When the New York Cosmos assembled some $4.5 million to lure Pelé out of retirement, many critics felt that the investment was about as sound as, say, a stock flyer in the 1974 World Football League. Although Pelé is considered the best player in soccer history and is lionized around the world, he was little known in the U.S. Often as not, his name was pronounced peel, as in lemon, and nobody in his proper mind would have dreamed that in a few short weeks Pelé (pay-lay) would be as well known as Namath (nay-muth).
But now, after Pelé's first national tour with his new teammates, that $4.5 million looks like a bargain. In Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver he broke attendance records. In Boston an ecstatic, affectionate crowd mobbed him after he had scored a goal, slightly injuring his ankle while trying to take away his shoes for souvenirs. In Washington, 35,620 turned out to watch him play, the biggest crowd ever to see a North American Soccer League game. (A few nights later only 2,140 were on hand for a game not featuring Pelé.) In tiny El Camino Junior College stadium in Los Angeles the turnout was a capacity 12,176. The Seattle Sounders' small stadium bulged with 17,925 fans, and in Vancouver—where the Cosmos played an exhibition against the Whitecaps—a record 26,495 trooped in.
On each occasion Pelé provided a dazzling show. He may have lost a bit of the speed that helped Brazil to three World Cup championships, but the shots he took were often ground-to-goal missiles and his passes were feathery and accurate. Working hard to upgrade a team composed of players inferior to those he is accustomed to, Pelé occasionally seemed like Jascha Heifetz playing an out-of-tune violin, but it was still a virtuoso effort.
Unlike many virtuosi, however, Pelé was obviously no prima donna. In the modern sports era of the overpaid egotist, he is unfailingly gracious, charming and patient.
On the tour of the West Coast the Cosmos played three games in five days, so rest and privacy were precious. But Pelé devoted his few leisure moments to press conferences, parties and interviews. He answered the same questions endlessly and without petulance, giving the same thoughtful consideration to each questioner. He worked hard on improving his new language, answering in English when he could, otherwise through an interpreter. And Pelé led off each postgame conference with a fulsome critique of the team he had just played against.
In Los Angeles the Cosmos lost 5-1 to a fired-up Aztec team. Pelé, who does not relish playing on artificial surfaces, made no excuses. "The way Los Angeles played tonight," he said, "I think they could have beaten West Germany [the current World Cup champion]. But then I think I may have created more problems for the Cosmos. Every team we play wants to beat the Cosmos more because of me—and they play much better. And I have not had the training I need with the team yet. But we are going to play better together."
Pelé repeatedly denied he came out of retirement for the $4.5 million. "I could have had that much money to play in many places," he said. "In Brazil, probably. But this is where I could do the most for soccer. Already it is not the same as when I came here for exhibitions with Santos [his Brazilian team]. I see boys in Central Park and on the streets of New York kicking the ball. Here, I can help."
Pelé is adjusting to his new team more slowly than expected because of the artificial surfaces. All three fields on the Western tour were variations of AstroTurf. In Seattle the problems were compounded by heat. "The ball does not run the same," Pelé said. "And today I felt like my feet were on fire. But I noticed that the Seattle team used different shoes, so I will try those shoes when we play in Vancouver. And it will be at night there, so the heat will not be so bad. Here the artificial surface gets very hot, my feet were blistered all around the edges and I was very tired after the game. I do not tire so easily. But then I am only in 78% of my best condition, too." (It came out 78% through the interpreter. Later, Pelé said he had meant to say 70 to 80%.)
On the artificial surfaces, otherwise delicate passes slid by Pelé's teammates and the ball bounced too high and was difficult to control. Seattle won 2-0, and Pelé was given a yellow warning card by an official for the first time, an admonition he accepted with good grace, as usual.
"I was explaining to the referee that I had pushed my man off the ball with my shoulder," he said, pushing a questioner with his shoulder to demonstrate. "That is all right. I did not use my hands, which is not all right. So he took out the yellow card and booked me."
"What did the referee say to you?"
"He said to be quiet," Pelé answered. He grinned. "So I went back to play."
At the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle, Pelé used a free afternoon to fish from the balcony of his room, three stories above the harbor. The hotel manager provided a fishing rod and a bucket of salmon fillets for bait, and almost immediately Pelé hooked a small sand shark, which he hauled, wriggling, up to the balcony. A teammate bashed in its head with a table leg and Pelé cast again. This time he hooked a larger shark, which broke the line just as he got it up to the balcony.
"Fishing I like very much," he said. "And baseball. When I was a little boy in Bauru in Brazil, my father was a baseball coach. So maybe I should have played baseball?"
He was asked about the referee who had warned him and he shrugged. "I believe the referee made a mistake," he said. "But referees make mistakes all over the world. That was not the important thing. The important thing was the people of Seattle. They were a beautiful audience and they read the game very well. And Seattle is a very good team, the best team we have played against, I think."
By now, West Germany was the third-best team in the world, behind Los Angeles and Seattle.
In the Seattle game, Pelé had been marked heavily, often violently, but he still had no complaints. "It was a normal game," he said. "It wasn't rough. They played high balls because they are taller than we are and maybe it looked violent, but it was normal. They play the European style and they are very fair."
The Cosmos won in Vancouver in a game that did not count in the league table. On a cooler surface, wearing tennis shoes he had borrowed from the Seattle team, Pelé seemed much more in control of the ball than before. "I will be trying things differently," he said before the game. "I do not like this surface, but I must play on it."
In the 2-1 victory, Pelé set up one goal with a perfect pass and began to mesh better with his teammates. In time, Heifetz will tune the violin.
At a cocktail party given by one of the Vancouver owners, a group of Whitecap players watched Pelé socializing with the guests—until he noticed them and walked around the pool to speak to them. For the next two hours he talked soccer with the rival players, freely giving advice, recalling the time he played against one of them in Scotland.
"He loves to talk like that," a Cosmos official said. "He never gets tired of doing it."
Last Wednesday, the Cosmos were back home for a crucial game against Boston, which had moved into the Northern Division lead. Pelé rallied his crew to a 3-1 victory, restoring the Cosmos to first place. More than 18,000 fans came out in the face of thunderstorms, traffic tie-ups and the dim lighting system on Randalls Island, the home pitch. Clearly, Pelé is paying his way.
The Cosmos have boosted their office staff from seven to 20 to handle a rush of season-ticket sales, and they get half of the proceeds above the average pre-Pelé gross gate for road games—but there's no way the club can come up with $4.5 million on NASL gate receipts alone.
"They will make up more on European tours after the season," says Phil Woosnam, the league commissioner. "They will draw capacity in big parks all over Europe."
And, of course, the Cosmos can take a tax loss on any remaining deficit at the end of the year, which should reduce the difference even more. But Pelé is worth all they paid him just as a goodwill ambassador for soccer. And as a breath of fresh air in professional sports.