How Pelé forever increased the popularity of football in the United States

The goat is gone. Pelé died Thursday at age 82 in his native Brazil.

But not before becoming the greatest footballer of all time, and arguably the greatest athlete in history. And one that left a lasting impact on not only global sport, but the New York sports landscape as well.

Pele has pulled off stunning feats like winning three World Cup titles, scoring over 600 goals for his club team, Santos, and helping stop a Nigerian civil war with his mere presence. Yet perhaps most incredible turned the New York Cosmos into a global phenomenon when he played for them from 1975 to 1977.

“Today, if you’re anywhere in the world…everywhere in the world you go, they’re like, ‘Pelé, when is the New York Cosmos coming back?’ Sometimes I get a little upset. I played 25 years at Santos, and nobody asks me,” Pelé said in 2013. “But I’m proud of it, because we made football known – football – in the USA.”

The NASL club made Pele the highest-paid athlete in the world (a three-year, $7 million deal, according to a 1975 New York Times article announcing the signing), but it was well worth every penny. Forget the goals or the assists, or the forward hoisting the 1976 NASL MVP or the 1977 Soccer Bowl title. He elevated the Cosmos to worldwide fame.

The Cosmos played to sparse crowds on Randall’s Island the year before Pelé arrived, moving to Yankee Stadium for the 1976 season and the new Giants Stadium in 1977—often drawing near-full crowds.

Ten million people watched Pelé’s debut in Cosmos on CBS, a record US football audience. Their grid tripled in its first half season, and by August of its final season, they had set a North American attendance record of 77,691.

The Cosmos have drawn other stars to the pitch like fellow World Cup winner Brazil Carlos Alberto, West Germany captain Frank Beckenbauer and Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia. And stars in the stadium stands like Robert Redford, Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol — and sometimes at Studio 54, with the glitter.

“I couldn’t believe how big the Cosmos was back then,” Pele said years ago. “I’m very happy to see football in the United States at the same level as the rest of the world because I started it here.”

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