When Pele Was The King of New York

Written By Salvatore Bono

In the late summer of 1975, the world’s greatest soccer player and possibly the best to ever play the game arrived in New York City to play for the Cosmos. A year after his arrival, the three-time World Cup winner was like the honorary mayor of the City that Never Sleeps.

Read: Thrice In a Lifetime: New York Cosmos Out of This World Lifespan

The whole world seem to wonder what Pele was doing in America playing soccer when he could have been in Europe playing for the major clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus.

Instead of going to Europe, the Brazilian from Santos signed a blockbuster deal to play with the New York Cosmos in the new North American Soccer League.

Fans of the sport who lived in the U.S. were thrilled, others outside the country where shocked, and as the striker arrived in New York, he received a mixed reaction from the press.

No one more than Daily News sportswriter Dick Young who chastised the player for what he believed was a ploy for  popularity. He didn’t see soccer growing in America.

He was wrong.

The Arrival

Pele’s press conference when the 35-year-old arrived in New York was at the infamous 21 Club and he became a member right away.

He arrived two hours late, making members of the Cosmos front office sweat due to the amount of press in the room who had about as much patience as Gattuso on a soccer field. The club also had a massive steak on what this was going to have on soccer as a sport in America.

Once Pele turned up, most of the reporters saw what he looked like for the first time and many became fans due to his charisma and charm. For some of the press, the man they never heard of before that day, they left the 21 Club with high interest.

However, at the press conference, Dick Young slammed the Cosmos’ owners and Pele, while asking difficult questions because he didn’t like that a foreign player was coming to represent a sport in America. It was supposed to be a fluff afternoon of Pele posing for photos but became a rude awakening or as we call it in New York City – a typical morning.

Following Pele’s arrival in 1975, he scored five goals for the Cosmos, who didn’t have a home to play in. The team was bouncing around the city in venues like Yankee Stadium, Randall’s Island, and Hofstra University in Long Island.

The owners knew that they had to keep the youngest World Cup winner happy but since New York is so metropolitan, it seemed as if he status was doing that without their help.

Since New York is a melting pot of cultures from all around the world, not only was it the perfect market for the Brazilian to play in, it was also an audience that was going to appreciate him on and off the field.

The star was able to get into Studio 54 without an issue, he was given five-star treatment at restaurants, celebrities from around the world like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, were coming to see him play.

He went to the White House to kick a ball around with President Gerald Ford. The president clearly never kicked a ball around before and sort of embarrassed himself in front of Brazil’s biggest export. Nevertheless, Pele became the first soccer player invited to the White House.

In the early part of the 1976 season, he pulled a hamstring that forced him to be sidelined for a bit. Fans still flocked to games to see him hang around the sidelines and wave to the crowd as they played in Giants Stadium in New Jersey, which became the Cosmos’ home.

He was quickly becoming more than just the face of the Cosmos but an ambassador for the game in America.

As soccer crowds gathered in size around the side, it sparked the ire of Dick Young who wanted to prove to the media that they were wrong, the game wasn’t popular and no one outside the soccer community gave a damn.

America’s (New) Past Time

In the summer of 1976, as Pele was nursing the hamstring injury, the caustic Young invited the player to Shea Stadium in Queens, New York, to watch a Mets baseball game.

New York City holds its athletes as heroes, and in 1976, the ghosts of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle still loomed over the city and were mixing with a new breed of icons like Joe Namath, Walt “Clyde” Fraizer, and Dr. J, but now a foreigner was rivaling that star power.

Young refused to accept that.

Young wanted to bring the soccer player onto his turf, to watch his favorite team, and prove that Pele wasn’t bigger than the guys on the field.

Well, Dick Young learned the hard way.

The two went to the game unannounced with members of the Cosmos front office. No one knew they were there. According to reports, by the end of the first inning a cluster of people gathered them. By the third inning, they were absolutely besieged by people.

Due to the amount of fans around the duo, and the calamity in the stands, no one was paying attention to the game happening on the field. The commotion got so loud, the umpire had to stop the game and see what was happening.

Security and officials from the Mets front office then brought Pele onto the field were he was given a heroes welcome. An embarrassed Young was next to him the whole time.

As a reporter, the bewildered Young needed to tell the truth and he would write that Pele is a massive star in New York City and soccer is in fact catching on and is more than the world’s game but a cultural phenomenon.

The conservative and best read sportswriter in America who felt that anyone who did not bleed red, white, and blue, changed his mind. He was finally turning around to soccer much like the rest of America.

The Legacy

Following the Mets game, Young and America saw that soccer became a household sport in the country along with baseball, football and basketball.

Read: Ray Hudson: Good Player, Magisterial Commentator!

Pele would play with the Cosmos for two seasons, scoring 31 goals in 56 appearances. During his time with the Cosmos, he opened the door for Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia, to play for the team. Other players from Europe like Ray Hudson, Rodney Marsh, Gordon Banks, Johan Cruyff, George Best, Geoff Hurt would all come play in the NASL.

Pele continues to be an ambassador for soccer and is an honorary president of the current New York Cosmos club in the Division II of American soccer in the NASL.

 

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