Of all the headlines Pele made on the football field, few of them came close to the remarkable announcement he made off it in 1975 – when he came out of retirement to sign for a little-known U.S. club called the New York Cosmos.
Soccer in the United States was then still largely unknown, with the nascent semi-professional league still populated by wacky teams comprising Latin American janitors, American college students and European construction workers.
Pele’s arrival in New York changed that, bringing fans, visibility and glamour for a short-lived period in which football – and not the American version – become the hottest ticket in town.
“Pele has elevated the game of soccer to heights never before attained in America and only Pele, with his status, incomparable talent and beloved compassion could have accomplished such a mission,” said former President Jimmy Carter. “The United States is deeply grateful.”
Pele joined Brazilian club Santos in 1956 and spent his entire career there until retiring in 1974. But his businesses were in trouble and the idea of the big payday a return to the game would bring was highly attractive.
Talks that started in 1971 got serious in 1975, but Pele hesitated, afraid his compatriots would think him a mercenary.
He was eventually convinced to sign a multimillion dollar deal in June 1975, aided by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who wrote a letter to the Brazilian government stressing how important his presence would be for bilateral relations.
The move was an instant success, with hundreds of journalists and photographers literally fighting to get a glimpse of Pele at his signing ceremony at the storied 21 Club in Manhattan.
It took the 35-year old a while to settle, but when he did the Cosmos were a force to be reckoned with.
They reached the league playoffs in 1976 and then won the championship the next year, with Pele making the all-star team both years.
His arrival saw crowds soar and advertisers flock to the club. Owners Warner Communications watched with glee as celebrity fans like Robert Redford, Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol followed the Cosmos fortunes, sometimes at the stadium and often at Studio 54, the hot nightclub where New York’s beautiful people gathered.
Pele’s success prompted Cosmos to sign other big names, including Italian Giorgio Chinaglia, West German captain Frank Beckenbauer and Brazilian World Cup winner Carlos Alberto.
Other clubs were also forced to invest to keep up. All-time greats such as George Best, Johan Cruyff, Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Gerd Muller were among those who enjoyed sojourns in a league where money seemed to be no object.
However, after Pele retired in 1977 interest started to wane. The league expanded too quickly, paid salaries they couldn’t afford, and crowds and sponsorship fell. The last full season was in 1984.
Pele never regretted his move, however. When the United States was chosen to host what turned out to be a massively successful 1994 World Cup tournament, he felt vindicated, he said.