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We Got Pele: NY Cosmos And American Soccer Mania In The '70s

Culture | June 2, 2019

Left: Pele takes the field for the Cosmos. Right: the Pele lunchbox was a popular one in the late '70s. Source: IMDB; hakes.com

For a moment in the 1970s, Pelé and the New York Cosmos seemed capable of doing the impossible: turning America into a soccer-loving nation. Soccer isn't Americans' favorite sport, never has been, but Americans caught soccer fever when the greatest player in the world suited up for the biggest city. Attendance spiked, and Pelé was given the rock-star treatment in New York and wherever the Cosmos went to play. 

Pelé's signing didn't just draw a crowd; it also attracted other talent. Giorgio Chinaglia of Italy, Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany, and Carlos Alberto Torres of Brazil, all of whom played in the 1974 World Cup, joined Pele in New York. Additionally, Dutchman Johann Cruyff, the European "player of the century," signed with the Cosmos' rival squad, the Washington Diplomats, and Portuguese star Eusebio played a year for the Las Vegas Quicksilvers.

From 1975 to 1977 Pelé and the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL) turned a sport a precious few cared about into the toast of the town. For those two years, it seemed soccer might actually gain a foothold in the sports consciousness of Americans.

The Challenge Of Bringing Soccer To Americans

Pele and his fellow Brazilian Nelsi Morais celebrate on the field in their Cosmos uniforms. Source: IMDB

The North American Soccer League became a reality in 1968 when the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association merged into a single entity. Previously, neither league drew legions of crowds, which forced the merger. While the league did hold a television contract with CBS, the ratings were not considered acceptable.

American television habits did not jive with the unfamiliar sport. At one point, officials were instructed to calls fouls during commercials breaks because they didn’t know how else to stop the game. Large unfilled stadiums, mostly expensive foreign players, and a general lack of enthusiasm led to every team taking a financial loss in 1968. Quickly investors pulled out and the lucrative television contract evaporated. 

A Struggling League

Pele Changing NASL Overnight. Source: (NASL.com)

Despite the league floundering, executives pushed forward and made drastic changes in an effort to drive interest. To sell the game to Americans mostly unaccustomed to the sport, they flipped the clock around. Instead up counting up to 90 minutes, it counted down. They loosened the offside rules and encouraged scoring. They went so far as to make goals count for an extra point in the standings -- on a few occasions, the bonus points enabled a team without the best record to "win" the league. The conventional wisdom held that more scoring meant more attention.

Enter a Savior

A SWAT team surrounds New York Cosmos' Pele as he is congratulated by Cosmos fans after their 2-1 victory. Source: (Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Against the odds, NASL steadily grew through the ’70s. The numbers were modest but by 1974 four teams drew an average of 10,000 fans. That’s not much of a blip on the American sports landscape, but better than folding. However, on June 10, 1975, everything changed. Pelé signing with the New York Cosmos brought instant global attention. Writer Gavin Newsham called them, "The most glamorous team in world football," and for two short years he was right.

The Beatles Of Soccer

Beckenbauer, Pele and Chinaglia. Source: IMDB

It’s hard to imagine now, but Pelé didn’t just draw a crowd, he pulled in a nation. For his debut match, 10 million people tuned in to CBS’ live broadcast. That’s considered a huge number for an NBA finals game today! Pelé may not have been in his prime when he came to America, but the people didn’t care. They knew a star when they saw one. The Cosmos drew more than 40,000 fans a game as they made their way around the country. Their 1977 championship game held in Giants Stadium sold out, which means more than 73,000 fans piled in to watch soccer -- yes, soccer.

The Pele Phenomenon

Pele of the Cosmos with Brian Joy (England) and Eusebio (Portugal) of the Las Vegas Quicksilvers, 1977. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to Pelé’s arrival, the Cosmos were giving away tickets at Burger King. After he signed, they were forced to turn away thousands of fans due to demand. Previously, only press interns covered the game, usually as a form of punishment. Post Pelé, over 300 journalists from all over the world wanted the press pass.

The attention from Pelé’s arrival overwhelmed the Cosmos. Upon hearing that their star's debut would be broadcast nationally, the groundsman had to resort to spray-painting the dusty, barren surface green. Their PR director remembers the difference best, “Before Pelé got to the Cosmos, you'd only have five or six journalists at a press conference and you'd serve finger sandwiches and maybe you'd open a couple of bottles of soda if it was really high end. After Pelé signed, the basic food was caviar and smoked salmon and champagne."  

The Good Times Don’t Last Forever

Pele The Father. Source: (LatinTimes.com)

After two years of sold-out stadiums, celebrity appearances, and millions of dollars made, it all fell apart. In 1982 the U.S economy tanked with unemployment reaching 10.8%. The NASL owners who were riding high couldn’t handle the effects of the recession. Another issue became bloated salaries. To entice the best foreign players to play in the US, the owners offered exorbitant salaries. Pelé himself made more in two years with the Cosmos than the rest of his career combined. From boom to bust in the blink of an eye but for many Americans, Pelé’s rock star tour won’t be forgotten. 

Tags: 1970s Sports | New York City | Pele | Soccer | Sports | New York Cosmos

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!