Debuts Part 3: Pelé

The NASL debut of Brazilian icon Pelé was a game-changer for soccer in the United States. STEPHEN BRANDT tells the story

Being a football fan, there are exact moments in time that you can point to that changed everything. For supporters of a certain age in the United States, Pelé arriving on American soil is such a thing.

Pelé has always been an icon in Brazil. He was named a national treasure by the government, thus making it impossible for him to leave. There are rumours that some clubs enquired about obtaining his services after he retired from Santos. So how did the New York Cosmos get him out of Brazil? The Cosmos were owned by Warner Communications, and Steve Ross, who wanted a club to mirror the greats in Europe. To reach the stars, they had to get the best player in the world. However, North American Soccer League (NASL) commissioner Phil Woosman, a former Aston Villa forward, and Cosmos team president Clive Toye, had been working on getting Pelé into the league since 1971. They had to wait four years until the dream finally came true.

President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, a noted football fan, was drafted in to work his diplomatic magic in order to promote the nation’s football. The negotiations were protracted and complicated but ultimately Pelé signed on the dotted line.

Once the ink was dry on the paper, it was off to announce the biggest signing in American soccer history. In front of a packed crowd at the 21 Club, Pelé was unveiled to the media. Such a thing in football is common in the rest of the world. However, at the time this was rare in the States. This was a building block.

Embed from Getty Images

On 15 June 1975, Pelé debuted against the Dallas Tornado’s. Pele assisted the first goal, before scoring the second in a 2-2 draw. The Tornado’s star turn was Kyle Rote Junior, the best United States had to offer during a fallow period in terms of homegrown talent. Rote Junior was the son of a famous NFL player, and was more of a television star than a sportsman.

Another thing that made Pelé’s debut more impressive was that is was broadcast nationwide by CBS, a rarity for “soccer” at the time. However, Cosmos’ home ground – Randall Island’s Downing Stadium – wasn’t up to the standard required. It was in such bad condition that the ground staff had to spray the bare patches with green paint.

Pelé retired in 1977, and has since said in interviews that he only planned to stay for one season, instead staying for three years. His impact on the sport in the States was massive. Other superstars would follow: George Best, Johan Cryuff, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Gordon Banks, Giorgio Chingalla, and Trevor Francis. For a time it looked like the NASL could survive and thrive. The overspending and lack of true footballing brains behind the scenes killed the league, which ceased to exist in its original guise in 1984.

Some of the ex-players stayed in the States. Ex-Wolverhampton Wanderers, Derby County and Nottingham Forest winger Alan Hinton would go to coach all over the Pacific Northwest. Ex-Newcastle United midfielder Ray Hudson would become a pundit after his coaching career. Thomas Rongen, who came over with Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, would coach all over the States, and with the national team. The majority of the players that featured in the USA team at World Cup 1994 were former NASL ball boys and fans. None of this would have been possible if Pelé hadn’t debuted in 1975.

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