When Pele came to the United States to play for the Cosmos in 1975, few Americans had actually seen the great Brazilian play.
Pele is the only three-time winner of the World Cup, playing on Brazil's 1958, 1962 and 1970 championship teams, but it wasn't until 1974 that Americans could readily watch the World Cup — and that was via closed-circuit at select arenas around the country,
The only way for Americans to see Pele in person was when Santos, his Brazilian club, toured North America.
My only memory of the first pro soccer game I attended involved Pele. The owner of the NASL's New York Generals was our next-door neighbor, Peter Elser, and he got tickets for a bunch of kids to attend a Generals' match in 1968.
I don't remember who the Generals were playing or who won. All I remember is us boys running the empty corridors of Yankee Stadium in search of Pele. Someone heard a rumor that Pele, on tour with Santos, was in the stadium.
Americans knew Pele was a big deal because he'd often be seen with presidents.
The first of four sitting presidents to invite Pele to the White House was Richard Nixon in 1973. It was right in the middle of the Watergate investigation, and the visit was recorded on the White House tapes that proved to be his undoing.
Thinking Brazilians speak Spanish, Nixon asked Pele if he spoke Spanish. "No," said Pele. "Portuguese." So not as to make his host look bad, Pele added, "It's all the same."
Pele was closely associated with Pepsi, which produced "Pele: The Master and His Method" — the famous instructional video written by Soccer America's Paul Gardner — and Donald Kendall, the Pepsi chief executive officer who attended at the meeting.
Kendall was an old friend of Nixon's going back to the early 1960s and had been involved in the 1972 Committee to Re-Elect the President, according to Michael Beschloss.
After Pele and his wife left the room, Nixon turned to Kendall and sat him down.
“I can assure you that the investigation is now going forward totally,” he told Kendall. “And they’ll get to the bottom of the son of a bitch. One way or another.”
It later was revealed that Kendall, having known the trouble Lyndon Johnson was having writing his memoirs, had recommended to Nixon that he install a taping system to allow him to better organize his memoirs.
When he invited Pele to a state dinner at the White House for Brazilian president Jose Sarney in 1986, Ronald Reagan greeted the Brazilian great by saying, "My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the President of the United States of America. But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pele is.”
Even if we still get frustrated at soccer's place today in the American soccer's landscape, we take for granted how deep the sport is entrenched in American life today — and how far it has come since Pele arrived to play for the Cosmos.
I was in summer school — Colgate University — in June 1975 when Pele debuted for the Cosmos in an exhibition at Randall's Island against the Dallas Tornado, which had played a game in San Antonio the night before. The game was played late in the afternoon on Father's Day. I rushed back from home, taking an early bus so I could watch the game on TV at my college apartment. To my dismay, CBS's Syracuse station aired an old western movie in its time slot.
Soccer was like that then.
I was away at college for the rest of the summer of 1975 and was working in France in 1976, so it wasn't until 1977 that I saw Pele play for the Cosmos. They played their first match at the newly opened Giants Stadium in early April, a preseason match against Victory of Haiti that drew 7,212 fans in the pouring rain. Pele scored scored twice as the Cosmos won, 9-0.
Only later was it revealed that Victory's players disappeared before the game. A group of local Haitian players were rounded up and took the field to play the Cosmos. Steve Ross, chairman of Warner Communications, which owned the Cosmos, knew nothing about Haitian soccer, impostors or no impostors, and was said to have been pleased with the big win.
As I said, soccer was like that then.
In New York, the summer of 1977 was remembered for the blackout and Son of Sam. I remember it because I got my first car, so I attended every Cosmos home game for Pele’s last season after I graduated from college.
The season went fast — the regular season and playoffs in those days was less than five months — but the crowds grew quickly, beginning on Father’s Day when a crowd of 62,394 — a new NASL record — watched Pele score a hat trick to lead the Cosmos to a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies. By the playoffs, it was clear the Cosmos were ready to sell out Giants Stadium.
After the Cosmos beat the Rowdies, 3-0, with two more Pele goals in the first game of the playoffs before 57,828 fans, I made sure to get a ticket for the next playoff game, against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, ahead of time and drove to Giants Stadium the day before the game. All I could get was a seat in the upper deck.
As kickoff approached, the Cosmos announced excitedly on the p.a. system in the press box that the crowd was so big they were selling seats in the standing-room only section. The Cosmos beat Fort Lauderdale, 8-3, before a sellout crowd of 77,691. Pele didn't score, but he didn't have to.
Soccer was never the same thanks to Pele.
Photo: Pele poses for photographers during 1977 NASL playoffs. Credit: Image/Werek