The private Pelé, the one even his most devoted fans never got to see, liked to sit in the back of the bus.
When the New York Cosmos moved into the magnificent new Giants Stadium in New Jersey in 1977, it looked as though they, and soccer, had finally arrived. Before then, the Cosmos rarely attracted crowds larger than 15,000; in the 1977 season, they averaged more than twice that figure and three times surpassed 60,000.
The sudden change could be credited to one man: the incomparable Pelé, who had come out of retirement three years earlier, at age 34, to join the Cosmos and try to turbocharge soccer’s popularity in the United States. Pelé’s personal charisma was amplified by the masterful publicity machinery of Warner Communications, the team’s owner. Supplementing its A-list soccer team with stars from its music and film labels, Warner made Cosmos games a hot ticket, feted Cosmos players at Studio 54 and — by footing the bill for a polyglot media horde — generated a whirl of publicity in every league city the team visited.
On road trips in those days, the team bus shuttled players, coaches, trainers and reporters from the airport to the hotel to the stadium and back again. The Cosmos had a handful of other Brazilians, including Carlos Alberto, the captain of the 1970 World Cup winners, and on every trip they would sit together at the back of the bus, drumming and singing. Brazilians can create a samba beat anywhere, and the tray tables and armrests of the innumerable rented buses made fine tapping territory. And every time the music started, a quick glance over the shoulder would find Pelé sitting among his countrymen, smiling that broad, relaxed smile, drumming away.
When he stepped off the bus, Pelé entered another world, one that required special handling. His teammate Franz Beckenbauer, the World Cup-winning German star, once said that he loved playing and living in New York because he could walk down Fifth Avenue and nobody recognized him. Pelé’s celebrity meant he enjoyed no such freedom.
He had a bodyguard, Pedro Garay, virtually everywhere he went, as well as an entourage of personal assistants, marketing executives and friends. During practice sessions, this group would stand at the ready, prepared to fulfill any need, from booking a restaurant table to arranging a gift to delivering a message to his wife, Rosemeri, and their children.
In rare moments of one-on-one conversation, Pelé seemed to prefer asking questions of his interviewer rather than talking about himself. In the chaos of the post-match locker room, where on any given day celebrity guests like Mick Jagger or Henry Kissinger might be circulating among the players, coaches and journalists, he would patiently answer a stream of questions until every reporter, every angle, was sated.
In that pre-internet age, dozens of newspapers, TV and radio stations, magazines, and news agencies sent reporters to see Pelé, and the Cosmos, filling press boxes and changing rooms with a vibrant mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Greek, Turkish, French and assorted varieties of English.
The locker room scene was new for Pelé. Before joining the Cosmos, he had answered reporters’ questions either in postgame news conferences or scheduled interviews. The rest of the soccer world did not — and still does not — follow the American custom of admitting reporters into the locker room immediately after games to get players’ reactions.
But selling soccer in America required accommodations, and Pelé — the sport’s champion — took it all in stride. Serene as ever, he would sit in his locker stall, a hefty white towel around his waist, his gnarled and battered-looking feet wedged into shower shoes, answering in genial but broken English.
Pelé always struggled with English. He tried, but it didn’t come easily. Quickly he learned to greet people he recognized as “my friend,” sometimes because he had forgotten the name, sometimes just to express kindness.
When he had harsher feelings to express, his limited English often helped. To criticize the team’s tactics, lineup or other coaching decisions, he could vent privately to his longtime friend and interpreter Julio Mazzei, known as Professor Mazzei, who spoke fluent English. (The Cosmos eventually made Mazzei the team’s head coach.) And on the practice field, Pelé would yell, “Look! Look!” to point out a poorly placed pass, or, “Work! Work!” when he felt teammates weren’t giving enough effort.
By 1977, when other international stars had joined the team, a few jealousies flared, making for good gossip. But almost all of Pelé’s teammates, and especially his younger ones, loved him. Steve Hunt, a promising English wing, had just turned 21 when the Cosmos won the 1977 N.A.S.L. championship in Pelé’s final competitive game. Hunt scored the first goal and assisted on the winner in the Cosmos’ 2-1 victory. Afterward, in the giddy, champagne-drenched locker room, the young Hunt sobbed as he took the measure of his contribution, blurting, “I helped Pelé win his last championship.”
Yet Pelé never exuded the celebrity self-involvement so typical of superstars. He would talk to children or ordinary people endlessly, often until his handlers had to physically pull him away. He exuded warmth and delighted in the kindness of small gestures.
Not long after the Cosmos moved to Giants Stadium, in June 1977, I was at a weekday practice, working as a sportswriter for the New York Daily News. Several journalists and I were talking casually with Pelé, Mazzei and others when someone mentioned that it was my birthday. “Happy birthday, my friend,” Pelé said, smiling that famous smile.
That evening, the doorbell rang at my Manhattan apartment. Outside was a delivery man with a huge bouquet of red roses. Tucked inside the bouquet was a small card. “Happy Birthday,” it read, “from Pelé.”