I saw an article not long ago which, while purporting to explain the enduring effect on American soccer of Pele's three-year stint in the old NASL - his "legacy" as so many insist - it pretty much demonstrated the emptiness of any such claim. For starters of course, the piece only got written because a bank signed a promotional deal with the New England Revolution which staged a pro-forma "media event" to announce it, and since Pele is in the employ of said bank's Spanish partners they shipped him over in an attempt to get a couple of local media slugs to actually show up.
In other words, serving as a dancing pony for the corporate beast. A recurring, indeed constant, theme in his life.
So after giving due attention to pretending that the old man gives a flying fart who The Revs "Official bank" is - a topic whose language of "on-field signage" and "cross-promotional opportunities" would be of no more interest to him than they are to anyone else - the discussion turned to Pele's Cosmos "legacy" here in the US.
Heaps offered up a touching tale about how, as a wee lad, he had watched a "video" of Pele heading the ball and, inspired beyond words, went out to his back yard, "tethered" a soccer ball to a rope, hung it from a tree branch and proceeded to practice his heading with such dedication and zeal that he broke the branch.
The point was that for Heaps, and multitudes of other kids like him, Pele coming to the Cosmos provided an inspiration and a vision that has had lasting effects that reverberate down the years and whose proof and fruition is the MLS that we all know and love.
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but let me just say:
I'm going to leave aside questions about just how it is, exactly, that you take a rope and "tether" a ball to a tree without either a) poking a hole in the ball thereby rendering it flat and essentially unusable or b) wrapping it a few times in rope, making it unheadable.
I'm also going to skip fully exploring the question of just what kind of "tree branch" we're talking about here. If it was so thin, reedy and weak that heading a flat soccer ball wrapped in rope broke it, the problem was that Heaps made a really stupid branch choice. On the other hand, if he's claiming that it was a stout and sturdy section of a maple or an oak, then, to put it bluntly, I don't believe him.
Instead, I'm just going to look at some basic facts, to wit:
Heaps was born in 1976. Pele played with the Cosmos from 1975 to 77. He never saw Pele play. Doesn't mean he didn't watch a skills video, but it had nothing to do with the Cosmos.
Furthermore, Heaps grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire, and the closest NASL team would have been the Minutemen, who folded the same year as Heaps was born. Additionally, the last year the NASL had a national TV contract was 1979. So not only did he never watch Pele play, he never saw an NASL game.
Now as a fan of a divisional rival, I freely admit to having exactly zero love for Heaps, but I'm not just picking on him here.
He was just doing his job, working hard at making Pele relevant for the benefit of a few bored media humps and if he embellished his tale a bit (and longtime fans will recall that Heap's talent for embellishing might actually challenge whatever heading skills he may have acquired while busily trashing trees like a beaver in heat) well, like I said, jazzing up a big sponsor's intro presser is just part of his job.
Rather, my point is that, like most every "Pele's legacy to soccer in America" explanation I've ever read, it simply does not bear close examination.
As further evidence, I refer you to the entirely respectable Goal.com (anyplace that employs Kyle McCarthy must surely have SOME clue) and a recent piece entitled "The Legacy of Pele", penned by Alan Ramsey, who wrote:
In the USA, Pele's impact was huge. Before him and the Cosmos, and even for a long time after soccer was an outside sport that nobody cared about. But Pele was Pele, and the crowds came out to see him, bringing the beginnings of real interest to the sport in the USA.
Obviously he is still remembered by the older generations in America as the first superstar to play in the USA, but I feel as though his coming to the NASL opened doors for MLS to grab big name stars like David Beckham ....After all, if it was good enough for the best to ever play the game, then why not for superstars now that the league is actually established as a decent place to play.
Pele actually pre-dates the sport catching on in the USA, but his influence on the popularity of the sport here is unmistakable. It's hard to imagine the growth of soccer in America without Pele bringing notoriety to the sport in the old NASL days.
Got that? Pele's impact was "huge" because "Pele was Pele", and crowds came to see him, and Ramsey "feels as though" (talk about your empirical evidence) his coming "opened the doors" for MLS to "grab big name stars like David Beckham."
So you see it wasn't Phil Anshutz' wallet or Dave & Vicki's desire to get a foothold in a lucrative market that brought Beckham to the US, but rather Pele's signing by Time Warner in 1975.
