How Pele brought the beautiful game to the United States

The final curtain call of Pele’s otherworldly career didn’t even go back to his native Brazil, not the World Cup or Copa America. But the scene in East Rutherford, New Jersey, was grand enough to deserve perhaps the most famous athlete of the 20th century.

Pele, who died on Thursday at the age of 82, was a global icon long before he retired to the United States in the mid-1970s. He had already led Brazil to his three World Cup titles. He was already considered the greatest footballer who ever lived. And even in a country where football was barely registered in American consciousness (and where it was, constant ridicule and disrespect), Pele was a bona fide superstar.October 1977 The 80,000 spectators (including Muhammad Ali and Mick Jagger) who packed into Giants Stadium for his send-off game in one day speak for themselves.

Only true greats shine brightly enough to change history. In fact, the infiltration of the most popular sport on the planet into mainstream US culture over the past half century can be traced directly to Pele’s 28-month sojourn in his cosmos in New York City. . Basically, it was Pele who put modern American football on the map.

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

Had Pelé, 34, not made the decision to come out of retirement and play in the old North American Soccer League, the signing would have led to huge crowds and the arrival of other stars such as Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. Connected. , the stateside potential of football would probably have gone unnoticed.

FIFA probably never gave the United States the right to host the wildly successful 1994 World Cup. Created and launched as a condition to land that World Cup, Major League Soccer would never even have taken off, and the MLS, now a staple of North American sports, has grown to his 29 teams. , February will mark his 28th season.

The list goes on.

Without MLS, the next World Cup won’t be heading to this continent in 2026. Her 1999 Women’s World Cup, held in the United States as a 48-team event in cities across Canada, Mexico and the United States, may not have been held here. Or the home team inside the packed Rose Bowl won. Pele followed him to the NASL where he put down roots in a new community and became a youth coach here after the league collapsed in 1984. The foreign player who formed the backbone of the US national team is one of America’s youth leaders. would not have contributed to the upbringing. Ending her 40-year hiatus from the 1990 Men’s World Cup, or winning the inaugural Women’s World Cup a year later.

Pelé’s improbable move to New York was a rolling snowball that led to all the events that followed. At that time, it was rare for a player to leave his home country. In a way, Pele never played in Europe, but he started the super club trend. Apart from Santos in his hometown of São Paulo, Cosmos was the only club team Pele represented. Today, it is perfectly normal for clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain not only to covet or court the big names in the sporting world, but to acquire them out of necessity. .

Pele led the Cosmos to a NASL title a few months before Swan Song, but his impact off the field was far greater. A superstar black athlete, he paved the way for Ali, Michael Jordan, and others to eventually follow.

“I remember growing up reading books about Pele,” said Ali Curtis, a former Harman Trophy winner at Duke University who played in MLS before becoming the first black general manager in league history, earlier this year. “One of the reasons I started playing was because black people were considered the greatest players of all time.”

Despite being armed with a constant smile and only 5ft 8 tall, Pele was a charismatic ambassador for his game wherever he went. American sports fans respected him and his status as a GOAT, even if they didn’t respect football. It had a charm as big as New York. His affection for the city he adopted didn’t end when he hung up his boots. Pele continued to live in Manhattan until his death.

It somehow seems to make sense that Pele’s death came just 11 days after Lionel Messi won his first World Cup in Argentina. A man many believe has surpassed the best Brazilians. However, its title is debatable. Pele is still the only player to win the World Cup three times, the youngest ever scorer in the history of the competition, the youngest player to score a hat-trick and the youngest to score in a final. I have.

There is no doubt about Pele’s immeasurable contribution to US football. Pele’s love for the country and his beliefs about what football would be like here were important to the evolution of the game across North America.

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 staff writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports, where he covered multiple US men’s and women’s national teams at FIFA World Cup. Follow him on Twitter @ByDoug McIntyre.

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