How Pelé brought the beautiful game to the United States

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The final curtain call on Pelé’s otherworldly career didn’t come at a World Cup or Copa America or even at home in his native Brazil. But the scene, in East Rutherford, New Jersey, of all places, was still grand enough to be worthy of perhaps the most famous athlete of the 20th century.

Pele, who died Thursday at the age of 82, was a global icon long before he came to the United States in the mid-1970s to end his playing days. He had already led Brazil to three world titles. He was already considered the best footballer who had ever lived. And even in a country and at a time when soccer barely registered in the American consciousness (and where it did, it did so with constant derision and disrespect), Pelé was a true Super star. The 80,000 people who crammed into Giants Stadium on October 1, 1977 for their send-off match, including Muhammad Ali and Mick Jagger, are talking about it.

Only the true greats shine bright enough to change history. And the fact is, the inroads the planet’s most popular sport has made into American mainstream culture over the past half century can be traced directly back to Pelé’s 28-month stint with the New York Cosmos. Basically, it was Pele who put modern American football on the map.

Pelé walks off the field after a game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, circa 1975-77.

If a 34-year-old Pelé hadn’t made the decision to come out of retirement to play in the former North American Soccer League, a signing that sparked a huge crowd and the arrival of others stars like Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. , the potential of soccer in the United States would likely have gone unnoticed.

FIFA probably would not have awarded the United States hosting rights for what turned out to be a hugely successful 1994 World Cup, which remains the best-attended tournament in history. Major League Soccer, created and launched as a condition to land that World Cup, would not even have come off the ground. Now a fixture on the American sports landscape, MLS has grown to 29 teams and will begin its 28th season in February.

The list goes on.

Without MLS, there’s no way the next World Cup would head to this continent in 2026, with a 48-team event staged in cities across Canada, Mexico and the United States. The 1999 Women’s World Cup, hosted by the United States, might not have been held here, or won by the home team inside a packed Rose Bowl. The foreign players who followed Pelé to the NASL, planted roots in their new communities and became youth coaches here after the league folded in 1984, would not have contributed to the development of the young Americans they trained the backbone of the US national teams. which ended a four-decade hiatus from the 1990 Men’s World Cup or won the inaugural Women’s World Cup a year later.

Pelé’s unlikely move to New York was the snowball that led to everything that has happened since. Back then, it was unusual for players to leave their home countries. In a way, Pelé also started the trend of super clubs, even though he never played in Europe; besides Santos in his hometown of São Paulo, the Cosmos were the only club team that Pelé represented. Nowadays, it’s completely normal for the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain to not only covet or court the sport’s biggest names, but inevitably end them as well.

Pelé led the Cosmos to the NASL title a few months before his swan song, but his impact off the field was far greater. Pelé was the first global soccer icon and also the world’s superstar black athlete, paving the way for Ali, Michael Jordan and others to eventually follow.

“I remember growing up reading books about Pelé,” Ali Curtis, a former Hermann Trophy winner at Duke University who played in MLS before becoming the first black general manager in history, told FOX Sports the league, on FOX Sports. “One of the reasons I started playing was because the guy who was considered the best player ever was black.”

Armed with a perpetual, larger-than-life smile despite standing just 5-foot-8, Pelé was a charismatic ambassador for his game wherever he went. Even if American sports fans didn’t respect football, they respected him and his GOAT status. Pelé was as accessible as any living legend, but also as big a draw as there was in New York, where he was a fixture on the social scene. His love affair with his adopted city didn’t end when he hung up his boots; Pelé maintained a residence in Manhattan until his death.

It somehow seems significant that Pelé’s death comes just 11 days after Lionel Messi won his first World Cup with Argentina, who lost their own all-time great, Diego Maradona, two years ago on last month Messi, after all, is the man many believe has surpassed the Brazilian as the best ever. This title, however, remains open to debate. Pelé remains the only player to have won three World Cups, remains the youngest goalscorer in the history of the competition, remains the youngest to score a hat-trick and still the youngest to find the net in a final.

Pelé’s immense contributions to soccer in the US are unquestionable. Pelé’s love for the country and his belief in what soccer could become here were instrumental in the evolution of the game in North America.

The evidence is all around us.

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Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.

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