli World Cup star, lofted a high, arcing corner kick into the goalmouth, where a cluster of players were jockeying for position. When the ball came across, they leapt, arms flailing, bodies colliding. Above them all was Pele, his 5-foot-8 frame suspended for an instant, head drawn back, eyes riveted on the oncoming ball, waiting. Then the detonation, as Pele’s forehead attacked the ball with a violence that twisted his whole body, and the game was tied. As soon as he saw the ball nestled in the back of the net, he bounded joyfully in his famous goal salute, punching the air as photographers, teammates, and fans engulfed him.
Pele had not merely risen to the occasion; he had soared above it. You could sense that little seed starting to grow.
Later, in the locker room, Pele wondered if something else had started to grow. He sat there, visibly upset, staring down at his feet, which were streaked in green. He’d be on the next flight back to Brazil, he told Toye, if this fungus — or whatever it was — damaged any part of his priceless feet. Toye quickly explained that the streaks merely represented the green paint used to make the dirt patches on the field look, at least on TV, more like grass. “Thank you, my friend,” Pele said and disappeared into the shower to wash off the paint.
On the road, Pele’s presence made for an atmosphere that was half carnival, half cloak-and-dagger. Everywhere the Cosmos went, Pele arrived and departed through the kitchen. The location of his hotel room was such a closely held secret that even his teammates didn’t know where it was. “I remember once asking Professor Mazzei what room Pele was staying in,” Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing said. “He’d say ‘go to 301’ and there’d be two schoolteachers from Duluth.”
The one place you were liable to find Pele was in the hotel gift shop, cruising the racks of sunglasses. Pele loved sunglasses; he estimated owning about 60 pairs. His clothes were all custom-made: pastel suits with wide lapels, French-cuffed shirts and a whole lot of leather. He was also fond of fur coats. “They last a long time,” he said. But his favorite outfit was a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. “The beach is where Pele is most happy,” he said, speaking in the third person as he was sometimes wont to do.
Pele was happy in his fabled No. 10 jersey, too, but had trouble keeping it on his body. Fans, players, opponents, coaches, team owners, children and even stadium ushers requested the shirt off his back after every game. The Cosmos had to order the jerseys by the gross. “In the two years I played with him,” said Cosmos defender Bobby Smith, “he always came back to the locker room bare-chested.”
Pele still remained connected to the Cosmos brand even when the team was defunct for nearly 30 years. He returned to Hofstra, New York to see the first game of the Cosmos’ reboot on Aug. 4, 2013. The crowds returned to see him, too. AMA/Corbis via Getty Images
For all his subtle backheels and eye-catching flicks, Pele wasn’t able to lift his teammates to his level on the field that first season. Off the field, it was another story. In Boston, for instance, when Pele ordered the lobster special at a team meal, the waiter took a look around the table at the nodding heads and went back to the kitchen with the order: 18 lobster specials.
On another night, this time in Toronto, I was on the way to my hotel room when I heard the voice of Pele’s bodyguard, Pedro Garay, insisting to a chambermaid that he needed to search her laundry cart, which looked unnaturally bulky. Sure enough, Garay unearthed two minimally clad Pele admirers hiding beneath a pile of fresh linens. “Does Mr. Pele need to have his bed turned down?” one of the women inquired. “No,” said Garay flatly, and shooed them away.
What Pele did need was a better supporting cast of players. Despite shattering the NASL record for assists (18) in 1976, his first full season with the team, and also being voted the league’s MVP that year, Pele could haul the Cosmos only as far as the playoffs. Never mind that he continued to be the NASL’s meal ticket: the singular force of his presence doubled and tripled attendances wherever the Cosmos played. In Chicago, they drew 28,000; the next week, just 3,500 showed up. Still, to Pele, it felt like his dream was slipping away because he hadn’t delivered a title.
“I wonder if I fail in my mission, to bring soccer to the American people,” he said as we sat in his Seattle hotel suite. His feet, badly blistered from his first encounter with an Astroturf field, were cooling off in an ice bucket. “To do this, we must have a championship. This team must be the best. Every team I play on, it is the same way. If the team is no good, they will say Pele is no good.”
