Pelé’s biggest legacy was growing soccer in this country

Pele, who died Thursday at age 82, will be remembered for a great many things. His legacy, however, will forever include growing the sport in the United States. 

Pelé will be remembered for a great many things. He helped Brazil win three World Cup titles. He scored many beautiful goals. In the process, he became a global icon.

Pele died on Thursday at age 82 following a bout with cancer. Throughout much of the latter part of the 20th century, the Brazilian soccer star rivaled only Muhammad Ali as the most recognizable international athlete of his era.

For soccer fans in the United States, Pelé will forever be remembered for signing with the New York Cosmos in 1975 and helping grow the game in a country where, at the time, soccer had struggled to take a foothold.

Pelé played for the Cosmos for three seasons, capping off his time in the North American Soccer League with a championship in 1977.

Decades later, his time in New York remains his biggest legacy. The United States would go on to host the 1994 World Cup, which spurred the creation of MLS. None of those things would have been possible if not for Pele.

Pele was a soccer ambassador for the United States

The Brazilian legend became the game’s biggest ambassador. Even decades later, Pele would be a regular at soccer games in the United States. Whenever there was a need to link the present to the past, Pele was there to do just that and delighting fans in the process.

Pele retired following the 1974 season, his 19th with Brazilian club Santos. A year later, he came out of retirement to sign with the Cosmos.

At his first news conference at New York’s 21 Club, Cosmos spokesman John O’Reilly told reporters, “We had superstars in the United States but nothing at the level of Pele. Everyone wanted to touch him, shake his hand, get a photo with him.”

It was the start of a love affair between Pele and the United States that would endure time. He led the Cosmos to the 1977 Soccer Bowl in his third, and final season, with the team.

When I interviewed Pele in 2007, he fondly reminisced about his time with the Cosmos.

“When I came, soccer here was in its early stages,” he recalled. “No one played soccer except in college. It was very hard work to get those 70,000 people to come to Giants Stadium to watch us. It was beautiful. It was a great time.”

On Oct. 1, Pelé officially ended his playing career with a friendly match at Giants Stadium between the Cosmos and his beloved Santos. Pele played the first half with the Cosmos (where he scored a goal) and the second with Santos. The Cosmos won 2-1 before a sellout crowd of 76,000.

“I die a little bit today,” Pelé told reporters after the game. “Now I am born again to another life. You see, I stop playing soccer because I want to stop, and that is important.”

We all died a little bit inside on Thursday following the news of Pele’s death. Long live the king of soccer. He’s a big reason why soccer is so popular today in this country.

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