When paying tribute to “King” Pele, American football player Bobby Smith cannot help but cry. According to his former teammate from the New York Cosmos, the Brazilian legend is largely responsible for the growth of the sport in the United States.
At the age of 71, Robert “Bobby” Smith, who hails from New Jersey, spoke with ‘AFP’ at his soccer academy for aspiring players. Smith, who was once one of the best defenders in the game, looks gratefully at a huge billboard of himself and Pele, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 82 from cancer, at the edge of the indoor synthetic fields where kids train.
Smith, a player in Philadelphia in the 1970s, received a $100,000 contract with the New York Cosmos in 1976. Pele, who was 34 and coming out of semi-retirement, had signed a year earlier for at least ten times that amount. With 31 goals in 56 games, Pele would lead the Cosmos to the 1977 North American soccer championship.
Pele has always been a huge passion for Smith.
He claimed he “never thought for a second that we’d be on the same squad” as a little child.
Even now, he still smiles at the thought.
“Like young children,”
Pele was instrumental in luring a wide range of additional talent to the Cosmos team: Following American goalkeeper Bob Rigby, who was hired at the same time as Smith, came German Franz Beckenbauer, Italian Giorgio Chinaglia, and Brazilian Carlos Alberto.
When we were around him, Smith claims, “it’s almost like we were tiny kids every day.” Standing in front of a picture of Pele’s final game, in late 1977, when the legend reached out to tenderly touch the younger player’s cheek, the man is brought to tears.
But Pele, the only athlete in history to win three World Cups, was undeniably one of the greatest sports stars in the world (in 1958, 1962 and 1970). After a friendly game between Cosmos and his former Brazilian team Santos in October 1977 at New York’s Giants Stadium, the global icon decided to hang up his boots for good.
But Smith claims that even in the sport’s fledgling early years in the 1970s and 1980s, he was already “the biggest influence on soccer in this country.”
“Him coming here really gave the sport a whole lot more legitimacy. People began clamoring to watch it, you know. Smith referred to international stars like Johan Cruyff, Bobby Moore, and George Best when he added, “And he brought all the stars to the game.”
70,000 people showed up to see him perform in New York. Without Pele’s arrival, we wouldn’t have the national program we do. Nowhere near. We would be decades behind,” claims Smith.
He continued that Pele’s influence in igniting US interest in the sport was “unbelievable” and that he helped “legitimize the game.” Is there a “new Pele” needed in American soccer today—someone with such great on-field vision, elite athleticism, and leadership skills?
Despite his thanks to Pele, Smith maintains that the US soccer scene must develop independently. The development of our own American players is crucial to us as a nation, he claims. Pele, the Beckenbauers, Albertos, and Bests all contributed to the development of American soccer. But “I believe we are beginning to stand on our own now. This World Cup, our nation’s team performed considerably better.”
With the United States, Canada, and Mexico slated to co-host the 2026 World Cup, Smith expressed hope that the trend will continue.