His appearance on the field was greeted by fireworks, his uncanny passes by grateful cheers and the goal he stunningly headed into the net—well, it was carnival time beneath the Triborough Bridge. This was Pel� Sunday afternoon in New York, adding another chapter to his career as soccer's celebrated folk hero. Playing his first game as a member of the New York Cosmos, he managed to momentarily transform Downing Stadium, a moldering Depression-age relic on an island in the East River, into the improbable center of world futebol.
Pel�'s performance included an assist and a goal that enabled the Cosmos to salvage a 2-2 tie with the Dallas Tornado. It didn't matter that the game itself was a mere media event, an exhibition set up to showcase the Cosmos' extraordinary coup to TV audiences in the U.S., Japan and much of Latin America. Nor did it matter that the crowd of 21,278—some 1,200 fewer than capacity—would have been swallowed up in Maracana stadium, in Pel�'s Brazil. And while many in the crowd didn't know a scissors kick from a wall pass, that was exactly the point: it was to promote soccer in the uninitiated U.S. that Pel� agreed to play with the Cosmos.
Admittedly out of shape from his eight-month retirement, the 34-year-old Pel� was joining a team that had a depressing 3-6 record in the North American Soccer League. Roaming the field with little wasted motion, he dribbled past swarms of Tornado defenders and threaded soft, accurate passes through the smallest openings. The only trouble was that the other Cosmos all too often seemed unprepared. It appeared that the bandy-legged little man was not so much promoting U.S. soccer as exposing it.
But soon he had his teammates obeying him almost as much as the ball did. Early on, Pel� had headed the ball into a goalpost, narrowly missing a score, his momentum hurtling him into the wall of photographers that lined the field to snap away at him. Then he slipped a sleight-of-foot pass to 5'4" Julio Correa that produced another near-miss. Goals by Altamont McKenzie and David Chadwick put Dallas ahead 2-0 at halftime, but Pel� was clearly galvanizing the Cosmos. In the second half he suddenly chipped a perfect lead pass to Mordechai Shpigler, a rawboned Israeli, who booted a squibbler past Dallas' flailing goalkeeper, Ken Cooper, to make it 2-1. Nine minutes later Shpigler reciprocated, lofting a pass that a twisting Pel�, suspended in midair, headed into the net.
That was the final goal, and Pel� responded as always, by leaping high and punching the air. The game had also been billed as a platform for Kyle Rote Jr., "soccer's first American superstar," but Rote, like everybody else, was utterly overshadowed. The fans had come to see Pel�, and they ended the game as they started it, filling the air with chants of "P�-le, Pe-l�."
The excitement over Pel�'s presence had actually begun with his arrival in the U.S. five days earlier. In places where soccer is sacred—meaning most of the civilized world—Pel�'s rise from poverty to the pinnacle of his sport is legend. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, he became the only man to play on three World Cup championship teams and the first to score 1,000 goals. He has been received at Buckingham Palace, given a parade down the Champs-�lys�es and hailed everywhere as The King or The Great One. His very name has become a superlative; if people call you the Pel� of, say, the kitchen, you may be sure they like your cooking. And now he was going to play on Randalls Island, of all places.
Given soccer's lowly status in the U.S., however, nobody quite expected the mob scene that occurred beneath the mounted antlers and bear's head of Manhattan's 21 Club, which is where the New York Cosmos chose to unveil their own prize specimen. As Pel� ceremonially signed his Cosmo contract, 300 newsmen and hangers-on jostled for inside position and, in a resulting fistfight, a Brazilian cameraman had his glasses broken. In Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium that same night Pel�, wearing street clothes, was introduced before a Cosmo game with the hometown Atoms. A crowd of 20,124, double the usual turnout, cheered Pel� but booed the swarm of photographers who followed him around the field, obstructing their view.
The supercharged atmosphere was reminiscent of the American tours of The Beatles and the Pope—especially the latter. Pel� is hardly an imposing figure, standing not quite 5'8" and peering out beneath a wedge of neatly mown hair with wide, almost childlike, eyes. Still, he managed to remain serene amid all the commotion he was causing and he had about him a messianic sense of purpose. As he publicly intoned time and again, "I came to your country because I realized I was the only one who could help soccer here. Spread the news that soccer has finally arrived in the U.S."
But only his words were lofty. Unfailingly polite, Pel� was forever flashing his twinkling smile and fielding questions either in self-conscious English ("I don't speak well your language") or, more often, through interpreters. Posing for pictures one day in Central Park, he was besieged by scores of soccer-playing youngsters, whom he earnestly implored to "play the game often." And during the Cosmos' 1-0 overtime loss to Philadelphia, he projected an image at odds with what New Yorkers have come to expect from the picaresque likes of Joe Namath and Walt Frazier. There in a private box sat Pel�, holding hands with his wife Rosie.
But Pel� could carry the common touch only so far. For one thing, while the other Cosmos were getting around by bus, he was arriving at workouts by limousine. Then, too, he was shadowed by Julio Mazzei, a friend and adviser he refers to as "Daddy." Mazzei is a former trainer of Santos, the Brazilian club on which Pel� played for 18 years, and the Cosmos hired him for Coach Gordon Bradley's staff, leaving the impression that Pel� had one boss, the rest of the team another. Far from resenting any of this, the Cosmos acted like a sandlot baseball team suddenly playing alongside Babe Ruth. Approaching his new teammate, Gil Mardarescu, a midfielder from Rumania, crossed himself and said, "I dreamed of some day just shaking your hand. But to play with you, this is a miracle."