How Pelé's New York stay converted the US to soccer

New York, New York - Pelé helped "grab the hearts and minds" of soccer fans in the US during his time with the New York Cosmos, the club's former COO told Stats Perform.

Pelé executing one of his legendary bicycle kicks for the New York Cosmos against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1977.
Pelé executing one of his legendary bicycle kicks for the New York Cosmos against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1977.  © IMAGO / TT

Brazil legend Pelé passed away on Thursday following a battle with colon cancer, with news announced by his daughter after his family travelled to be with him at Sao Paulo's Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital before Christmas Day.

As well as the lasting legacy he left on Brazil and Santos, Pelé's move to the Cosmos in 1975 also helped to massively grow the sport in the US.

After Pelé, the only man to win the World Cup three times, joined the Cosmos, fellow superstars such as Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto followed him to the team, while others such as Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, and George Best also joined clubs in the North American Soccer League (NASL).

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The Cosmos faded into obscurity and ultimately folded after Pelé retired in 1977, but the game continued to develop in the United States and the World Cup in 1994 was hosted in the country.

So did the Brazilian maestro's legend, and you only needed to see the many mourners who on Thursday gathered at the Times Square sports store named after him to understand his enduring legacy.

How Pelé won hearts and minds in the US

Pele played for the New York Cosmos between 1975 and 1977.
Pele played for the New York Cosmos between 1975 and 1977.  © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Erik Stover, COO of a reformed Cosmos between 2012 and 2021, lauded Pelé's influence on building the sport, telling Stats Perform: "I don't think you can really quantify it. It's so hugely impactful over generations."

"Before Pelé came to the Cosmos, soccer in this country was a very small immigrant sport. Obviously, there's a long history of it in the United States, but it didn't grab the hearts and minds until Pelé was part of the Cosmos."

"He was just still the greatest player in the world [when he signed for Cosmos], probably. It brought immediate credibility to the NASL. It legitimized that league."

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"He became the most valuable athlete in the United States overnight. [Those] playing at Bayern Munich or Manchester United or wherever in the world, they were paying attention to it."

"That led to players like George Best and Beckenbauer [joining the NASL], some of the greatest players in the world still in their prime coming to the NASL."

"Suddenly, there's youth soccer clubs popping up and leagues that had never existed before, all on that massive wave of what the Cosmos and Pelé was able to do."

Pelé's role as global soccer ambassador

Fans in New York City gathered at the sports store in Time Square named after Pelé after news of his death broke.
Fans in New York City gathered at the sports store in Time Square named after Pelé after news of his death broke.  © REUTERS

Pelé was just 17-years-old when he won his first World Cup in 1958, and is still the youngest player to ever win the competition.

Stover acknowledged Pelé's enormous global impact from such a young age, adding: "You'd be hard-pressed to find someone that was a better ambassador globally for his sport."

"He really, really accepted that role and carried it with relish."

"Wherever he went, he drew a crowd and took the time to say hello, pose for pictures, sign autographs from a very, very young age. He realized his specialty was in what responsibilities came with that."

"I was privileged enough to spend some time with him around the world. We went to Havana, Cuba. As an American going to Cuba, I grew up in a time where you couldn't do that."

"So not only to have that opportunity, largely because Pelé was still part of the Cosmos, but then to see the love the Cubans had for him, he was absolutely beloved."

"He treated people with respect because he knows that they are going to remember that for the rest of their lives, and he didn't want that moment to be spoiled."

Cover photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

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