Warner Communications wasn’t about to let that happen. Warner shelled out $8 million to provide Pele with a glittering ensemble of soccer superstars. In rapid succession came the tempestuous Italian goal scorer Giorgio Chinaglia; Germany’s imperious center-back Franz “Der Kaiser” Beckenbauer, and Pele’s old Santos teammate, Carlos Alberto, who was the captain of Brazil’s storied 1970 World Cup champions. All that marquee talent would eventually transform the Cosmos into a NASL juggernaut and fill their swanky new digs, Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, with crowds that inexorably climbed from 35,000 to 45,000, 55,000 and ultimately to 77,691. But it would also turn the team into a long-running soap opera rife with petty jealousies and warring egos.
During his final game, Pele and Muhammad Ali, third from left, got to meet in the middle of the pitch. The two were longtime friends and admired each other’s greatness. 4Imagens/Getty Images
From the moment Chinaglia joined the Cosmos, it was apparent he was treated differently from the other players, even Pele. One day, I went to interview Steve Ross in his office suite on the 29th floor of the Warner building, and there, lounging on one of the two pigskin sofas, was Chinaglia, sipping 21-year-old Chivas straight up. When I asked him what he hoped to accomplish in the US, he said, “I am here to score goals for the Cosmos and to let people know what a Chinaglia is.” He delivered spectacularly on both, becoming the leading scorer in league history as well as a magnet for controversy.
When the Italian first arrived, he said Pele was not fit and he would have to carry him until he was. Then he said that the Cosmos should sign more American players rather than Beckenbauer. “Every time I breathe, I insult someone,” Chinaglia told me. “If a dog chokes on a bone around here, they blame Chinaglia.”
At 31, Beckenbauer was still in his trophy-laden prime. When he signed with the Cosmos in 1976, German tabloids branded him a traitor and a mercenary for leaving the country two years before the next World Cup. The happiest I ever saw him was one spring day when we walked down Fifth Avenue and nobody recognized him. “In Germany, I can’t walk two feet without being stopped,” he said. “This is heaven.”
The personable Beckenbauer had a full-hearted grin and an amused glint in his eye. But his expression quickly morphed into a vexed look when he struggled to understand the nexus of soccer and celebrity the Cosmos embodied. “Sometimes, in the dressing room, I think I am in Hollywood,” he told me.
To enter Studio 54, the high temple of 1970s hedonism, you had to make your way past the club’s bouncers, whose approval could not be bought. Of the hundreds massed behind the fabled velvet ropes every night hoping to get in, perhaps a third actually did, while the rest were left to choke on the exhaust fumes from the limousines delivering the next load of beautiful people. They were the anointed, the uber-celebrities, who didn’t need to bother with a last name.
Actually, I didn’t need a name at all. I simply said four magic words — “I’m with the Cosmos” — and I was in.
It was an extraordinary moment in time when “I’m with the Cosmos” carried as much, if not more, weight as “I’m with the Rolling Stones,” since even Mick Jagger wanted to be sprinkled with the superstar’s presence. “Partying with Pele,” he said, “is the ultimate badge of honor.”
Pep Guardiola lauds “special” Pele and joins Neymar by explaining his influence on the No. 10 jersey.
In the summer of 1977, New York was riven by bankruptcy, a rampage by serial murderer Son of Sam and a debilitating power blackout that triggered mass looting, arson and rage among its eight million residents. But while the city was in chaos and the apocalypse was nigh, the Cosmos were determined to party their way through it every Monday night at Studio 54. The famed disco became a second locker room for the team, and you were likely to run into the same crowd in both places — Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Rod Stewart, and the ultimate soccer groupie, Henry Kissinger, among them.
There were, of course, subtle differences: At Studio 54, the players sprawled on leather banquettes instead of wooden stools; glassy-eyed supermodels, rather than sweaty, overweight sportswriters, vied for their attention; and Dom Perignon flowed instead of Gatorade. I can still picture Pele indulging in this late-night bacchanalia, a blonde Velcroed to each arm, looking like a Roman emperor reclining on a gilded divan. The first time I witnessed this, our eyes met and he said, with a wink, “Not for the book, my friend. Not for the book.”
