How Pele and The New York Cosmos Conquered America

For Angelo Anastasio, an immigrant from Polistena in Southern Italy, June 10, 1975 was an unpleasant day. On that day, the defender was removed from the New York Cosmos roster. And while no football enthusiast was truly interested in Anastasio’s fate, the move marked a seismic shift in the American football landscape. The Stone Age had come to an end.

A day ago, now respected football writer David Hirshey is a rookie journalist. New York Daily News at the time, he had obtained the scoop of a lifetime from a source in Cosmos. The next day, a large headline adorned the entire back of the newspaper. Daily News: “Cosmos registers Pelé for $4 million.”

Clive Toye, general manager of Cosmos, always knew that the team needed star power to be successful; Nobody loves drama more than New York. With this in mind, Toye embarked on the simple but critical task of signing Pelé. The manhunt turned into a global adventure: Toye relentlessly chased the Brazilian from Jamaica and Rome to a deserted inn in Belgium. Initially, Pelé politely declined Toye’s offers. Real Madrid and Juventus were also eager for Pelé’s signing, so Toye gave a brilliant sales pitch: Pelé could win a championship with these clubs, but an entire country with the Cosmos. Needing money, Pelé finally gave up.

With pomp and circumstance – and also with some Brazilian delay – Pelé was introduced to the American public at a press conference held in the Hunting Room of the famous Club 21 in downtown Manhattan. A row of tables prevented the Cosmos entourage from shoving 300 journalists into the room. Toye turned and said: “Gentlemen, gentlemen, will you please behave yourself?”

A media scuffle ensued. The arrival of a zero-to-riches superstar with a record salary backed by Warner Communications has given New York media a sensational new hook. Pelé’s presence was a catalyst that invalidated the marginality of football; The sport would finally become mainstream in the United States. All of a sudden, football’s external, alien stereotypical image was replaced by sex and rock and roll. Toye’s eyes lit up as the final frontier was about to crumble.

Even after catching Pelé, Cosmos instinctively continued to manipulate the narrative of American football. The franchise reached out to Jim Trecker, who inexplicably caught football fever at a young age in Connecticut. Trecker worked for the New York Jets in the NFL when Cosmos introduced Pelé as their new buyout. Both franchises have separated their training camps in the parking lot at Hofstra University. Trecker’s interest almost automatically turned to Cosmos.

The reason Cosmos pulled Trecker was simple enough: He had run the famous Joe Namath for seven years, who led the Jets to a 16-7 win over the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. America’s super football star created chaos wherever he went. Trecker was more than prepared for Pelé.

The Brazilian icon brought much needed star power to American football while also instilling a celebrity ethos into Cosmos. Names like Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto Torres would join Pelé on a three-season hysterical roller coaster ride filled with sport, show business and hedonism that took football into a completely different stratosphere.

“It was a revolution in American sports and entertainment,” says former Cosmos goalie and current New York Red Bulls broadcaster Shep Messing. “Like lightning in a bottle. Cosmos has captured the imagination of New York, USA and the world. We were the American rock stars of the sport, before Real Madrid we were the Galacticos.”

Studio 54, Cosmos Country, Mick Jagger, and biggest fan, Henry Kissinger, have all become part of the legendary Cosmos mythology. Still, Trecker scorns myth-making. “Was the Cosmos the Rolling Stones?” he thinks. Ahmet Ertegun went to the matches in his private jet. He joined Cosmos one day, had lunch with Mick Jagger the next. It was Hollywood for Pelé: back doors and entrances, exits to hotel kitchens, but not for others. Pele created such mafia scenes in the lobbies.”

The mass hysteria surrounding Pelé was befitting Steve Ross, owner of Cosmos, and Warner Communications. Ross was friendly, but also a shrewd and opportunistic businessman. Pelé and Cosmos became its strongest marketing arm. The Brazilian’s arrival gave credibility to Cosmos and American football. They were now a viable alternative to the big three teams of baseball, basketball, and football. Overnight, a vague underground movement in the grassless wilderness of New York City had made a foreign sport a fashionable cult. “Football” was no longer an immigrant sport. It was Americanized by Toye and NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam. It was “football”.

To see the repercussions of this Americanization, one only has to look at MLS today, which serves both as a home base for the USA Men’s National Team and a “retirement league” for stars at the end of their careers. David Beckham’s tenure at LA Galaxy was the closest US football had come to falling into a megastar’s lap, and even then it didn’t even come close to the insanity of Pelé in New York. But the idea that the stars might find a final home in the USA was shaped by a Brazilian who traveled to the Empire State forty years ago.

Forty years ago, on October 1, 1977, Pelé made his farewell match at an exhibition against his former club Santos in Brazil. He scored a goal and switched sides at halftime. The heavens opened and Pele said “Love!” yell. Love! Love!’ To the 75,646 fans at the Giants Stadium. “It was his day, and everyone was duly respectful,” wrote Tony Kornheiser of The New York Times at the time. “When diplomats and sports celebrities were introduced, they waved to the crowd and remained silent, respecting his presence; Even Mohammed All, who is not retired, remained silent.

“I’m dying a little today,” Pelé said after the game. “Now I am reborn into another life.”

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