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SI Flashback: Soccer's greatest genius

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Posted: Tuesday June 01, 1999 03:40 PM

  Pele was a soccer phenomenon not only in Brazil, but in the U.S. and other countries. Allsport UK/Allsport

By Hank Hersch

It is not a long time, 27 months. Not long enough to spread the gospel of soccer to a nation that does not much care about it, to sway the doubters and charm the corporations and reconvert the immigrants who had discarded the sport as an Old World relic. On June 10, 1975, the North American Soccer League was playing to four-digit crowds in oversized stadiums and subsisting on agate type. That was the day 34-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known all over the planet as Pelé, came to New York to sign a three-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cosmos, telling a public baffled by his choice, "I looked and saw another mountain to climb."

It was enough time, 27 months, to scale another summit. With Pelé demonstrating the wondrous possibilities of soccer, the number of players registered with the U.S. Soccer Federation nearly quadrupled in that time period, from a little more than 100,000 to 400,000. With Pelé's Cosmos pursuing the 1977 NASL championship -- an event whose climax five years before had drawn only 6,102 people and caused little more than a ripple in the local media -- some 77,000 fans and 140 journalists attended a Cosmo playoff match at Giants Stadium. Said Franz Beckenbauer, the West German hero and a Cosmo teammate who had followed Pelé's lead to the U.S., "I have had many great moments in my career, but the greatest honor was to play with Pelé."

His nickname means nothing in any language but evokes images of genius and gentility in them all. Born in the poor Brazilian town of Tres Coracoes, he began his professional career at 15, earning 5,000 cruzeiros (about US$60) a month to play for the club team Santos. Two years later he was an international icon, having scored a hat trick in a World Cup semi against France and two more goals in Brazil's triumphant final against Sweden to win the first of his three Cups -- an unequaled accomplishment. He was a prodigy who became prodigious. In a game in which 400 goals constitutes a mammoth career, Pelé scored 1,280 in 1,362 matches. He was called Gasoline for his energy, the Executioner for his finishing, the Black Pearl for his preciousness. When he was 19, L'Equipe of Paris wrote, "We have now seen the supreme work of art. Pelé infiltrated through his opponents like Novocain through a sick man's tissues."

Over the years, Italian clubs tried to lure him with millions, but he wouldn't leave Santos because of loyalty and couldn't leave Brazil because of law. In 1961 President Janio Quadros had Pelé declared a national treasure. His aura both as player and as person prompted the warring parties in the Nigeria-Biafra conflict to institute a two-day cease-fire when he made an appearance there in 1968. On Pelé's retirement, J.B. Pinheiro, Brazil's ambassador to the U.N., said Pelé had "spent 22 years playing soccer, and in that time he has done more for goodwill and friendship than all of the ambassadors ever appointed."

On Oct. 1, 1977, Pelé's mission in the NASL ended. His last match, an exhibition game between the Cosmos and Santos, was sold out six weeks beforehand, covered by 650 journalists and broadcast in 38 nations. Muhammad Ali embraced him in the locker room before the match and said, "Now there are two of the greatest." In a speech to dignitaries, celebrities and more than 75,000 fans, Pelé urged his audience to pay attention to the children of the world. At his request, the assemblage shouted, "Love! Love! Love!" Then he went out and played the first half for the Cosmos -- scoring a goal on a rocket from 30 yards out -- and the second half for Santos.

Pelé has continued to work for children's causes and for UNICEF. "It seems that God brought me to Earth with a mission," he wrote in The New York Times after the 1977 season, "to unite people, never to separate them." All the while he has traveled the globe on behalf of his sport, and in 1983 he began an ultimately successful lobbying campaign with soccer's pooh-bahs to award the World Cup to the U.S.

Now 53, Pelé has also become quite rich. He earns an estimated $30 million a year from endorsements and his various businesses. His is a well-rounded grandeur. "Every kid around the world who plays soccer wants to be Pelé," he once said. "I have a great responsibility to show them not just how to be like a soccer player, but how to be like a man."

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