Pele conquered America at the age of 34


The New York Cosmos lured Pele to the football backwater that was America in 1975 when he was 34 and semi-retired, beating out interest from Juventus and Real Madrid.

“If you go there all you can do is win a championship. You come here, you win a country,” Englishman Clive Toye recalled informing the three-time World Cup champion while serving as the Cosmos’ general manager.

Pele also conquered a nation. He changed “soccer” in America from a sport that few people cared about to one that draws sell-out audiences of 80,000 in less than two years.

He led the Cosmos to a period of dominance by winning a North American Soccer League championship, and he made it possible for many other international talents, like as Johan Cruyff and George Best, to play in the United States. When flamboyant owner Steve Ross, head of cinema giant Warner, and Toye felt they needed a headline signing to revive interest in their team and the fading NASL, the Cosmos were a motley group of part-timers and journeymen professionals playing in front of only a few hundred spectators.

Toye’s search for Pele brought him to Jamaica, Brussels, and Rome, among other places. The Englishman recalled that the Brazilian needed “enormous 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 signed a three-year contract worth approximately $4.5 million, though senior Cosmos executives have all given various estimates. Pele was having some financial issues at home.

Ernesto Geisel, the president of Brazil, attempted to obstruct the signing, but the Cosmos used their contacts to persuade Henry Kissinger, a devoted football fan, to step in and ensure the deal. Pele was introduced to the media during a press conference held in New York City’s opulent 21 Club, where he said: “You can tell the word that soccer has finally arrived in the America.”

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – CIRCA 1975-77: Tony Field #7, Giorgio Chinaglia #9 and Pele #10 of New York Cosmos look on before a game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, circa 1975-77. (Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images)

Toye recollects, “It was a mob scene. “The space was completely crowded. You had trouble moving. It was just complete, utter chaos.” Pele made his Cosmos debut against Dallas Tornado a few days later, on June 15th, 1975, at the decaying Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in the East River of New York.

According to Toye, the pitch was covered in broken bottles after a city-sponsored event the previous evening. She recalled Cosmos coach Gordon Bradley cleaning the stadium’s seats prior to the game. The groundskeeper chose to spray paint the pitch green for the advantage of the CBS television cameras broadcasting the game because large portions of the field were devoid of grass.

In front of a crowd of 22,500 people, Pele scored a strong header to snatch a 2-2 draw. Thousands more were reportedly turned away at the gates. He left the pitch, though, upset.

“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.

As tens of thousands of supporters descended on Pele’s stadium, the Cosmos started breaking attendance records at venues all around America. Toye remembered, “It was a struggle getting him through a mass of people onto the team vehicle to get to the airport on time. We used to inform him that the bus was leaving 30 minutes earlier.

As described in the 2006 documentary “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos,” Pele and his colleagues also established themselves as regulars in New York’s nightlife, partying at Studio 54 with famous people like Mick Jagger and Liza Minnelli. Pele led the Cosmos to the NASL title in 1977 during his third and final season, by which time Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer had joined the squad. Pele scored 64 goals in 106 games for the Cosmos.

On October 1st, 1977, he played his final match in front of a packed house at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where the Cosmos had relocated the previous year, in a friendly against his longtime Brazilian club Santos.

Before playing for Santos in the second half, Pele scored a free kick for the Cosmos in the first half. According to the New York Times, he started crying as he led 75,000 people in chants of “love, love, love!”

The Cosmos won three more titles before folding in 1984 due to financial difficulties. A year later, the NASL was eliminated. According to Toye, Pele’s legacy is the fact that Americans currently represent elite European clubs.

Next to Pele “Nobody in the entire nation didn’t understand what soccer was. Children in great numbers began to play. Our match was made significant by Pele.”

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