By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (September 21, 2006) — It has now been more than 31 years since his Pelé made what Sports Illustrated described as his “triumphant debut” with the New York Cosmos against the Dallas Tornadoes. The match, which was actually a hastily arranged exhibition, was played at ramshackle Downing Stadium on Randalls Island just off Manhattan before 22,000 fans and broadcast nationally by CBS on June 15, 1975.
CBS took the broadcast pretty seriously. They assigned Frank Lieber and British golf-commentator Ben Wright to provide the play-by-play, interviewed Paul Gardner at halftime (while a high school band entertained the fans), and brought along Jack Whittaker, one of the deans of American sports punditry, to offer some perspective about what Pelé might mean to the future of American soccer.
To sum up, Whittaker argued that American soccer was as run-down as Downing Stadium. “A sandlot in a city of glass and steel,” he said. Pelé’s task was to lift it out of the darkness “into the sunlight of a well-seeded pitch.” The jury was still out, but he would have help, from the droves of kids who were starting to play soccer, and the North American Soccer League, which was no longer drowning in red ink. Whittaker was optimistic: “I think he is up to it, because this afternoon for an hour-and-a-half this was not a worn out stadium with the paint peeling; it was a gay, sunlit place, and we cheered his artistry.”
And artistry it was. Pelé had not played for eight months, since he announced his retirement after his last match with Santos, but he was in transcendent form. He made a bewildering variety of passes, starting with his first touch, which was a successful backheel. Time seemed to all but stop every time he touched the ball, as he surveyed all his options, before invariably making a perfectly weighted pass. He set up the Cosmos’ first goal, which CBS missed because they were showing a commercial, with a slide-rule pass into the box and created around a dozen solid chances for teammates.
The fans and CBS, however, came to see goals. He headed the ball against the woodwork in the first half, while CBS was showing a commercial, and scored with a near post header off a corner in the second half, while CBS was showing a replay. During the next commercial break, a clearly exasperated Wright said, “Damn it!”
The match was incredibly open. There were 13 shots and only six fouls committed in the first half. The players had a lot of time to make use of the ball because the offside lines were only 35 yards away from each goal. This really suited the Cosmos, who placed an emphasis on ball skills, even on a pitch that was so awful that CBS had to paint the muddy patches green. There were very few long passes. As the match progressed, Pelé went deeper and deeper in search of the ball. He realized that the ball was not going to come to him up top, so he dropped back and focused on conducting his teammates.
The fact that the Cosmos’ style was more Latin than British clearly caught the attention of Paul Gardner, especially since they and Tornadoes were coached by Brits, Bob Bradley and Ron Newman . During a halftime interview by Wright, he claimed that Pelé would do more than just increase the popularity of the sport in the United States. He’s going to “introduce a style of play to which Americans are not used to, in short, a skillful style of play. I think this is something American soccer has been lacking very, very substantially up till now; it has been a very physical game up till now.”
Wright concurred and went on to add, “We have had a very physical type of play in Britain for sometime. The individuals are going out of the game and it’s a very sad thing. There’s a chance for a new style to be set in America.”
For his part, Pelé recognized that the quality of play, especially with the Cosmos, needed to improve. Before the match against the Tornadoes, he had watched two Cosmos matches and was none too impressed. He thought the team “lacked a good deal of individual talent” and wondered what he had gotten himself into. “Edson,” he said to himself, “I’m afraid! I have a sinking feeling you’re going to suffer a little playing here.”
He took some consolation from the fact that the two teams he had seen the Cosmos play looked every bit as bad. It gave him the hope that his play could help his team shine “like a jewel in a cabbage patch,” but he soon discovered that that there were other teams in the NASL that were much better. “Teams like Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Toronto, Tampa Bay — they were clubs with teams that demanded and received respect on the field.
The Cosmos managed to win seven of 13 regular season matches but did not make the playoffs. The larger point for Pelé, however, was to promote association football in the United States, to help make the game, “which I love so much, as important a sport here as it is in the rest of the world.”
NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam and Cosmos general manager Clive Toye had similar hopes for the impact Pelé would have. They relentlessly courted him for four years. The followed him around the world, used Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to help recruit him, and agreed to pay him more money than any American athlete playing a team sport. Pelé recently claimed that he received nine million dollars for three years, but Toye claims it was no more than $2.8 million.
Be that as it may, there is no disputing the immediate impact he had. Attendance for games he played more than doubled the league average, CBS signed on to broadcast matches, and other international quality players began to join the league. Most importantly, soccer captured the attention of the mainstream media and the general public for the first time. As the Sports Illustrated cover after the Tornado match claimed, U.S. soccer had found a savior.
The use of such religious symbols is tempting. Pelé is viewed with God-like reverence by a large portion of the planet and he came to the United States to evangelize the sport. Indeed, one of his teammates, Gil Mardarescu, crossed himself after he met him. “I dreamed someday of just shaking your hand,” he told him. “But to play with you, this is a miracle.”
I, however, am tempted to use Darwinian imagery. Pelé couldn’t save the NASL, and the sport still has not realized the ambitions Gardner, Wright, and he had for it. Rather, his arrival was the mutation that kick-started our evolution. The emergence of youth soccer and the NASL got the ball rolling, but Pele got soccer off the ground in this country, and gave wings to America’s desire to become a world power in the sport.