Ramsey (and again, I'm not picking on the man; he's just parroting the same rubbish everyone else has been peddling for 30 years) goes on to admit that "Pele actually predates the sport catching on here", which is one hell of an understatement considering that one could just as easily - and far more truthfully - write that Pele's presence also "predates" the total collapse of professional soccer in the US in a cash bonfire the likes of which has never before been witnessed this side of the Weimar Republic.
He adds that "Pele's influence on the popularity of the sport here is unmistakable" a statement for which he offers no evidence whatever, and then concludes that "It's hard to imagine the growth of soccer in America without Pele bringing notoriety to the sport in the old NASL days."
All of which is known, in technical circles, as "naval gazing bullshit".
He could have at least told us about how thousands of youngsters did more damage to suburban landscaping in the late '80's than Timber Joey on greenies in homage to a player they never saw play in a league which folded before they were old enough to use the big boy pottie. That would be utter crapola too, but at least it's giving it a solid try, instead of telling us how he "feels", what is "hard" for him "to imagine" and that "Pele was Pele".
Let me also add that contrary to popular belief, I'm not at all anti-Pele. Yes, there is indeed a school of thought that says he's the most overrated player in the history of organized sport and that, among other things, the whole HE WON THREE WORLD CUPS!!! blahblah neglects the fact that he barely played in 1962 due to injury and that the 1970 team was so much better than everybody else that it wouldn't have mattered if he'd been in the stands where he was originally slated to be.
However that may (or may not) be, it's undeniable that for a time he was the best player in the world and did some incredible things, and whether Maradona was the better player or whether Pele ever played European club football or whether Garrincha and/or Jair were more valuable to Brazil at the time than Pele ever was or that back in the '50's and '60's soccer defense was crude and unsophisticated at best with many teams playing a now-unthinkable 2-5-3 formation which someone with Pele's speed and control could slice and dice without breaking a sweat is an argument for another day.
Which brings us to the Cosmos. The real ones, who actually had a team and players and stuff instead of just a lot of office staff, Saudi oil money and an owner who sues journalists who dare to say things he doesn't want said.
Dan Loney, the guy in the office across the hall here at BigSoccer world headquarters (he came in early that day and took the one with a window; I had to settle for being closer to the can) recently wrote, in regards to the whole American soccer/legacy question:
"The Cosmos have the worst longevity, but the best legacy – MLS really was the result of the NASL, and not simply because they had NASL management as bad examples."
But with all due respect to Mr. Window Office, I have to say that to me this is nothing more than a nice stroll down Conventional Wisdom Avenue.
Back in 1995, when the fledgling MLS was getting laughed out of town in places like Seattle (aka: The Soccer Capital of the US) for suggesting that somebody plunk down the princely sum of five million bucks in return for "owning" an MLS team, the prospectus that Alan Rothenburg produced using seed money he'd earned running World Cup '94 was little more than a litany of what the NASL had done horribly wrong and how MLS would be entirely different.
Because soccer wasn't just an unfashionable sport which in its previous incarnation had failed to catch on; rather it was a code word for "worst disaster in the history of business".
It wasn't just that the NASL hadn't worked out and a bunch of people had lost money or that it was seen as an iffy, somewhat risky proposition more like playing the roulette table in the high stakes suite of a big Las Vegas casino than running an actual business (and where, even if you lose everything you can still get a couple free cocktails and a hand job, as opposed to the NASL which just specialized in jerking rich guys off.)
No indeed. NASL was seen as the worst disaster since the Titanic, only much more expensive, burning veritable seas of cash in a bonfire which was clearly visible to the naked eye from the next galaxy over and, fairly or not, it was soccer - and not stupidity - which was blamed for it.
Soccer wouldn't sell in the US, everybody knew it and get the hell out of my office before I call security.
You'd have had better luck getting big money interests to listen to your plan to start up a midget basketball league or a race track featuring house cats ridden by hamsters; as soon as the word "soccer" escaped from your lips everyone would have run for the elevators or, if they weren't readily available, simply jumped out the windows.
In short, the NASL didn't just poison the well for professional soccer in the US, it dropped a couple tons of TNT down it and blew the well to Kingdom Come.
Ironically, the only positive thing you could point to with regard to the NASL example was that big foreign stars like Pele could draw big crowds. Problem was, the MLS plan was very specific: they had no intention whatsoever of signing big name guys from overseas, because of course that was seen as one of the major mistakes that the last guys had made.
