45 years ago today Pele debuted for New York Cosmos
The extravaganza put soccer on the map in the USA
Pele became the biggest celebrity in the 'Big Apple'
“It was easier to get to the moon than it was into Studio 54,” said Truman Capote.
Celebrity didn’t cut it. You needed to be the elite of the elite. Le Freak, one of the biggest-selling singles of the late 1970s, is about Chic’s bandmembers getting turned away. Yet one celeb was “the VIP of VIPs”, according to its co-owner, Steve Rubell.
Not Cher, Salvador Dali, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Tom Jones, Calvin Klein, Liza Minnelli, Olivia Newton-John, Al Pacino, Diana Ross, Sylvester Stallone, Rod Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Tina Turner, John Travolta, Andy Warhol, Stevie Wonder or any of the other mega-stars who feverishly frequented the mythical, mania-driving disco kingdom. A man, instead, who had grown up unable to afford a shoes or a suit, let alone the tailor-made broad-lapelled blazers and flared trousers he rocked in the year Saturday Night Fever exploded on to the big screen.
“Absolutely everybody wanted to shake his hand, to get a photo with him,” said Jagger. “Saying you had partied with Pele was the biggest badge of honour going.”
It was unimaginable how a footballer transformed himself into the star of stars in a land where his art had been outcast just a few years earlier. Innumerable power pitches, since the mid-1800s, had been unleased with the aim of popularising soccer. All had been repelled by walk-off home runs.
“In Europe, as in South America, they go raving mad over this game,” penned Prescott Sullivan in the San Francisco Examiner in 1968. “Pray that it doesn’t happen here.” Another journalist, in a remark typical of the time, said: “Soccer is just a game played by Commies and fairies.”
NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam, who had played alongside John Charles for Wales, and Clive Toye, an English former journalist and general manager of the New York Cosmos, knew only a supreme being could actualise the Deus ex machina they pipe-dreamed.
And Pele was uniquely that. In 1970, the Brazilian was named not only the most famous sportsperson on the planet, but the most famous person, above John Lennon, Pope Paul VI, Paul McCartney, Muhammad Ali, Paul Newman, Queen Elizabeth II, Neil Armstrong, Elvis Pressley, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne and Barbra Streisand.
Furthermore, Pele eclipsed mere mortality. He was a brand. ‘Pele’ was the globe’s second-biggest according to a survey a few years later. This 5ft 8ins man was, astonishingly, bigger than oil and gas supermajors, banks, automotive manufacturers, airlines, telecommunications titans and everything other than Coca-Cola.
Seducing Pele, though, seemed near-impossible. He had been declared a non-exportable national treasure and had initially said “tell them they are crazy” when he heard of Cosmos’s interest in 1971.
But Toye’s manhunt for Pele was as fierce and relentless as the FBI’s was for its most-wanted criminals. He incessantly telexed him. When Pele played an exhibition game, Toye turned up. From Kingston, Jamaica to Brussels, Belgium. It led to meetings in Sao Paulo, Rome and New York.
Eventually, Toye got Pele to scribble a promise on a piece of paper in a motel room. A phone call from Henry Kissinger, the soccer-adoring United States National Security Advisor, to ‘The King’ sealed the deal.
The Rochester Times-Union newspaper ridiculed it as a publicity stunt: “There’s as much chance of Moshe Dayan flying a MIG for the Egyptian Air Force.”
Yet on 9 June, 1975, at the Princess Hotel in Hamilton, Bermuda, Pele was presented as a New York Cosmos player in what The Guardian called "the transfer coup of the century". His debut was set for six days later: a friendly against Dallas Tornado on Randall’s Island, Manhattan.
CBS televised the match across the USA and to another 22 countries. Journalists from 25 nations flew into JKF Airport to cover the spectacle.
Robert Redford insisted on a break from filming All The President’s Men to be among the 22,500 in the sold-out crowd. "There must have been another 50,000 turned away," said Cosmos coach Gordon Bradley. Another few thousand gathered atop Triborough Bridge to catch a glimpse of this immortal being.
The Cosmos players were introduced to the spectators one by one as they jogged out from the tunnel. Each name was greeted by a gentle cheer. The name of Pele was submerged by a deafening roar as Randall’s Island Stadium erupted at sight of ‘The King’. Surprisingly, a man who had been revered by fans Santos and Brazil appeared in awe at the remarkable reception.
Pele’s every touch provoked hysteria, but the Cosmos went in at half-time 2-0 down. The 34-year-old went in petrified that he had caught a virulent disease. Reassured his ankles were covered in green paint, which had been used to deck out the decaying grass for the TV cameras, and not malignant fungi, Pele went back out, hit the post, was involved in the deficit-halver and scored the equaliser.
“It was an exhibition game, but it was like the Yankees were in the World Series or the Giants were in the Super Bowl,” said Steve Ross, the Warner Communications president who hadn’t heard of Pele in 1971 but part-financed his transfer. “I’d been told Pele was bigger than the Pope, and I saw it was true."
“That day put soccer on the map,” said Toye. “The press couldn’t get enough of it. Anyone and everyone was talking about it. Pele was the king of New York.”
Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia followed Pele to the ‘Big Apple’. The Cosmos became known as ‘the most glamorous team in the world’ and conquered the Soccer Bowl, the NASL's final, in Pele's swansong in 1977. Muhammad Ali, Peter Frampton, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Diane Keaton, Henry Kissinger, Robert Redford, Rod Stewart and Barbra Streisand were celebrity fans.
Nobody’s celebrity, however, compared to Pele’s in NYC. O Rei stood on stardust as the king of New York.
Being the VIP of VIPs at Studio 54 was an indubitable endorsement.