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Pelé’s influence on a teenager living in New York

John Babiak remembers living in New York in the Pelé era at New York Cosmos and its influence.


As a teenager growing up in both New York City and in upstate New York, I had several menial jobs including delivering my hometown newspaper - The Amsterdam Evening Recorder.

Before starting out my door-to-door, porch-to-porch delivery route, I would sit on a curb near a stack of 80 or so freshly printed, twine-bound newspapers that were dropped-off by a truck and start to devour a PB&J on Wonder Bread sandwich.

I’d start with the funnies, followed by the sport section and then the concise police blotter. Next, I would wash down my late afternoon snack with a pint-sized carton of milk and conclude my journey through current affairs by visiting the weather, obits, business pages and last but not least, the front page.

As if it was yesterday, I distinctly remember an article that I read on June 11th, 1975. It was a jaw dropper.

It was an A1 re-transmision of a breaking story from that morning’s downstate New York Times newspaper. The lead title read:

Pelé Signs With Cosmos: ‘Soccer Has Arrived’ Here

While I was a bowling, baseball, football and basketball-playing kind of teen, soccer really wasn’t my thing. However, I knew my soccer-loving father would be over-the-moon delighted that the lukewarm New York Cosmos Soccer Club and sputtering North America Soccer League (NASL) had landed the illustrious Pelé.

I blitzed through my neighborhood volleying tightly folded newspapers left and right, high and low, all in a rush to get home to deliver the worldly news directly from this couriers mouth to my dad as soon as he stepped out of his AMC Ambassador sedan.

My speedy legwork got me home in time to re-read the unimaginable news and memorize all the high points from the big deal.

My dad, Mykhaylo (Michael) was a die-hard soccer fan and according to his biggest fan, my mother, a stellar defenseman for his hometown team professional side, the Boryslav Oilers in Western Ukraine SSR, as well as with his displaced persons camp teams- the Firefighters, that placed out of Bayreuth and Munich, Germany.

In the mid-40’s my newly wed parents were on the run from a brutal Nazi regime and the terrors World War II. I was told by both that playing in and cheering at football matches released considerable stress and angst during their then turned upside lives.

When they arrived to New York City in 1949, my dad played recreation-level soccer with my uncles and his new acquaintances. Finding steady employment, professional schooling and housing were his foremost priorities.

I arrived ten years later. My parents followed the per usual new immigrant strategy of assimilation into the American lifestyle. They practiced a simple plan - keep your head low, help your fellow immigrants and neighbors and aspire to achieve your full potential.

My dad never pushed his preferred sport on his three sons. Instead, he fully supported our interests in playing the All-American sports. Soccer was not on that list despite it’s world class reputation and New York state being filled with citizens who knew game all to very well.

We occasionally watched soccer on the fuzzy screen of our pride and joy, black and white, RCA television. The NASL was the professional soccer league in the United States and Canada back then.

My father would often compare notes about teams and players with his cousins in Toronto during abridge ‘long-distance’ telephone conversations. With our neighbors too and his pals in the Ukrainian-American Social Club locates a block or so from the holy nucleus of our community- the Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Otherwise, he resorted to the previews, recaps and feature stories in our paper, or in the New York Daily News, The N.Y. Post and the weekly Sports Illustrated magazine that arrived in our mailbox. He also would listen to matches on his massive high fidelity Zenith short wave radio.

When he finally pulled into our driveway I blurted out the exciting news- Tato! Pelé is coming to New York! Pele’s coming to New York! . . . read all about it. He was genuinely delighted and from that day forward, soccer turned a huge corner in our neighborhood and through North America.

In the summer of 1975, the Warner Communications owned Cosmos ponied up a whopping $3.75 million for the handsome and affable 34-year-old Brazilian. The Times article said that the multi-year deal was worth closer to seven million dollars.

When Pelé formally agreed to the offer in a hotel in income-tax-free Bermuda the day before he arrived to Manhattan, the maestro of international football became the highest paid professional athlete on Earth.