MLS' pitchmen swore off Euro bigshots (and their paychecks) with the fervor and passion of a drunk at an AA meeting swearing off gin. MLS would pay all of their players like coolie railroad labor, with the exception of a couple "marquee" guys per team, mostly US National teamers, who might be able to pull down a salary similar to that of a decent insurance salesman.
A guy like Pele? Never, ever, ever, ever, ever. Cross our hearts and hope to die. Because, as everybody knew - and still does - it was the Pele signing which then forced everybody else to try and keep up, igniting a salary/spending war which ended with the owners spending themselves into destitution and their kids not getting the GI Joe with the Kung Fu grip for Christmas.
(This theory is, of course, as simple minded as it is essentially inaccurate, but it's also the prevailing narrative, then, now and probably forever but that's another topic.)
So to sum up, what we have is a dead league which is used as the blueprint for how NOT to do one damned thing, ever, so help you God, which was headlined and personified by a famous player who is held up as the symbol and embodiment of the primary reason why said league disappeared in a veritable ocean of lies, incompetence, red ink and broken dreams.
And yet we have people telling us, apparently with a straight face, that Pele's "legacy" to the US is MLS.
Insert rude expletive here.
Which brings us to David Beckham.
Now as far as I know, no one has ever claimed that Becks was the best player in history or anything remotely like it.
You could, if you wanted, make the case that he was at one time a member of what is arguably the best MIDFIELD of all time (Giggs-Keane-Scoles-Beckham) although even people who might tend to agree would likely point out that DBecks was the least important/talented member of that quartet.
Unlike Pele, who insists that his only goal in coming to the Cosmos was to expose the citizenry here to "the beautiful game" - in reality it was because he had retired the previous year and then discovered that he was pretty much broke, but not even yours truly is churlish enough to expect him to say so - David and Victoria weren't exactly doing the Super-couponing thing to try and make ends meet.
More importantly, AEG and MLS didn't bring him over to sell out their 20,000 seat stadiums, many of which were pretty full anyway, and most of those that weren't were selling 12-15,000 seats a game anyway and nobody brings in a multi-gazillion dollar player in order to peddle on average a couple thousand extra tickets a week.
But Beckham had currency, Beckham had glamor and Beckham had relevance. People - particularly in LA - complained bitterly that the guy seemed more interested in suiting up for Milan than for the Gals, which was exactly backwards.
The fact that he was still a player of interest to one of the biggest clubs in the world, a man who could still send a San Siro crowd into fits of glorious rapture by taking a microphone and shouting "Forza Milan" in that awful nasally voice of his was the whole bloody point.
Or, as I wrote at the time, complaining about him sitting there in Westminster Abbey watching his pal the Future King of England tie the know when he ought to be suiting up to play an MLS game is just about the dumbest thing imaginable; MLS was better served that afternoon by him being there than it ever could have been serving up DFK's to Edson Buddle.
(Go ahead; tell me Buddle wasn't there that day. Be a pedant, see if I care.)
Thousands of people paid good money to sit in the stands and watch Pele perform magic with the Cosmos. He was then what he still is, a show for the rubes, with a big smile, an infectious love of the game and a 10,000 kilowatt smile that says "We're all having fun".
When he left - and in truth the 'Mos did as well or better with Chignaglia and Der Kaiser after him - the magic went away. There was no "legacy" to his having been here aside from the sea of ashes, bitterness and destruction that faced soccer in the US for more than a decade.
His appeal was, is and always will be a personal one. Ramsey is right when he says "Pele is Pele". But that's ALL he is. People still want to see his picture and hear his words as he shills for a bank in a city he likely couldn't find on a map.
Nobody much went to a stadium expecting to see David Beckham perform magic feats with the ball. Maybe an improbably bending free kick or something, but everyone knew that didn't really happen all that much.
Rather, people paid to see Beckham because they wanted to be in the same building as Beckham at the same time, maybe breathe the same air, I really can't explain it and neither can anyone else.
But if you're looking for someone with a "legacy" to American soccer and MLS, he's your guy.
The reality is that at the end of the day he was here because he believed in MLS, took it seriously, and because he did, he made other people think that maybe they ought to consider doing the same.
It's much more subtle, much more indirect, than a bicycle kick goal from the top of the box. But then, that's always been the difference between the two men.
Bottom line, 30-some years from now, Becks won't be shlepping around the globe babbling about how proud he is to have been - somehow or other - the tap root of MLS.
Mostly because he really wasn't. Like with the ManU midfield mentioned above, he played a role. An important one, arguably a crucial one, but only a role.
But one that, in the long run, will matter a hell of a lot more.