The pursuit of Pele

When the New York Cosmos signed Pele in 1975, it was the finish of a pursuit that had been going on for more than four years. This was no overnight inspiration. It was a campaign waged carefully and determinedly by Cosmos general manager Clive Toye. Three factors seem to have been the crucial ones in the eventual success of that campaign, a success that was a major milestone in American soccer. First, Pele was still very young for someone who had played in four World Cups. He had been only 15 when he made his first-team debut with Santos in Brazil and was only 34 when the Cosmos signed him. Second was the relentlessness of Toye's efforts. Toye was rebuffed repeatedly and never gave up. Third is the fact that shortly after Pele retired from Santos in October 1974, he began to realize that his financial situation was not as secure as he had thought it was.

Toye, who had been quietly planting seeds in Pele's mind about the Cosmos since 1971, was given the green light to begin serious pursuit of Pele in the spring of 1974 by Warner Communications, the company that owned the Cosmos. Toye then met with Pele in July during the World Cup in West Germany, in August at a lounge at JFK airport in New York, and in September at Pele's house in Brazil. Each time, the answer was a polite "no." It was the same in December when Toye wired Pele's chief advisor, Julio Mazzei. Pele was firmly set against playing again after retiring from Santos, particularly because he feared the reaction of the Brazilian people if he took his talents to a foreign club.

By the time of that last contact, however, Pele had begun to realize the holes in the financial network that he had built up during his playing years. Pele's most pressing financial problems centered around his part-ownership of Fiolax, an auto-parts manufacturer that had defaulted on a loan for which he had co-signed, and which had been fined by the Brazilian government for violation of import laws.

Pele's advisors came up with a way around his financial woes, but it involved generating some cash by accepting the Cosmos' offer. At a meeting in Santos, Mazzei presented Pele with the pros and cons of signing with the Cosmos, and Pele began to waver.

A call from Mazzei to Toye restarted the process, and talks between Toye and Pele resumed in the early spring of 1975. Toye believes that a meeting on March 27, 1975 in Brussels, Belgium was the crucial one. That was when Pele first told him that yes, he would play for the Cosmos, although he was not yet committing to the three seasons that Toye wanted. Two weeks later in Rome, the two sides got even closer, but then on April 29, Pele announced that he was rejecting the Cosmos' offer. Pressure from the Brazilian public seemed to have unhinged the Cosmos' hopes.

Toye churned back into action, enlisting the help of American diplomats and Warner executives who could fill Pele in on the diplomatic advantages and marketing aspects of the deal he was being offered. Toye flew to Brazil once again to plead the Cosmos' case, with particular emphasis on the ways that the deal would be of benefit to the Brazilian people. Pele agreed to a visit to New York in late May, and it was during that visit that he accepted the Cosmos' offer.

The Cosmos' signing of Pele was officially announced at a press conference at the 21 Club in Manhattan on June 10, 1975, by which time the news had long since ceased to be a secret. There was a ceremonial contract signing at the press conference, although the real signing had taken place the day before in Bermuda. The press conference, with about three times as many people jammed into the room as supposedly were allowed, was a madhouse. It even had a heckler: a reporter who was a baseball fan. Pele took it all in stride. He had been one of the most famous people on earth for years and was accustomed to mob scenes.