He’d won three World Cups, scored goals galore and become a global icon, but Pelé wasn’t quite done yet, so off he went to the US and helped transform the sport of soccer in North America.
The Brazilian great was convinced to come out of retirement, signing in 1975 for the New York Cosmos for three more seasons.
Pelé had seemingly played his last professional game months prior to joining the North American Soccer League (NASL) side, hanging up his boots after making 638 appearances for his childhood club Santos.
It was almost unfathomable that Pelé would ever play for any other club apart from Santos, but he joined the Cosmos midway through the 1975 season on a $1.67-million-a-year contract, despite soccer struggling to generate much interest in North America at the time.
Pelé came, saw and conquered and by the time ‘O Rei’ (“The King”) left in 1977, he was an NASL champion who had helped spark a soccer boom.
“During three seasons with the Cosmos, Pelé helped transform the domestic landscape of the sport of soccer,” the Cosmos said in a statement after his death this week.
“Where once there had been baseball diamonds, now there were also soccer pitches.
“The Cosmos and their King not only started a sporting revolution in America, they also traveled the world to spread the Gospel of the Beautiful Game.”
Pelé paved the way
Even now, after almost 50 years, Pelé’s influence is still being felt across both the men’s and women’s games in North America.
His move to Cosmos paved the way for other greats, such as Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer, to follow suit and although the NASL ultimately folded in 1984, it set a blueprint for Major League Soccer (MLS) when it was established in 1993.
Superstars such as David Beckham, Gareth Bale, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have all followed in the footsteps of Pelé by helping grow the sport in North America by playing in the MLS.
Soccer in the US is now thriving, with the US National Men’s Team impressing during the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
Scouts from across the world are now looking at North America to discover new talent, with the sport cemented into the fabric of society and being naturally passed down through generations.
Much of the early work was done in the 1970s thanks to Pelé’s natural ability and infectious smile.
CNN’s Don Riddell spoke with supporters about Pelé during Qatar 2022, with one American saying the legend changed his life.
“Watching him was the first professional game I ever saw in 1975 and because of that, one of the reasons this is my 11th World Cup,” Clifton Broumand told CNN.
“Watching him and his ability hooked me to coming and watching soccer and the World Cup.”
In the season before Pelé joined Santos in 1975, the Cosmos’ largest attendance for a match was a little over 8,000 people.
During his final and most successful season in 1977, the average crowd was 42,689 for home games, including three occasions when the attendance was over 70,000, according to the Society for American Soccer History.
When Pelé joined the Cosmos he was aged 34 and he went on to score a total of 37 goals in 64 NASL matches.
“Pelé’s decision to bring his artistry to the United States with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s was a transformative moment for the sport in this country,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement.
“As Pelé captivated fans throughout the US and Canada, it demonstrated the power of the game and the limitless possibilities for the sport.”
Pelé's life in pictures
Beacon of light
The Cosmos’ first General Manager Clive Toye played a key role in getting the sport’s then biggest superstar to join the Cosmos.
A former journalist who was heavily involved in the NASL’s creation, Toye had a vision for the future of soccer in the US and believed Pelé was the man to make that dream a reality.
However, Toye and the Cosmos faced some stiff opposition from around the world for Pelé’s signature.
Heavyweight political intervention was even brought to bear, with Pelé saying then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had helped convince him to join the Cosmos.
“At that time, I had a lot of proposals to play in England, Italy, Spain, Mexico but I said no. After 18 years, I want to rest because I’m going to retire,” Pelé told CNN in 2011.
“Then appeared the proposal to go to New York because they want to make soccer big in the United States. That was the reason. I started my mission.”
Suddenly it was cool to watch soccer.
Matches were broadcast globally and the star-studded Cosmos team was the hottest ticket in town. The Comsos and Pelé even began touring around the world.
“No matter where we went, all around the world, Asia, Australia, Europe, all they wanted was Pelé,” former Cosmos player Dennis Tueart, who was signed to replace Pelé, though he played some exhibition matches with the Brazilian star, told Sky Sports.
“He had extraordinary vision, extraordinary athleticism […] he was without doubt, in my view, the best.”
Pelé still has a presence in New York City today. The ‘Pelé Soccer’ store was opened in 2019 and sits on the iconic Times Square, a location many fans flocked to after news of his death.
After the Cosmos won the NASL title in 1977, a farewell match against Pelé’s former team Santos was organized, with the Brazilian playing a half for both sides in what would be his final official game.
After the testimonial, he addressed more than 70,000 people inside a packed New York’s Giants Stadium, leading the crowd in a chant of “Love, love, love.”
A fitting end, perhaps, for a man who spread joy wherever he went and who helped establish soccer as a way of life in North America.