How Pelé brought the beautiful game to the United States

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The final curtain call of Pelé’s otherworldly career didn’t come at a World Cup or a Copa America or even back home in his native Brazil. But the scene — in East Rutherford, New Jersey, of all places — was still grandiose enough to be worthy of perhaps the most famous athlete of the 20th century.

Pelé — who died on Thursday at the age of 82 — was a global icon long before the came to the United States in the mid-1970s to finish his playing days. He’d already led Brazil to three World Cup titles. He was already considered the best soccer player who’d ever lived. And even in a country and at a time when soccer barely registered in the American consciousness (and where it did, it did with constant derision and disrespect), Pelé was a bona fide superstar. The 80,000 people who crammed into Giants Stadium on Oct. 1, 1977 for his send-off match — the likes of Muhammad Ali and Mick Jagger among them — speaks to that.

Only the true greats shine brightly enough to change history alone. And the fact is, the inroads that planet’s most popular sport has made into mainstream culture in the United States over the last half-century can be traced directly to Pelé’s 28-month stay with the New York Cosmos. Basically, it was Pelé who put modern American soccer on the map.

Pelé leaves the field following a game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, circa 1975-77.

Had a 34-year-old Pelé not made the decision to come out of retirement to play in the old North American Soccer League, a signing that led to huge crowds and the arrival of other stars such as Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff, the potential for soccer stateside probably would have gone unnoticed.

FIFA probably wouldn't have awarded the U.S. hosting rights for what turned out to be a wildly successful 1994 World Cup, which is still the best-attended tournament ever. Major League Soccer, created and launched as a condition of landing that World Cup, wouldn't have even gotten off the ground.  Now a fixture on the North American sports landscape, MLS has grown to 29 teams and will commence its 28th season in February.

The list goes on.

With no MLS, there’s no way the next World Cup would be headed to this continent in 2026 as a 48-team event staged in cities across Canada, Mexico and the U.S. The U.S.-hosted 1999 Women’s World Cup might not have been held here, or won by the home team inside a packed Rose Bowl. The foreign players who followed Pelé to the NASL, put roots down in their new communities and became youth coaches here after the league folded in 1984, wouldn’t have contributed to the development of the American youngsters who formed the backbone of the U.S. national teams that ended a four-decade hiatus from the men’s World Cup in 1990 or won the inaugural Women’s World Cup a year later.

Pelé's unlikely move to New York was the rolling snowball that led to all that has happened since. Back then, it was unusual for players to leave their home countries. In a way, Pelé also started the super-club trend, even though he never played in Europe; besides Santos in his hometown of São Paulo, the Cosmos were the only club team Pelé represented. Today, it’s completely normal for the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain to not just covet or court the biggest names in the sport, but to inevitably land them, too.

Pelé led the Cosmos to the NASL title a few months before his swansong, but his impact off the field was far greater. Pelé was soccer’s first global icon and also the world’s superstar Black athlete, paving the road that Ali, Michael Jordan and others would eventually follow.  

"I remember growing up reading books about Pelé," Ali Curtis, a former Hermann trophy winner at Duke University who played in MLS before becoming the first Black general manager in league history, told FOX Sports earlier this year. "One of the reasons I started playing was because the guy who was regarded as the best player ever was Black."

Armed with a perpetual smile and larger than life despite standing just 5-foot-8, Pelé was a charismatic ambassador for his game wherever he went. Even if American sports fans didn’t respect soccer, they respected him and his status as the GOAT. Pelé was as approachable as any living legend could be but also as big a draw as there was in New York, where he was a fixture on the social scene. His love affair with his adopted city didn’t end when he hung up his boots; Pelé maintained a residence in Manhattan all the way until his death.

It seems somehow meaningful that Pelé’s death comes just 11 days after Lionel Messi won his first World Cup for Argentina — which lost its own all-time great, Diego Maradona, two years ago last month. Messi, after all, is the man who many believe has surpassed the Brazilian as the best ever. That title, however, remains up for debate. Pelé is still the only player to win three World Cups, still the youngest scorer in competition history, still the youngest to bag a hat-trick, and still the youngest to find the net in a final.

Pelé’s immense contributions to soccer in the U.S. are unquestionable. Pelé’s love for the country and his belief in what soccer could become here were critical to the evolution of the game across North America.

The evidence is all around us.

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Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


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