40 years on: how New York Cosmos lured Pelé to a football wasteland
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When Clive Toye originally approached Pelé about playing for the , the Black Pearl refused in no uncertain terms.
“Prof, tell them that they are crazy! I’ll never play for anybody after Santos!” he told his confidante and advisor, Professor Julio Mazzei. Pelé repeated those immortal words in .
Of course, you should never say never, especially when the persistent Toye is pursuing his prey. Despite that rejection, the Cosmos president continued his quest of signing the man who many consider the greatest soccer player to have ever lived.
As we all know, Toye was successful. starred for the North American Soccer League club for three seasons, igniting a US soccer boom that is still being felt today.
Wednesday 3 June is the 40th anniversary of his signing.
Getting Pelé was much easier said than done. Negotiations required thousands of miles of plane trips to about dozen cities, countless lunches and dinners, several attorneys and a piece of stationery from a Brussels motel.
Toye’s story is not only one of persistence and patience, but a selling job that took years of convincing combined with charm, wit, logic and a several million dollars thrown in at the end. He also needed to convince the Brazilian megastar that he could transform a country, which at the time did not care about the beautiful game, into a soccer nation. Believe it or not, Pelé signed with the Cosmos three separate times over 76 days.
“Why did I persist? I don’t know,” Toye told the Guardian in a wide-ranging interview. “I decided I was going to do it. That was all there was to it. It wasn’t a question of whether shall we or shall we not. It was the obvious thing to do, so we bloody well do it. I’m afraid that’s my attitude in life.”
Toye concocted the idea when he and then commissioner Phil Woosnam ran the league from the visitors’ locker room at Atlanta County Fulton Stadium in 1969.
“The league was practically dead and Phil Woosnam and I were the entire league office,” Toye said. “We were trying to keep the whole thing alive and making it grow. We decided there were two things that were needed in this country to transform the whole issue. One was the World Cup and the other was Pelé. [He] was the only player anyone in this country ever heard of.”
Even before the Cosmos played their first game, Toye and US Soccer Federation secretary Kurt Lamm, visited Pelé when Santos played a friendly against the Jamaican national team in Kingston on 31 January 1971, officially beginning his quest. While sitting poolside at the Santos team hotel, he stated his case to Pelé and Mazzei.
“I broached the subject to him of what was happening in America,” Toye said. “It was the Cosmos and I was expecting him to come and play for us one of these days. I would be in touch with him in the future to continue to discuss. I left and came back [to New York] and the Cosmos started. And I kept on pestering the man.”
And pester Pelé Toye did. When Santos faced Deportivo Cali at Yankee Stadium on 9 June 1971 Toye said “that was an ideal opportunity,” to unveil Part II of his plan.
“We had retired the No10 until he wore it,” Toye said. “Before the kickoff, I went on the field and got on the microphone and made the announcement that was the Cosmos shirt for him to wear one day and we hoped it would happen one day. So, I gave him the No10 Cosmos shirt, having already taken the Cosmos colors, which was Brazil’s colors. I told him we had picked the colors to make him comfortable when he wore the shirt.
Not surprisingly, Pelé was skeptical before Toye made his point.
“It was very interesting because I was retired from my team, Santos,” Pelé said in April. “I was retired from the Brazil national team because we won the World Cup in 1970. I said, ‘What was I going to do in New York?’ [laughs] because I came from the two biggest teams. But when Clive Toye told me, ‘Listen, we want to make soccer, football, as in South America.’ Then we are going to make a good game.”
Toye talked a good game, but more convincing had to be done. That meant more meetings in Brazil – in Sao Paulo, Santos and Guaruja. Toye had lunch with Zoca, Pelé’s brother, Mazzei and the star himself in a Guaruja restaurant.
“Pelé insisted on paying the bill,” he said. “I raised my eyebrows and he laughed. When the bill came, he took out his check book, wrote the amount on the check and signed the check – autographed the check, you might say – and gave it to the waiter and said, ‘Oh well, they’ll never cash that.’ “
When Pelé finally committed – informally, at least – to the Cosmos on 27 March 1975, there were no checks to be signed, only a piece of notepaper that Toye took out of the drawer in his room at the GB Motor Inn (situated outside of the Brussels airport). In Belgium for a testimonial game for Belgian international forward Paul Van Himst, Pelé wrote on the paper, agreeing to play for the Cosmos, which was punctuated by his world-famous signature.
Negotiations were interrupted several times. “All the bloody superstar players who were in the testimonial were all coming in and saying goodbye to him, interrupting our conversation. Time was running real short,” Toye said.
