When the New York Cosmos assembled some $4.5 million to lure Pel� out of retirement, many critics felt that the investment was about as sound as, say, a stock flyer in the 1974 World Football League. Although Pel� is considered the best player in soccer history and is lionized around the world, he was little known in the U.S. Often as not, his name was pronounced peel, as in lemon, and nobody in his proper mind would have dreamed that in a few short weeks Pel� (pay-lay) would be as well known as Namath (nay-muth).
But now, after Pel�'s first national tour with his new teammates, that $4.5 million looks like a bargain. In Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver he broke attendance records. In Boston an ecstatic, affectionate crowd mobbed him after he had scored a goal, slightly injuring his ankle while trying to take away his shoes for souvenirs. In Washington, 35,620 turned out to watch him play, the biggest crowd ever to see a North American Soccer League game. (A few nights later only 2,140 were on hand for a game not featuring Pel�.) In tiny El Camino Junior College stadium in Los Angeles the turnout was a capacity 12,176. The Seattle Sounders' small stadium bulged with 17,925 fans, and in Vancouver—where the Cosmos played an exhibition against the Whitecaps—a record 26,495 trooped in.
On each occasion Pel� provided a dazzling show. He may have lost a bit of the speed that helped Brazil to three World Cup championships, but the shots he took were often ground-to-goal missiles and his passes were feathery and accurate. Working hard to upgrade a team composed of players inferior to those he is accustomed to, Pel� occasionally seemed like Jascha Heifetz playing an out-of-tune violin, but it was still a virtuoso effort.
Unlike many virtuosi, however, Pel� was obviously no prima donna. In the modern sports era of the overpaid egotist, he is unfailingly gracious, charming and patient.
On the tour of the West Coast the Cosmos played three games in five days, so rest and privacy were precious. But Pel� devoted his few leisure moments to press conferences, parties and interviews. He answered the same questions endlessly and without petulance, giving the same thoughtful consideration to each questioner. He worked hard on improving his new language, answering in English when he could, otherwise through an interpreter. And Pel� led off each postgame conference with a fulsome critique of the team he had just played against.
In Los Angeles the Cosmos lost 5-1 to a fired-up Aztec team. Pel�, who does not relish playing on artificial surfaces, made no excuses. "The way Los Angeles played tonight," he said, "I think they could have beaten West Germany [the current World Cup champion]. But then I think I may have created more problems for the Cosmos. Every team we play wants to beat the Cosmos more because of me—and they play much better. And I have not had the training I need with the team yet. But we are going to play better together."
Pel� repeatedly denied he came out of retirement for the $4.5 million. "I could have had that much money to play in many places," he said. "In Brazil, probably. But this is where I could do the most for soccer. Already it is not the same as when I came here for exhibitions with Santos [his Brazilian team]. I see boys in Central Park and on the streets of New York kicking the ball. Here, I can help."
Pel� is adjusting to his new team more slowly than expected because of the artificial surfaces. All three fields on the Western tour were variations of AstroTurf. In Seattle the problems were compounded by heat. "The ball does not run the same," Pel� said. "And today I felt like my feet were on fire. But I noticed that the Seattle team used different shoes, so I will try those shoes when we play in Vancouver. And it will be at night there, so the heat will not be so bad. Here the artificial surface gets very hot, my feet were blistered all around the edges and I was very tired after the game. I do not tire so easily. But then I am only in 78% of my best condition, too." (It came out 78% through the interpreter. Later, Pel� said he had meant to say 70 to 80%.)
On the artificial surfaces, otherwise delicate passes slid by Pel�'s teammates and the ball bounced too high and was difficult to control. Seattle won 2-0, and Pel� was given a yellow warning card by an official for the first time, an admonition he accepted with good grace, as usual.
"I was explaining to the referee that I had pushed my man off the ball with my shoulder," he said, pushing a questioner with his shoulder to demonstrate. "That is all right. I did not use my hands, which is not all right. So he took out the yellow card and booked me."