How football legend Pelé 'saved' New Yorkers in his last ever game
This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series
Long before the great Messi v Ronaldo debate, there was just one name in the frame: Pelé.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé was Brazilian football’s greatest figure, helping his country to three World Cups.
In 1958, aged 17, he became the youngest to play in the tournament and scored two goals in the final.
Four years later, his tournament was cut short by an injury sustained in the second match, but Brazil still went on to retain their trophy.
Read more: Football fans get chance to score in Pelé memorabilia auction
However, it is the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 for which Pelé and Brazil remain most fondly remembered.
He again scored in the final as Brazil put on a football masterclass to sweep Italy 4-1.
And yet Pelé’s most memorable moments from that tournament came when he didn’t manage to find the net.
Watch: Gordon Banks' amazing save from Pelé at 1970 World Cup
Think of his audacious dummy to dumbfound Uruguay’s goalkeeper in the semi-final, only to send his resulting effort inches past the post, or the wild but unsuccessful attempt from the halfway line in Brazil’s opening game against Czechoslovakia, or the famous save by Gordon Banks from his header which denied him a goal against then-world champions England.
Despite his astonishing goals tally of 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, Pelé’s career was about special moments.
And seven years after winning that World Cup, he would create another one.
On 1 October, 1977, 44 years ago today, Pelé played his last match.
It involved the only two clubs he ever played for: his beloved Santos from Brazil, for whom he scored 643 goals in 659 games; and the New York Cosmos.
Pelé joined the Cosmos, who played in the North American Soccer League (NASL), in 1975, and in his three seasons there he helped raised the profile for football in the US and paved the way for a deluge of world stars to follow in his footsteps.
For his last match, the two sides played an exhibition in front of a sellout 77,000 crowd at Giant’s Stadium, New Jersey, the home of the Cosmos.
In the first half, Pelé turned out for the Cosmos, scoring a wonderful free-kick, the final goal of his career. In the second, he changed his Santos kit for his final half of football.
The Cosmos won the game 2-1, but the scoreline didn’t matter. Pelé had helped bring crowds back to the NASL and given New Yorkers something to cheer about.
The Big Apple had endured a nine-day heatwave earlier in the summer of 1977, with temperatures peaking at a sweltering 40C. There had also been a blackout which lasted across two days in July, and 'Son of Sam' serial killer David Berkowitz had also terrorised the city that year, claiming six lives.
New York found its feet again later the same year, however, and Pele's swansong helped improve the feelgood factor.
The Cosmos won the Soccer Bowl in Pelé’s third and final season.
His last game was a star-studded event in which the man of the moment broke down in tears and was carried around the pitch by his teammates.
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, former England football captain Bobby Moore and US politician Henry Kissinger were all there for Pelé’s send-off.
Before the game, Pelé addressed the crowd and said: “Love is more important than what we can take in life.”
It took the arrival of Pelé for New Yorkers – and Americans – to fall in love with football, but the Brazilian didn’t come cheap.
To join the Cosmos, he signed a three-year $2.8m contract, making him the highest paid athlete in the world, even though he was past his peak.
He was the start of an influx of stars to the Cosmos, including his World Cup-winning compatriot Carlos Alberto, Germany’s own World Cup-winning captain Franz Beckenbauer and Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia.
Netherlands duo Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, Germany’s Gerd Müller, and Northern Ireland and Manchester United legend George Best would all play stateside for various teams.
But the dream didn’t last.
Attendances fell dramatically at the Cosmos following Pelé’s retirement and the NASL’s TV deal collapsed. The money dried up. The Cosmos folded in 1985, a year after the league itself.
Read more: Pelé ‘recovering very well’ following colon surgery
A new league, Major League Soccer (MLS) was founded in 1993, just in time for the US hosting the World Cup the following year.
The Cosmos returned in 2010 – Pelé was signed as their honorary president – and were playing in US football’s third tier until going on hiatus as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, Pelé was admitted to hospital in Sao Paulo to remove a tumour from his colon, the latest in a string of health issues for the 80-year-old.
Watch: Pelé 'recovering well' following surgery after 'little step back'