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US soccer player Bobby Smith didn’t hold back tears as he paid tribute to “King” Pele. Former New York Cosmos teammate says.

Robert “Bobby” Smith, 71, who is still athletic, told AFP at the Bob Smith Soccer Academy, his training center for budding players in his native New Jersey.

At the edge of the indoor man-made field where the kids train, Smith, a top defender in his younger days, gazes lovingly at a giant poster of him and Pele, who died of cancer on Thursday at the age of 82.

A professional player in Philadelphia in the 1970s, Smith signed with the New York Cosmos in 1976 for $100,000. Coming out of semi-retirement at age 34, Pele signed a contract for at least ten times that amount a year earlier and led the Cosmos to the 1977 North American Soccer Championship, scoring 31 goals in 56 appearances.

Smith is a lifelong fan of Pelé. As a boy, he said, “I never thought for a second that we were on the same team.”

That thought still puts a smile on his face.

– “Like a little child” –

Pele played a key role in attracting a number of other talents to the Cosmos team, following American goalkeeper Bob Rigby, who was recruited at the same time as Smith, Italy’s Giorgio Chinalia and Germany. Franz Beckenbauer of Brazil and Carlos Alberto of Brazil.

“It was like we were little kids every day when we were by his side,” says Smith.

In late 1977, he was moved to tears as he stood in front of a photo of Pele’s last game.

Smith says he was a surprisingly humble man.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele said: “He was a great teammate. He cared about his teammates and all of us. He was more than just a superstar.”

Still, Pele was one of the world’s greatest sporting superstars and the only player in history to win the World Cup three times (1958, 1962, 1970).

The global icon cut his boots completely after a friendly match between Cosmos and his old Brazilian club Santos at New York’s Giants Stadium in October 1977.

But he already “had the biggest impact on football in this country” in its still sluggish early days in the 1970s and ’80s, says Smith.

– “rightfulness” –

“He came here to bring legitimacy to the sport. People wanted to see it. And he brought all the stars to the game.” George best.

“He played in New York and 70,000 people came to see him.”

“If Pele wasn’t here, we wouldn’t have the national program that we have. It’s not even close. (We’d be) years and years behind schedule,” says Smith.

He added that Pele had an “incredible” impact on fueling US interest in the sport. He helped “justify the game.”

Does American football need a ‘new Pele’ with such incredible on-field vision, athleticism and leadership abilities today?

In his gratitude to Pele, Smith said American football needs to grow on its own.

“It’s important for our country to develop its own American players,” he says.

Pelé, along with Beckenbauers, Albertos and Bestz, helped establish the US game. However, “I think now we stand our ground … Our national team was much better at this World Cup.”

Smith added that he hopes the trend will continue and that the United States, Canada and Mexico will co-host the 2026 World Cup.

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