Soccer America was a 1-year-old weekly in 1972 when Pele first graced its cover. The "Farewell to the King" headline fortunately proved premature.Pele's contract with Santos was about to expire. Exhausted from the club's constant worldwide exhibition game touring, Pele stated he was ready "to settle down." That prompted Santos' 1972 tour of USA to be billed as his farewell tour. "Pele May Play Last Game Here Today," read the headline of Alex Yannis' June 25, 1972, article in The New York Times.
Yannis wrote that Pele confessed "he was seriously thinking of leaving Santos — he stopped playing for the Brazilian national team last year — at the end of this year. He indicated that today's game against Catanzaro of Italy at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, would probably be his last appearance before New York metropolitan area fans."
Of course, Pele joined the New York Cosmos in 1975 and they would see many more games with Pele.
O Rei, who stayed with Santos through 1974, graced Soccer America covers three more times before Clive Toye lured him to the NASL. The June 5, 1973, edition covered Santos' games in Baltimore (vs. the Baltimore Bays), Oakland and Los Angeles (vs. Chivas Guadalajara), and Philadelphia (vs. Arminia Bielefeld).
Within Soccer America's first five years of publication, Pele was on the cover seven times. They included the Dec. 2, 1975 issue with Amy Love (top middle), a 10-year-old on whose behalf The Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) filed a class action lawsuit against the California Youth Soccer Association (CYSA) to allow girls to play on the boys teams as it didn't offer girls soccer.
Perhaps the most eye-catching cover was the June 1, 1976 issue (top right) that shows Pele wearing a USA jersey with Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff in the background.
Pele, as well as then NASL-based Englishman Bobby Moore and Italian Giorgio Chinaglia, joined Team America for the four-nation Bicentennial Cup. Team America fell, 4-0, to Italy (Fabio Capello scored the first goal), 2-0 to Brazil, and 3-1 to England (on two goals by Kevin Keegan and one by Trevor Francis.)
Pele scored 37 NASL goals for the Cosmos in 1975-77. When Soccer America celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1991, Pele had been on its cover 17 times, followed by John Harkes (11) and Kyle Rote Jr. (10). Harkes — part of the famous Kearny, New Jersey, trio with Tab Ramos and Tony Meola — was among many U.S. stars inspired by the New York Cosmos.
New Jerseyans Gregg Berhalter and Claudio Reyna were teammates on the Union County youth team, one whose coaches, Arnie Ramirez, was director of the Pele Soccer Camps. He'd take the team to Cosmos practices and games.
Gregg Berhalter (center) and Claudio Reyna (right) with Julio Mazzei and Pele.
Pele finally did retire after the 1977 season. In the Oct. 4 issue, SA founder and publisher Clay Berling wrote that Pele "set a standard for conduct on and off the field while being a star."
Lynn Berling covered Pele's appearance at a Special Olympics event at Giants Stadium ahead of his farewell game during which he played goalkeeper as kids took shots: "Pele is sprawled on the ground, obviously delighted at missing the striker's shot."
Despite his retirement, the 1978 NASL preview featured Pele on the cover. The caption explained:
"The shadow of Pele, the world's greatest player, rests favorably upon the dawn of the 1978 NASL season. His dynamic field presence and sense of gentle diplomacy have given Americans a new sports frontier."
Pele continued to feature in Soccer America long after his retirement. Our July 30, 1981 cover featured him on the set of "Victory." He frequently visited the USA, including at United Soccer Coaches (then known as the NSCAA) conventions on behalf of Umbro.
Paul Gardner covered his appearance in 2000 at St. Benedict's Prep, the alma mater of Berhalter, Reyna and Ramos:
"Here he is, enthralling boys who were not even born when he retired, answering their questions with ease and humor. ... Autograph signing. It goes on for over an hour. Pele sits at a table, the line of admirers stretches out, over 50 strong, behind him. He never looks back at that daunting crowd to see how many there are, he simply signs and signs and signs. He has a smile and greeting for everyone, he poses delightedly for the pictures."
Pele, who said, “I didn’t get rich from soccer like today’s players do. I earned money from advertising, when I stopped playing," spent much of his later years traveling the world promoting companies such as Mastercard, Hublot, Volkswagen and Subway.
It was thanks to the latter that I last got to be with Pele in person. During the 2014 World Cup, about 50 photographers, TV cameramen and reporters crammed into a Rio de Janeiro Subway shop where Pele — never ceasing to smile — prepared sandwiches from the counter during the promotional event.
When he came over to field media questions, I managed from amid the scrum to ask him about the USA's round-of-16 performance.
“The USA was good. Some people didn’t expect it. But remember, the USA did well in Korea,” he said referring the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal appearance.
He said he's always proud when the USA does well.