How football legend Pelé 'saved' New Yorkers in his last ever game

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This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

Long before the great Messi v Ronaldo debate, there was just one name in the frame: Pelé.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé was Brazilian football’s greatest figure, helping his country to three World Cups.

Pele held on people's shoulders after his final game for the New York Cosmos
Pelé after his final game 44 years ago. Source: Getty Images

In 1958, aged 17, he became the youngest to play in the tournament and scored two goals in the final.

Four years later, his tournament was cut short by an injury sustained in the second match, but Brazil still went on to retain their trophy.

However, it is the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 for which Pelé and Brazil remain most fondly remembered.

He again scored in the final as Brazil put on a football masterclass to sweep Italy 4-1.

And yet Pelé’s most memorable moments from that tournament came when he didn’t manage to find the net.

Head and shoulders portrait of the New York Cosmos soccer sensation Pele standing on the field in New York Cosmos uniform
Pelé played for the New York Cosmos for three seasons. Source: Getty Images

Think of his audacious dummy to dumbfound Uruguay’s goalkeeper in the semi-final, only to send his resulting effort inches past the post, or the wild but unsuccessful attempt from the halfway line in Brazil’s opening game against Czechoslovakia, or the famous save by Gordon Banks from his header which denied him a goal against then-world champions England.

Despite his astonishing goals tally of 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, Pelé’s career was about special moments.

And seven years after winning that World Cup, he would create another one.

On 1 October, 1977, 44 years ago today, Pelé played his last match.

It involved the only two clubs he ever played for: his beloved Santos from Brazil, for whom he scored 643 goals in 659 games; and the New York Cosmos.

An illustrious welcoming party, including New York Cosmos' Franz Beckenbauer (l) and Carlos Alberto (second l), Bobby Moore (second r) and Muhammad Ali (r), wait to greet Pele before the final match of his career
New York Cosmos players Franz Beckenbauer, far left, and Carlos Alberto, second left, former England captain Bobby Moore, second right, and boxing legend Muhammad Ali, right, before Pelé's final game at Giant's Stadium, New Jersey. Source: Getty Images

Pelé joined the Cosmos, who played in the North American Soccer League (NASL), in 1975, and in his three seasons there he helped raised the profile for football in the US and paved the way for a deluge of world stars to follow in his footsteps.

For his last match, the two sides played an exhibition in front of a sellout 77,000 crowd at Giant’s Stadium, New Jersey, the home of the Cosmos.

In the first half, Pelé turned out for the Cosmos, scoring a wonderful free-kick, the final goal of his career. In the second, he changed his Santos kit for his final half of football.

World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali (c) is filmed as he walks out at Giants Stadium with his brother Rahaman (second l) to greet Pele before the Brazilian star's final match of his career
Boxer Muhammad Ali walks out at Giants Stadium to greet Pelé before his final match. Source: Getty Images

The Cosmos won the game 2-1, but the scoreline didn’t matter. Pelé had helped bring crowds back to the NASL and given New Yorkers something to cheer about.

The Big Apple had endured a nine-day heatwave earlier in the summer of 1977, with temperatures peaking at a sweltering 40C. There had also been a blackout which lasted across two days in July, and 'Son of Sam' serial killer David Berkowitz had also terrorised the city that year, claiming six lives.

New York found its feet again later the same year, however, and Pele's swansong helped improve the feelgood factor.

The Cosmos won the Soccer Bowl in Pelé’s third and final season.

His last game was a star-studded event in which the man of the moment broke down in tears and was carried around the pitch by his teammates.

From left to right, musician Sergio Mendes, soccer player Pelé of the New York Cosmos and singer Elton John in Los Angeles, before the start of a North American Soccer League game with the Los Angeles Aztecs, 2nd July 1977. Pele was also given the game ball, and honorary citizenship of the City of Los Angeles
Musician Sergio Mendes, football player Pelé of the New York Cosmos and singer Elton John in Los Angeles in July 1977, where the footballer was given honorary citizenship of the city. Source: Getty Images
Brazilian soccer star Pele, who now plays with the New York Cosmos, gives a soccer ball to President Jimmy Carter during a White House visit.
Footballer Pelé gives a football to US president Jimmy Carter at a White House visit during his time with the New York Cosmos. Source: Getty Images
George Best presents Pele with a plaque commemorating the Brazilian as the best soccer player in the world during Pele Appreciation Day at Rose Bowl stadium in Pasedena, California, 9th April 1978
George Best presents Pelé with a plaque commemorating the Brazilian as the best football player in the world during Pelé Appreciation Day at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasedena, California, in April 1978. Source: Getty Images

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, former England football captain Bobby Moore and US politician Henry Kissinger were all there for Pelé’s send-off.

Before the game, Pelé addressed the crowd and said: “Love is more important than what we can take in life.”

It took the arrival of Pelé for New Yorkers – and Americans – to fall in love with football, but the Brazilian didn’t come cheap.

To join the Cosmos, he signed a three-year $2.8m contract, making him the highest paid athlete in the world, even though he was past his peak.

He was the start of an influx of stars to the Cosmos, including his World Cup-winning compatriot Carlos Alberto, Germany’s own World Cup-winning captain Franz Beckenbauer and Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia.

Pele leaves the field following his final game.
Pelé is carried by his New York Cosmos teammates after his last ever game. Source: Getty Images
Brazilian soccer legend Edson Arantes Do Nascimento also know as Pele, is pictured in Hong Kong
Pelé is regarded as one of the greatest footballers in the history of the game. Source: Getty Images

Netherlands duo Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, Germany’s Gerd Müller, and Northern Ireland and Manchester United legend George Best would all play stateside for various teams.

But the dream didn’t last.

Attendances fell dramatically at the Cosmos following Pelé’s retirement and the NASL’s TV deal collapsed. The money dried up. The Cosmos folded in 1985, a year after the league itself.

A new league, Major League Soccer (MLS) was founded in 1993, just in time for the US hosting the World Cup the following year.

The Cosmos returned in 2010 – Pelé was signed as their honorary president – and were playing in US football’s third tier until going on hiatus as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, Pelé was admitted to hospital in Sao Paulo to remove a tumour from his colon, the latest in a string of health issues for the 80-year-old.

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