"When I was small I hated the name Pelé," he says. "My father told me I was named Edson after Thomas Edison, and I was so proud that they had named me for the American inventor. Then at the games the boys would call me Pelé to tease me. I don't know where it came from. I fought them when they called me that. Until I was 12 years old I hated this name, because I don't know what it means."
He doesn't hate it any longer, and, in fact, he often refers to himself in the third person by the name Pelé. "Yes, of course I think of Pelé as a different person," he says. "When I met Pelé, I was seven or eight. Pelé doesn't have a nation, race, religion or color. People all over the world love Pelé. Edson is a man like other men. Edson is going to die someday. Edson cries when he has a problem. But Pelé doesn't die. Pelé's immortal."
Pelé turned professional when he joined Santos at the age of 15, and in 1958, at 17, he led Brazil's national team to its first World Cup championship, in Sweden. Afterward he turned down the then unprecedented offer of a three-year, $2.5 million contract from Fiat president Gianni Agnelli to play for his club, Juventus, in Italy. Brazil repeated as World Cup champions in 1962, by which time Pelé, who was then only 21, was recognized as the best player and biggest gate attraction in the world. Fearful that Pelé would be lured to Europe, Brazilian president Jânio Quadros decreed him a "national treasure."
"This was a big honor for me, but I still paid income taxes," says Pelé. And a lot of them: Playing for Santos with a salary of some $150,000 a year, he was the highest paid team-sport athlete in the world.
In 1966, Brazil was defeated in the World Cup. But four years later Pelé became the first athlete to play on three World Cup winners when he led Brazil to the title in Mexico City. In 1971 he retired from the national team but kept playing for Santos. Three years later the military government pleaded with the 33-year-old Pelé to play in a fifth World Cup, but he refused, saying, "It is better to go out on top." Today Pelé—who had 1,219 goals in 1,254 games to that point in his career—says he quit for a different reason: to protest the policies of the government. "After we won in 1970, the Brazilian people were happy and forgot about everything else," he says, "forgot that the military government was killing and torturing, and nobody said anything."
Pelé had offers from teams in Germany and Italy the following year, but he had no interest in throwing himself back into the pressure cooker of big-time soccer. He wanted to cut down on his travel and spend more time with his wife, Rose, and their three children. In 1975 he shocked the soccer world by signing a three-year, $4.5 million contract with the Cosmos. "I wanted to be more relaxed," he says, "to play only a live-month season. I could learn English and learn business if I came to the U.S. We decided on the Cosmos because of that."
Pelé's name gave the NASL, which had been founded in 1968, an instant boost. Before Pelé, the Cosmos averaged a few thousand fans per home game; with him, they began drawing sellout crowds everywhere. "Everything was fantastic in 1975 and '76," Pelé recalls. "Then in '77 we started traveling, playing games all over the world. We started to get 62,000 at Cosmos games. It changed everything. Big success in soccer; problem in family life. My wife got mad. I was traveling again all the time, and she didn't have family in New York."
After 12 years of marriage Pelé and Rose separated in 1978, less than a year after 75,646 people crammed into Giants Stadium for his farewell game with the Cosmos. The NASL, too, eventually fell apart, disbanding in 1985. "Soccer became too big too fast," says Pelé. "We had 18 teams in 1977, and it was very balanced. Then they opened it up to 24 teams the next year, and it was not balanced anymore."
Another U.S. pro soccer league, Major League Soccer, will be launched in 1995, and Rothenberg has offered Pelé the opportunity—for $10 million—to buy the New York franchise. Pelé's mulling it over. "With the new league," Pelé says, "they must keep it small, and if they grow, grow slowly. The other mistake we made was that we didn't have too much space for American players. We had up to eight foreigners per team and only three or four Americans. It should have been the opposite. Then the American families can get involved." The MLS plans to limit its teams to three or four foreign players each.
Pelé will be in the U.S. throughout the World Cup, commenting on the games for Brazil's Globo television network. If Brazil does make it to the final, in Los Angeles on July 17, Pelé Sports & Marketing expects to handle the ticket and travel arrangements for as many as 25,000 Brazilians. Pelé also owns the South American licensing rights to Striker, the World Cup mascot. There's a lot of money in soccer, especially in the year of a World Cup, and much of it, one way or another, leads back to the man who made this all possible in the U.S.