NEW YORK (AP) — Clive Toye traveled to Jamaica and walked unannounced into the hotel where the Brazilian club Santos was staying ahead of a friendly against the Reggae Boyz in January 1971. Pelé was sitting by the pool, and the New York Cosmos general manager began the cold call that changed U.S. sports history.
“You could go to Juventus, you could go to Real Madrid, yeah, you could win a championship. But so will other people," the 90-year-old Toye recalled telling Pelé. “You come to us, you can win a country and nobody else could do that except you."
Dozens of meetings over four years led to Pelé agreeing to sign with Cosmos in June 1975. His 2 1/2 seasons in New York put U.S. soccer on a path to hosting the World Cup in 1994 and launching Major League Soccer two years later.
“There are probably two athletes that have transcended their sport and transcended sport overall in our lifetime,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Thursday night after Pelé's death at age 82. “One was Muhammad Ali and the other was Pelé.”
The Cosmos averaged 3,578 fans in 1974 — a figure that nearly tripled to 10,450 the next year, with people lining the sides of the Triborough Bridge approach to watch games at Downing Stadum on Randalls Island.
In 1976, the Cosmos averaged 18,227 at Yankee Stadium and then 34,142 at Giants Stadium in New Jersey the following year for Pelé's final season. Boosted by the Pelé buzz — along with players Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia — the Cosmos averaged over 40,000 the following two years before a tailspin saw the league fold after the 1984 season.
From that first meeting in Kingston, where Toye brought along U.S. Soccer Federation Kurt Lamm for support, Toye traveled to Brazil several times and finally persuaded Pelé to agree during a meeting in Brussels. The formal offer came a few days later in Rome.
Pelé signed the contract in Bermuda for tax reasons, what Toye recalls as a $2.7 million, three-year deal, and the Brazilian was introduced during a news conference at “21,” a hangout for New York's movers and shakers.
When Pelé had led Brazil to his third and final World Cup title in 1970, the primary way to watch the tournament with English-language commentary in the U.S. was on closed-circuit television in arenas like Madison Square Garden. Toye and North American Soccer League commissioner Phil Woosnam had the league purchase U.S. rights that year for $15,000 but couldn't find a TV network that would agree to broadcast.
“There were still people, you'd say to them soccer, and they'd say, `What's soccer?'" Toye said, speaking from his home in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “And then we'd talk to people about the World Cup, and they would say, 'Oh, what's the World Cup?' This last World Cup you couldn't bloody switch on any channel without seeing something about it."
Pelé was 34 when he joined the Cosmos and scored 37 goals in 64 regular and postseason matches. He agreed to countless interviews and promotional appearances as part of a mission to make soccer mainstream.
“The Cosmos was the spark that lit the fire that has become a conflagration of soccer in our country,” said Alan Rothenberg, a former U.S. Soccer Federation president and the head organizer of the 1994 World Cup. He had vivid memories of leaving the Plaza Hotel with Pelé and jaywalking through traffic to Central Park.
“Cabs came screeching to a halt. They started screaming ‘Pelé! Pelé!’ It was like the Red Sea parted," Rothenberg said.
Pelé played for Santos from 1956-74 and for Brazil from 1957-71, making his mark on a sport that had largely bypassed an American fanbase fixated on Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, college football and college basketball.
“The NASL set the stage for what soccer in America is today, both from a grassroots perspective but also at the professional level,” Garber said. “He came here and said: This sport matters. I’m going to make it bigger than anybody ever dreamed it could be. And all of us who are in the sport today, whether a lover of the game or a player or administrator, we would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for Pelé deciding to come to the United States.”
Sunil Gulati, another past USSF president and a member of FIFA's ruling Council, first met Pelé when he got an autograph at Dillon Stadium in Hartford, where the Cosmos played the Connecticut Bicentennials.
About 30 years later, Gulati accompanied Columbia women's All-American soccer player Sophie Reiser to a suite at Hofstra because she wanted an autograph.
"Pelé, one more, please?" Gulati recounted. “He turned to me and smiled and said, 'There's always one more.' It was absolutely fantastic. He did everything with a smile.”
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Ronald Blum, The Associated Press