The Cosmos went on to win the 1977 Soccer Bowl in Pele’s final competitive game on a goal by, of all people, Chinaglia, who gleefully ascended to the throne in the post-Pele era, anxious to show the world that the team’s success — indeed, the success of soccer in America — was not predicated on one man. After all, even with Pele gone, didn’t the North American Soccer League still boast box-office names like Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff and, of course, Chinaglia himself? And why couldn’t cities like Houston, Memphis and Detroit replicate the Cosmos’ success by splashing out millions for other famous players in the gloaming of their careers?
At least that was the benighted thinking among the Lords of American Soccer, who misread the success of the Cosmos as an endorsement of the sport rather than what it was — a feverish, ephemeral moment when the arrival of Pele combusted with the birth of showbiz in American sports. When the house of cards finally collapsed for good in 1984, the NASL’s demise was so total that it took another 12 years for a professional league (Major League Soccer) to emerge from the rubble.
But for those of us who were there during the epoch-shifting years when soccer in America was considered cool, the memories still linger four decades later. Like the evening of the Cosmos’ 1977 championship victory party held, appropriately, in a Portland, Oregon, lounge named Top of the Cosmo. The celebration was in full swing when Beckenbauer walked over and tapped Pele on the shoulder. “Pele,” he said, “one more time. I want to dance with you.” The Cosmos had taken over the bandstand as they sang names to the Latin tune “Guantanamera.” “Franz Beck-en-bower, la la la, Car-los Al-ber-to…”
Finally, Pele relented and the two men danced a little samba, laughing, stepping on toes.
The author David Hirshey, left, with Pele during their final meeting in 2016. Courtesy of David Hirshey
It’s been said that a great man dies twice: first as great and, finally, as a man. Pele, the Brazilian soccer colossus who passed away Thursday, was sanguine about the latter. “I do not worry about the end of my life,” he told me the last time we spoke in 2016, “because I come from Tres Coracoes.” Which is Portuguese for “three hearts.” And that, Pele said, smiling mischievously, meant he had not one, but three lives to live.
But for the man who had towered over the sport for two decades, the demise of greatness was something else entirely. Suddenly and uncharacteristically solemn, Pele added, “It was when I retired from soccer and was no more able to bring people joy on the field — that’s when I died a little.”
That day was Oct. 1, 1977, when nearly 77,000 fans turned Giants Stadium into a soccer love-in to say thank you to Pele for catapulting the sport into the American mainstream. Since he’d arrived in New York, he had filled stadiums across the country and ignited a grassroots boom that saw millions of children toss aside the pressures and postures of Little League baseball and Pop Warner football to feel the simple thrill of running flat-out in pursuit of a soccer ball. The seed that Pele planted and nurtured has since become a full-flowered American sport that boasts 29 professional teams in MLS, 12 in the NWSL, and 25 million fans tuning in to the most recent World Cup.
So, on that day 45 years ago, as Pele emerged from the tunnel, rocking his green-and-white Cosmos uniform one last time to take part in a testimonial match against his boyhood club Santos, the roar that went up was so thunderous that you could feel the ground vibrating beneath your feet. “Pe-le! Pe-le! Pe-le!” the crowd chanted, trying to hug him with their voices, as he slowly walked toward midfield, where an honor guard of select dignitaries, celebrities and former teammates had assembled to greet him. The expression on his face, which usually radiated light and happiness, conveyed melancholy as if he were already mourning the loss of a sporting life like no other — a life in which he could make a soccer ball do everything but talk.
Waiting for the din to subside, Pele turned around to face the VIPs behind him, his gaze alighting on a man resplendent in black — a man who happened to be, at that time, the only other athlete anywhere to be known simply by one name: Ali.
Muhammad Ali called Pele “my brother” and often teased him that “football may be a more beautiful sport than boxing, but I am more beautiful than you.” Pele, for his part, called him “Champ” and sat ringside for Ali’s defense of his heavyweight title against Earnie Shavers. They had forged a friendship over the years of traveling together as UNICEF ambassadors to the world’s most impoverished countries, working in unison to bring hope and joy to children in places where neither existed.
Now at Giants Stadium, Ali and Pele embraced, their mutual affection palpable. Ali, about six inches taller, bent down slightly as Pele reached up to plant a kiss on his cheek. Whereupon the Champ whispered to the King, “Now we are the two greatest of all time.”
As Ali stepped back, a single tear rolled down his cheek.