Striker Jose Altafini, who played alongside Pelé at the 1958 World Cup before representing Italy, had his moment. “He came in and saw me talking to Pelé and said, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll come, I’ll come and play for you,” Toye said. “I said to him, I’ll pay you $15,000, which insulted him enormously and left the room, which was I wanted to happen. At any other time I would have signed him in a moment. He never quite understood that I offered him just a pittance just to get rid of him to spend the last few minutes with Pelé.”
Pelé had to catch a plane, Toye went back to the motel to celebrate because his flight wasn’t leaving until the next day. “I think I drank two entire bottles of wine the rest of the day,” he said.
Two weeks later at another meeting in Rome – this time both sides needed lawyers because negotiations were in the serious stages – Toye offered Pelé a three-year deal.
“He said he would play for two, but I wanted him for the third year because in the third year Giants Stadium was opening and I wanted his farewell year to be in Giants Stadium,” he said.
The extension did not escape Pelé.
“He said to me, ‘Oh, Clivie’, because he often pronounced the ‘e’ on my name, ‘Clivie, my English is bad’.” Toye said. “’In Brussels I said I would play for two years for so much and now in here you offer me less money for three years’. So, we had laugh about that. The next day I explained to him why three years were necessary.”
After passing a physical, the two men went their separate ways, but not before one more meeting as Pelé signed the $2.8m contract in Hamilton, Bermuda on 3 June.
“Then came back to New York and had the press conference on a Tuesday [June 10],” Toye said. “Suddenly we were a well-known club.”
The Cosmos made the ceremonial signing at the 21 Club “because soccer was an immigrant-peasant game and not too many Americans would think too much about soccer,” Toye said. “So the idea of having a soccer press conference smack in the middle of Manhattan at one of the poshest places that you can find in those days was what I did deliberately to get more attention than if I went to some ordinary club.”
The media jammed this little room, which sparked several battles between photographers trying to get the best picture of Pelé. “It was a quite chaotic,” Toye said.
Five days later, Pelé made his Cosmos debut in an exhibition match against the Dallas Tornado and Kyle Rote Jr, the best known American player at the time. The Cosmos’ home stadium never would be confused with a cathedral of soccer – Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, situated between Queens and Manhattan. The field had so little grass that it had to be sprayed green to make it look respectable for the nationally televised game.
Pelé scored the equalizer in a 2-2 draw – career goal No1,219 from 1,255 games – as American soccer entered a new era.
With Pelé giving the Cosmos and the NASL his stamp of approval, the rest of the world noticed. The Cosmos acquired some of the best talent, including Giorgio Chinaglia and two players who captained their World Cup teams to world championships – Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer.
“I had everything,” Beckenbauer said in April. “I was the captain of Bayern Munich and of the German national team. I had everything. Then the offer of the Cosmos came and I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.’
“Then I said, ‘It was a good chance.’ Pelé was my idol since ‘58 since I was 13-year-old when I watched the World Cup in Sweden. He was 17-years-old. He was fantastic since then. I adore Pelé from 1958 until today. I said to myself, ‘It was a good chance to play with the best player of all time.’ The Cosmos [owners] they promised they will build higher, even more world class players.”
Which they did, though the NASL went belly-up after the 1984 season.
Four decades after Pelé’s signing, the American soccer landscape has been transformed dramatically. The USA hosted the 1994 World Cup. Two years later Major League Soccer kicked off. Most teams then played in NFL stadiums. Except for a handful of exceptions, teams must now perform in their own stadiums. The American women dominated, winning the Women’s World Cup in 1991 and 1999 and four gold Olympic medals.
Millions of Americans play soccer. Once ridiculed by the media, the sport is ingrained into the culture.
While the men’s side still has a ways to go to catch up to the rest of the world, you have to wonder where the sport would have been had Toye taken Pelé’s 1971 rejection to heart and not pursued him.
“Listen, every bloody game is on television [from] everywhere in every country in the bloody world,” Toye said. “Everyone knows everyone Chelsea to Roma to Barcelona. Kids are everywhere playing. Kids are wearing shirts of every damn team in the world. There’s Americans playing professionally all over the world. There’s a World Cup in which a couple of times the team has been very good.”
Toye remembered when he and Woosnam bought the American TV rights for the 1970 World Cup for $1,500.
“We couldn’t find anybody to televise a single game,” he said. “We had to put it on closed circuit at Madison Square Garden, a place in Chicago and a place in Los Angeles, the only places in the United States where you could watch that World Cup. Now you can’t even say World Cup without paying $1,500 to somebody for God’s sake.”
Toye had no doubt the revolution was going to occur, even if it took a few decades longer than anticipated.
“Like it is today? There are things about today I don’t particularly like,” he said. “But did I think it was going to happen? I wouldn’t have bothered if I didn’t think so. It might take a while and be a bit chaotic on the way. America was going to be become a soccer nation.”