Pelé in the United States: The Journey of the Soccer King with the New York Cosmos

The Revolution that Transcended Soccer Borders and Its Lasting Impact on the American Sports Scene
Pele In New Jersey
Pele In New Jersey / Michael Brennan/GettyImages

Pelé, the Soccer King, transcended Brazilian borders to leave a lasting legacy in the United States during the 1970s. His journey with the New York Cosmos was not just a change of clubs but a revolution that influenced the trajectory of the sport in a country where soccer was far from the spotlight. This narrative aims to explore Pelé's impactful presence in the United States from his arrival in 1975 to his farewell in 1977, examining how he not only transformed the Cosmos but also redefined the perception of American soccer.

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The Beginning of a Historic Journey

In October 1975, Brazil bid farewell to its greatest soccer star as Pelé crossed the Atlantic to the United States. The New York Cosmos, a club seeking to solidify its place in the sports scene, became the stage for the second phase of the King's career. What motivated this change? In large part, the answer lies in the astronomical figure offered by the Cosmos, around 7 or 8 million dollars for three years, coupled with a generous share in marketing deals associated with Pelé's name. It was a financial move, but also a bold bet on Pelé's potential to revolutionize American soccer.

Reign on the Field and in the Stands

Pelé's arrival had an immediate impact on the Cosmos and the North American Soccer League (NASL). In a country where soccer struggled to stand out among basketball, baseball, and the local version of the NFL, the King brought an aura of excellence that transcended the sport's barrier. Stadiums, once neglected in relation to soccer, were flooded with an impressive average of 34 thousand spectators per game. The 1977 Eastern Division final against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Giants Stadium in New Jersey witnessed a remarkable crowd of 77 thousand spectators, consolidating Pelé's impact on American stands.

Pelé's Role in Media and High-Profile Signings

In addition to on-field achievements, Pelé became a sensation in American media. His debut for the Cosmos against the Dallas Tornado attracted around 10 million viewers, a monumental figure at the time. Pelé's influence extended beyond the game itself; it reverberated in the decisions of other world soccer stars to join the NASL. Names like Carlos Alberto Torres, Eusébio, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia were drawn to the United States, contributing to further elevate the level of competition.

Behind-the-Scenes of Change

Behind Pelé's move to the United States was Clive Toye, a Cosmos executive whose connections with celebrities like Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones helped pave the way for the King's arrival. The financial agreement was undoubtedly substantial, but it was also driven by the prestige and visibility that Pelé's presence would provide to the Cosmos. The club became not only a sports destination but a cultural icon, frequented by legendary figures from the music and entertainment industry.

Legendary Pele and World-Renowned New York Cosmos Score a Comeback / Neilson Barnard/GettyImages

The Cosmos Beyond the Field

Pelé's influence extended beyond the soccer fields. In the vibrant New York nightlife of the 1970s, the King became a frequent presence at the famous Studio 54 nightclub, sharing the space with other personalities like Michael Jackson, Salvador Dali, Freddy Mercury, Elton John, and even Donald Trump. His figure transcended the sport, turning him into a true celebrity on American soil.

Presidential Recognition

Pelé's influence reached even the corridors of power in Washington. In a ceremony at the White House, then-President Ronald Reagan paid tribute to the Soccer King in a way few non-political Brazilians experienced. In his memorable words, Reagan recognized not only the athlete but the living legend who had won hearts beyond Brazilian borders. This moment was symbolic, representing Pelé's acceptance not just as a talented player but as a global ambassador for the sport.

The Memorable Farewell

On October 1, 1977, Pelé bid farewell to the Cosmos in a friendly against Santos, his former Brazilian team. Giants Stadium in New Jersey witnessed over 75 thousand spectators who applauded the King in his farewell. If in the thousandth goal Pelé asked for help for the children, in his farewell, he proclaimed, "Love, love, love" – an expression of affection that resonated both on the field and in the emotions of the fans.

The Legacy and Decline of Soccer in the USA

After 107 matches and 65 goals in three years, Pelé left the United States as the league champion in 1977. However, despite all the success and publicity, soccer's popularity in the country cooled after the departure of the superstar. The sport would only reemerge in the American spotlight during the 1994 World Cup hosted in the United States. Pelé's trajectory was, therefore, a crucial chapter in the history of soccer in the USA, but also indicative of the complexities and challenges faced by the sport in a country where sporting traditions were deeply rooted in other games.

The Resilience of Soccer in the USA

The 1980s and much of the 1990s were marked by a notable decline in interest in soccer in the United States. The NASL ceased its activities in 1984, and the void left by Pelé's departure seemed insurmountable. However, the resurgence happened spectacularly during the 1994 World Cup, a competition that brought the world of soccer back to the hearts and minds of Americans.

What Pelé initiated in the 1970s flourished decades later, with packed stadiums, massive TV audiences, and a new generation of American players eager to follow in the footsteps of the King. Pelé's influence, even in his physical absence, remained evident in the passion and resilience of soccer in the United States.

Pelé's Legacy

Pelé's passage through the United States transcended the simple sports context. His journey with the New York Cosmos was not just a transfer of a talented player but a catalyst for the transformation of soccer on American soil. The Cosmos' bold financial move not only elevated the club's status but also opened the doors to a new era in the sport, where soccer began to find its place in the hearts of Americans.

Pelé not only won titles and hearts on the field but also became an iconic figure off it. His presence in the United States transcended the bounds of sports, influencing pop culture, media, and even politics. The presidential recognition at the White House was tangible proof of Pelé's impact on American society.

The farewell of the Cosmos in 1977 marked the end of an era, but Pelé's legacy continued to inspire future generations of players and fans. The 1994 World Cup was a turning point, where soccer found a new home in the United States, and the Soccer King played a vital role in paving that path.

Pelé's journey in the United States is not just a sports story; it is a tale of resilience, cultural transcendence, and the singular ability of a man to shape the destiny of a sport in a nation. His reign on the soccer fields and in the bright nights of New York echoes as an unforgettable chapter in the history of world sports, a story in which Pelé not only played soccer but also won hearts and minds, leaving a legacy that transcends time and borders.