Pele's Cosmos Effect: Football's first global superstar
Pele's ultimate legacy will be secure in the knowledge that he left his imprint on millions of kids in multiple countries who started sleeping with a football because of his own achievements.
Published: 31st December 2022 10:22 AM | Last Updated: 31st December 2022 10:22 AM | A+A A-
CHENNAI: Zurich, July 4, 1988. It was the day FIFA truly embraced what the World Cup could become in the future. A money-spinning beast, a commercial behemoth. It was the day when the world governing body decided to give US the hosting right for the 1994 World Cup. Brazil, with its rich history, was the logical choice. But FIFA decided to give it to the US, a country that still saw soccer with suspicious eyes. Even if some change was afoot — newspapers were publishing reports, league matches used to take place on a regular basis and kids were enrolling in their 1000s — winning a bid to host the biggest standalone sporting event was something else.
The man partly responsible for this change was Pele. He endorsed the US bid over the one that Brazil had. "It is important for football to have the World Cup in the United States,” he had said. “I love Brazil... In the United States, it would be good for the game because it would change the World Cup. We played in 1970 in Mexico, but football doesn’t change a thing. If there is a World Cup in Brazil, it doesn’t change anything. It is something new," he was quoted as saying by World Soccer, a magazine, in a piece on how the US won the bid.
Mind you, this was a US that still deeply didn't care about football. In a poll that was published ahead of the 1994 World Cup, only 31 % of Americans even knew that they were hosting it. If it was bad in 1994, one can only imagine the state of affairs in the early 1970s. It was so bad that people have had to play make-believe goalposts (there have been accounts of officials holding a crossbar above their heads during games).
This was the backdrop to Pele signing on to play for the New York Cosmos in the 1970s. The Cosmos was a freshly minted team in a freshly minted league (North American Soccer League) in a country that just didn't do football. So, the only three-time world champion moving to the US to play football was seismic.
His mere presence got instant recognition in the league. The rickety turnstiles didn't stop revolving. He also ensured bums on seats. The Blizzard, a quarterly football publication, wrote the effect Pele had in a piece in 2012. "While the average attendance for the NASL in 1974 was 7,825 per game, huge crowds turned out to see Pele, including a then-record 35,620 for the Cosmos’s game in Washington.
"Burgeoning crowds forced the Cosmos to move their games from the dilapidated Downing Stadium to baseball’s Yankee Stadium and eventually to the 78,000-seat Giants Stadium. Meanwhile, the team was feted in nightclubs around New York and Pele even visited the White House. Before long, football fever swept the country."
Sure, Pele was well remunerated (reports suggested his three-year deal was worth around $4.7 mn) but it had the desired effect. Apart from getting kids interested and getting people invested in a new sport, other superstars decided to give the US a go. In the years after Pele moved there, all three of Johan Cruyff, Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer played for US teams. While this was always going to be unsustainable as the growth wasn't holistic — NASL folded in the 1980s — Pele had played his role in converting a nation of atheists and agnostics.
"By the time the NASL folded in 1984, football had taken root. Youth leagues were commonplace in the United States," according to the same Blizzard piece. "By 1990, the number of children playing the sport had soared to 2 million. That year, the United States played in the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. The United States hosted the World Cup four years later — thanks in large part to Pele's decision to endorse the US bid ..."
Forget the goals, titles, honours and records. His ultimate legacy will be secure in the knowledge that he left his imprint on millions of kids in multiple countries who started sleeping with a football because of his own achievements. It's why there's a Pele statue in Gowthampura, a small locality in Bengaluru. It's why Pele is on the face of stamps in more than 50 countries.That is, in essence, what Pele meant. The US was the first country to feel it as he played there. Other countries felt it through the memories he had created previously.