According to the article, the Cosmos employed virtually every imaginable tactic to lure Pelé out of retirement. They even changed their kits and logo color schemes to mirror the colors of the Brazilian National Team that Edson Arantes do Nascimento led to unimaginable heights.

I informed my dad that the Cosmos general manager, Clive Toye courted Pelé for nearly three years and shadowed him around world in an all out effort win him over and keep the fledgling league afloat.

Even then United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was recruited to chip in and lend a hand. The story said that the Secretary communicated with his Brazilian counterpart and talked up how Pelé coming to the America could/would improve economic relations between the two nations.

From that day forward NASL was all the talk in our European-rooted neighborhood and around our art-deco kitchen table. I become more and more interested in soccer and my dad’s exploits as a footballer during his youth and young adult life.

Sensing my interest, my mom couldn’t resist not bringing out our Ukrainian photo albums, complete with intricate wood carved covers to walk me through their inimitable lives and point out all the action photographs her favorite fullback.

It was during these family moments that the world’s game brought me closer not only to my parents, but also my heritage.

Soon after Pelé arrival attendance at NASL games started to rise. Much like at current NASL, MLS and USL games, the head count at matches in the 70s and 80s rarely exceeded ten thousand fans.

I recall watching Pelé debut on the Albany-based CBS station- WROW, when the Cosmos hosted the Dallas Tornado at worn-down Downing Stadium on Randall Island situation in the New York’s East River

I was not alone. The following day, CBS TV boasted that ten million fans also viewed the game.

Not only did Pelé lift the NASL, version 1.0 from the brink of sudden death, so did the likes of Carlos Alberto, Frank Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. Ditto for greats Johan Cruyff, Gordon Banks, Eusebio, Bobby Moore, Gerd Muller and George Best who joined the herd.

New York-New Jersey’s demographics really took to the improved Cosmos. One year after Pelé arrival, their games were moved to MLB Yankee Stadium and played before near capacity crowds.

On October 1, 1977, Pelé played his final game and so, on pristine AstroTurf at NFL Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Some 77,000-plus fans filled the new venue and set a North American attendance record.

It was also a family affair event in our TV room right there in the Mohawk River Valley.

My mother played the role of suite hostess and brought out the full complement of Ukrainian snacks - sour pickles, black bread, herring rolls on toothpicks, kabanosi sticks and thin slices of garlicky kielbasa.

Pelé’s finale was broadcasted on ABC’s Wide World of Sports program all around the globe. We cheered when he scored what would be his final goal in the 2-1 victory against his former Brazilian club, Santos FC.

So friendly was the contest, that the gracious Pelé suited up for both teams.

He started for the Cosmos in the first half and concluded his career with Santos in the second half.

Not only did Pelé make the New Jersey crowd roar, he made us stand and cheer when he scored a world-class free kick from 30 yards out for our Cosmos.

In all, Pelé scored 37 goals in 64 matches for New York. I never saw him in first person, but his smile, warmth and flare on the pitch permeated our TV room every time we watched him play.

Seven years after Pelé hung up his boots once and for all, the NASL folded.

Despite its demise, Pelé and his league-wide mates greatly assisted this country’s efforts to grow the game and erect today’s burgeoning MLS, NWSL, the NASL version 2.0 and the USL. Our successful U.S Soccer youth and senior programs and of course all of the coast-to-coast school and university-based games, recreation and pick up matches, too.

It has been a slow climb for soccer to succeed in the United States. And that is okay. Many times in our own lives we all get knocked down, experience heart-wrenching setback, but then recover, get back up and carry-on.

One of my favorite philosophical quotes that Pelé would often share speaks to gifts that we all have - “I always had a philosophy which I got from my father. He used to say, ‘Listen. God gave to you the gift to play football. This is your gift from God. If you take care of your health, if you are in good shape all the time, with your gift from God no one will stop you, but you must be prepared.”

In this new year, be prepared. Model Pelé’s ways. Share your unique gifts with one another with a warm smile.

Ask for nothing in return, just soak-up the good feeling inside after you complete your act of giving.

Rest in peace, Pelé.