Farewell to The King: When Pele played his last game 40 years ago
Forty years ago, New York and the sporting world bid goodbye "to a king."
To hear Shep Messing -- now the lead analyst for the New York Red Bulls, but then a 27-year-old goalkeeper for the New York Cosmos -- describe Pele's final game, this was not just the grand finale of a star athlete but that of a global icon, a statesman, almost a religious figure.
A friendly between the Cosmos, Pele's last team, and Santos FC, the Brazilian futbol club for which he had become a legend, Pele's final game on Oct. 1, 1977, was not just a soccer match, but an event. That the Cosmos won 2-1 is inconsequential.
Pele had come to the Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in 1975 off an assist from Henry Kissinger, who sat down with the soccer great in a café and convinced him to bring his talents to the United States. The pitch: Come to America from Brazil and change the sporting landscape forever.
"That's why he came to the Cosmos," Messing said. "You can go to Spain, to Italy, and win a title, but you can come to the Cosmos and win a country."
And Pele did, eventually.
Months before playing the final game of his storied career in front of 77,000 adoring fans at Giants Stadium who showered him with love as he sobbed after his farewell speech, Pele and the Cosmos played in front of 10,000, sometimes 20,000 fans. They were not, as former Cosmos defenseman Werner Roth said, "a hit."
But New York was reeling in the late summer of 1977 from a sweltering heat wave and blackouts and the Son of Sam serial killer, David Berkowitz, who brought the city to its knees.
Pele and the Cosmos would bring New Yorkers back to their feet, and in a big way. They started winning -- this, after Pele's first two seasons with the club had been relatively uneventful -- and they won over the city. The Cosmos' sideline became the hottest ticket in town. Move over, Studio 54, there was a new hot spot in town.
"In simple terms, Pele made soccer cool," Messing said. "Mick Jagger, Elton John, Robert Redford at the games. Muhammad Ali, he was there on the field for that final game, and at that time, the two most recognizable people on the planet were the two of them. Ali's waving to the crowd, blowing kisses, doing the Muhammad Ali thing, and as soon as he walked into the locker room ... he was like a child. He looked up to Pele. It was so interesting to see his whole attitude change."
That final game, Roth said, was the "culmination of a three-year adventure that I don't think any of us will forget."
Pele played the first half of his last game for Santos -- scoring a goal, the last of the 1,281 goals of his career -- then switched jerseys and played for the Cosmos in the second half. He wasn't the Pele of old, but, as teammate Bobby Smith said, "There were still flashes of magic we saw in him. I saw him do things I've never seen another soccer player do."
Messing offered his assessment.
"I taught him how to play basketball, and he was at this time, what, 36 years old?" Messing said. "Well, I taught him in Fort Lauderdale, and he said, 'Am I allowed to jump?' He took the ball, and he's 5-8, 5-9, at the most, and he's stuffing it. He's jamming on me with two hands. He was an athlete like never seen before. Even our final game at Giants Stadium, he didn't do it for 90 minutes, but he had flashes."
During the second half, when Pele was playing with the Cosmos, it started to pour. A Brazilian newspaper came out the following day, on Oct. 2, with the headline: "Even The Sky Was Crying."
"That day was a sad day," Smith said. "We were saying goodbye to him, and I didn't want to see it end. It was an honor every day. It was never quite like he was your teammate. It was so weird. He never felt like a normal man to me."
By the time the game was over, the field was drenched. Messing and fellow goalie Erol Yasin sprinted over to Pele and hoisted him onto their shoulders for a victory lap around the field.
"I'm mad to this day. Yasin wasn't holding him at all," Messing said. "I'm holding 150 pounds on my shoulder. I'm grimacing trying to hold him. We did the lap, the crowd is going nuts; we get back to the spot and went to put him down, he leans over and says, 'Shep, one more time.' I said, 'I can't go another round.'"
That was the kind of reception that Pele received, and not just on the pitch.
When he had arrived in New York, it was like Beatlemania had been a decade earlier. Roughly 20,000 greeted him at the airport, Messing said.
America at the time had yet to fully accept soccer. The sport was growing from the ground up, finding a home in youth leagues and high schools across the country. Colleges were introducing it, gradually. Major League Soccer was still two decades from existence.
"It was such an incredible twist of irony," Roth said, "that the greatest player in the whole world would finish his career in a country that least appreciated the beautiful game."
Earlier in 1977, Pele got the over-the-top reception he deserved from a host of other countries, as the Cosmos embarked on a worldwide tour that included stops in China and Japan.
Messing said the team would travel to a remote place in China or India, "where there was no radio, no TV, no newspaper, and yet the word would spread that Pele was there, and 20,000 people would show up."
"The world wanted to say goodbye to him," Messing said.
For his former Cosmos teammates, that summer of '77 remains a vivid memory. Lightning in a bottle, they call it. The best time of their lives -- and, it seems, Pele's.
"Pele always told me, and I'm sure he's told other people, that the greatest thing he ever did was come to America," Messing said. "We make appearances together, and he'll always get up to the mike and he says, 'You know,' with a smile, 'I'm getting a little angry, because I travel all over the world, China, Japan, and everybody says, "Pele, what about you and the Cosmos?" Nobody asked me about three Gold Cups with Brazil. Everyone wants to know about me and the Cosmos.'"