Pele and Neymar before a Brazilian friendly in Foxborough, Mass. in 2013. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Now, don’t get me into a debate as to who is the greatest soccer player ever.
Diego Maradona? He could control games and I never saw a player dominate a World Cup — Mexico ’86 — like he did. But personal and drug problems prevented the Argentine superstar from soaring even greater.
Lionel Messi? Another fabulous and talented performer sat the club level, but has he won any international titles for Argentina?
Cristiano Ronaldo? He has accomplished much for club (Real Madrid in La Liga and UEFA Champions League) and country (Portugal capturing Euro 2016), but as great as he is, Ronaldo still hasn’t been able to grab soccer’s big brass ring.
Pele? He was a member of three World Cups championships sides, although he will always be the first to tell you that he was far from a one-man show.
For the fate of the U.S. soccer in the mid to late seventies, Brazilian master was a one-man show, starting a soccer boom we are still feeling today and probably for many, many years.
The Black Pearl always will be No. 1 in my book. It’s not from seeing old films and video of his exploits, but I had the opportunity to see him in action in person.
In fact, I feel honored have seen him live when he scored his very first goal in the North American Soccer League and play his very last competitive match of his storied career.
Pele signed with the New York Cosmos for a reported $7 million — when $7 million was really $7 million before inflation — in 1975 in a move to promote the beautiful game in the United States. The game was viewed as an ethnic sport at the time and teams had problems attracting huge crowds and interest.
Then he showed up and turned on his magic on and off the field.
He did so in one of the most unlikely places — rickety Holleder Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. in front of a packed house a then record crowd of 14,562 on June 27, 1975. Pele admitted he had trouble getting accustomed to the Cosmos’ style in his first two games with the club, even though he had scored in a 2-2 tie against the Dallas Tornado 12 days prior. But that was an exhibition game at Downing Stadium on Randalls Island.
As the North American Soccer League game progressed, the Cosmos seemed to become more confident in their actions. First it was Pele, who decoyed Lancers goalkeeper Ardo Perri to score the game’s first goal. In the 31st minute, Julio Correa’s shot from 18 yards hit the crossbar while Perri jumped for the ball. The ball bounded back to the field and an onrushing Pele headed it into the unprotected net for the 1,222nd goal of his career.
Pele then did his signature leap and a punch to punctuate his goal.
“This game is just normal in my progress,” Pele said through his interpreter and confidante, Prof. Julio Mazzei said. “In my first two games, I didn’t know my teammates. Tonight I felt more comfortable on the field. You could see it. I began to take my forward position as the game went on.”
Added Cosmos captain Werner Roth: “As the game went on, Pele seemed to gain more confidence. He knew what he was doing out there. Because of that, he relaxed the team. He helped take the pressure off the rest of the forwards.”
Pele left the stadium for a flight to Washington, D.C., where he met President Ford the next day.
The Lancers just left in awe.
“He is simply impossible to stop,” Lancers coach Ted Dumitru said. “Pele is still the greatest.
“He simply destroyed our team . . . He made us watch him play.”
Fast forward two years to the magical 1977 season. The Cosmos were upgraded and then some, with the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia. Pele was almost 37 and did not wield the same impact on the field.
Still, the Cosmos’ goal in ’77 was to win a championship for the Brazilian legend. After dispatching the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the NASL semifinal series, 8-3, before a then U.S. record soccer crowd of 77,691 and 1-0 in Fort Lauderdale, the Cosmos had their opportunity at Soccer Bowl ’77 in Portland.
I wish I can report that Pele played a major role in Soccer Bowl in Portland, but he did not.
But the game was memorable for other reasons, particularly for one of the most remarkable goals scored in a soccer championship game. The match was only 19 minutes old. Seattle goalkeeper Tony Chursky dived to gather in a long feed by Chinaglia that was out of the reach of Steve Hunt. Chursky got up and started to dribble away, ignoring everything and everyone. In came Hunt, who stole the ball and knocked it into the goal for the first goal of a 2-1 Cosmos triumph. Hunt lost his left shoe in the process.
We learned later that Chursky, a former Canadian international, was deaf in one ear and could not hear his teammates’ warnings over the loud crowd.
Four minutes later, the Sounders equalized on Tommy Ord’s goal but Chinaglia’s six-yard header — off Hunt’s left-wing cross on the 77th minute — decided the matter before packed house of 35,548 at Civic Stadium.
The scene in the Cosmos’ raucous locker room — yes, media was allowed into team’s locker rooms after championship games in those days — was surreal.
The Brazilian media kept singing and chanting the Black Pearl’s name, “Pele, Pele, Pele!” before they took him on their shoulders and paraded him through the room.
If that transpired today, their media credentials would have been confiscated.
Sitting at his locker, Pele was serene. “God has been kind to me. Now I can die,” he said.
I have to admit, I have not seen anything like it since and probably will never again.
Then again, we’ll probably never see anyone like the fabulous Pele again, either.