New England Soccer Today

What Dreams May Come

Revolution head coach Jay Heaps and soccer legend Pelé field questions during yesterday’s press conference announcing a partnership between Sovereign I Santander and the Revolution. (Photo: New England Revolution)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It would be an understatement to say that Edison Arantes do Nascimento – much better known as Pelé – was on a mission when he arrived in the United States in 1975.

He’d been here before. In 1968, he and his team – Santos (Brazil) – played friendlies in cities and towns like Boston and Pawtucket, R.I. before a spattering of spectators on fields configured for baseball.

But this time was different. Although the Cosmos had signed him to play in New York, his obligations extended across the entire country.

For Pelé, who was once declared a non-exportable national treasure by the government of his native Brazil, it was more than suiting up and playing. It was about promoting the beautiful game.

Speaking at press conference announcing a multi-year partnership between Sovereign I Santander and the Revolution on Thursday, the living legend spoke on his decision to come to a country that had largely overlooked the sport.

“I came to the United States to help the people (enjoy soccer),” Pelé said during the press conference. “But we got so much support at that time…the (sport) grew a lot and it was amazing.”

They were heady times, to be sure. Warner Communications had invested millions to bring the World Cup hero to the U.S., with the hope that the sport of soccer would flourish from coast to coast.

The impact was immediate. From New York to Boston to Dallas to Los Angeles, the fans turned up droves to watch Pelé and his Cosmos teammates play. In Philadelphia, fans crashed the gates just to see the superstar in plain clothes on the sideline after he picked up a foot injury weeks prior.

“In my time,” Pelé said. “We started to promote soccer and…the Cosmos had a lot to do with it because the Cosmos grew quickly because there were some big names and we made a good team.”

They were a team brimming with some of the finest players to ever play, including Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto. Wherever they went, the fans – especially children – weren’t far behind. And it was Pelé himself who served as the spokesperson of the sport.

One child who felt the gravitational pull of the legendary playmaker was a kid from Longmeadow, Mass. who regularly watched an instructional video featuring none other than Pelé. Intrigued by a particular heading drill, a young Jay Heaps tied a soccer ball from a tree branch and began working on his technique until the branch would collapse.

“Pele helped start soccer here (in the United States),” Heaps said. “(He promoted) it and opened up the eyes of young kids like myself and across the country.”

In the decades since Pelé’s arrival, the sport has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. Although the Cosmos and the league it played in – the North American Soccer League – collapsed in the early ’80s, the sport rose from the ashes a decade later, when USA ’94 re-kindled the passion for the global game in the States.

Today, Major League Soccer is on pace to set attendance records. World-class players like David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Alessandro Nesta ply their trades in the league that was birthed shortly after the success of USA ’94.

“Now, soccer in the United States is a reality,” Pelé said. “Because the level is a very good level and we have a lot of the young players playing in Europe and outside of the United States.”

He may not have influenced every single child who kicked a soccer ball in this country, but without Pelé, it’s hard to imagine where the sport would be today.

To be fair, the sport had enjoyed a few successes in the earlier part of the 20th century. But what it needed was a catalyst – a game-changer – take it to the next level. And who better than the greatest player of all time to do it?

“I was very happy,” Pelé said.”It was fantastic to me, the experience that I had here in the United States. No doubt, (soccer) has grown a lot and I’m glad to have been a part of this. ”


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