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appreciation

Recalling Pelé's impact, both global and personal, and how he touched Boston, too

Pelé is seen in action with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in 1975.BARTON SILVERMAN/NYT

Pelé first appeared in Boston as a member of Santos FC in 1968, scoring the go-ahead goal in a 7-1 victory over the Boston Beacons at Fenway Park. The visit on a Monday night in July attracted a crowd of 18,431.

The Globe’s Peter Gammons noted that Pelé “proved to be one of the most exciting athletes anyone has seen in this area.” Bob Sales compared him to James Brown, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Bobby Orr. Leigh Montville threw in Nureyev and Gale Sayers.

The Santos barnstorming tour extended to war-torn Nigeria, where a cease-fire allowed a game to be played in Lagos on Jan. 26, 1969, and another in Benin City a week later.

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Sports promoters in the US observed the attention Pelé attracted, at first cautiously committing to the North American Soccer League, then going all-in as he joined the New York Cosmos in 1975. The NASL folded in 1985, but it left a legacy for Major League Soccer through a generation of players and fans, while also settling questions of cross-ownership for potential investors.

No person contributed more to the NASL’s popularity than Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who died Thursday at age 82.

Born in Três Corações, a farming community in Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Pelé hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, Dondinho, who stood 6 feet tall and was known for his heading prowess. But that seemed a long shot for a scrawny youngster who grew up shining shoes in the Bauru railway station. Even when he was selected for Brazil’s World Cup team as a 17-year-old in 1958, Pelé was judged too fragile, both mentally and physically, for the demands of the competition.

By the time he signed with the Cosmos, Pelé was a larger-than-life figure, but not without sacrifice and suffering. Pelé, who grew to be a solid 5-9¼, won three World Cup titles from 1958–70 but was the victim of such rough treatment that he played in only two games in the ‘62 and ‘66 tournaments.

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He also was betrayed by advisers, went through a couple of bankruptcies, and was prevented by Brazil’s military rulers from leaving the country to collect a bonanza from rich European clubs such as Juventus.

An ad for Pelé's appearance at Fenway Park in 1968.frank dell'apa

Once the ‘70s came around, Pelé had maxed out on soccer accomplishments, but Cosmos executive Clive Toye talked him out of retirement, offering Time-Warner paychecks worth millions and selling him on popularizing the game in the US.

The first time Pelé took his Cosmos act on the road, it was to Nickerson Field, where a match against the Boston Minutemen got out of control on June 20, 1975. In his book “The Education of An American Soccer Player,” Shep Messing, a former Harvard goalkeeper who was playing for the Minutemen, noted that before kickoff, “It sounds like a soccer crowd in [expletive] El Salvador.”

With the stadium oversold, fans poured onto the field and Pelé left on a stretcher, prompting the Cosmos to file a protest. During a 1993 visit to Boston, Pelé recalled the incident with typical good humor: “I remember I scored a goal, and I remember the fans, they took my shorts.”

That time marked a missed opportunity in local soccer history. The Minutemen, led by Pelé rival Eusebio, went on to win the Northern Division of the NASL, the Cosmos finishing third. Instead of building on success and a budding rivalry, the financially challenged Minutemen sold Eusebio and Wolfgang Suhnholz to the Toronto Metros-Croatia.

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In 1976, Suhnholz was named Soccer Bowl MVP, a game in which Eusebio scored, as Toronto captured the championship and the Minutemen finished in last place. The Cosmos did not win the NASL title with Pelé until 1977.

Through on-field assaults and off-field disappointments, both financial and personal — his oldest son, Edinho, was jailed for drug trafficking and money laundering — Pelé might have become cynical, mistrustful, or at least shown a hint of impatience with the demands of the media and public. But he never seemed anything but positive, which was his nature, and also something Brazilians were taught to believe in. The country’s motto is “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress), from the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte, whose founding principal was based on love.

Yet Pelé's gregariousness and perennial optimism sometimes fueled detractors. He was accused of not calling out villains or opposing oppression in Brazil. Some countrymen resented his elevation over Garrincha, who led the Seleção to the 1962 World Cup title in Pelé's absence; Pelé was accused of not helping Garrincha, who died young, suffering from problems relating to alcohol, and his wife, samba singer Elza Soares.

Jorge Miguel of the Boston Beacons defends against Pele during that 1968 match at Fenway.Frank O'Brien/The Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

But Pelé knew he could not solve the world’s ills, nor would he be drawn into political movements. He did act as an ambassador for United Nations environmental programs and was a minister for sport in Brazil, but mostly he went around the world for decades exuding positive vibes and spreading the word of futebol.

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Pelé's fame surpassed the celebrities of the ‘60s described by Globe scribes, and was at least on the level of Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo, even without modern methods of promotion. And, for a couple of days, he stopped a war.

In 1977, Pelé announced he would be playing his final season, and that happened to be my first year covering a professional sports team. We met before the Cosmos season opener, and it felt like getting together with an old friend; at least that’s what my story said.

I waited for Pelé to get off a plane, and walked with him through the McCarran Airport terminal in Las Vegas. Along the way, he stopped to pen autographs, but had no problem giving me a one-on-one interview.

The last time I saw him, Pelé exuded the same carefree feeling, at a mobbed Subway restaurant promotion in Rio de Janeiro during the 2014 World Cup. I wanted to show him a photo of the stadium I visited on assignment for the Globe in Três Corações, where his father played when he was born in 1940. But as Pelé approached, the media crush wrenched both laptop and microphone from my grip and swept them away, along with Pelé and his handlers, out the door to the sidewalk.

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Fittingly, Pelé concluded his final season winning the 1977 Soccer Bowl with the Cosmos, and I flew to Portland, Ore., on my own dime to cover it.

A few weeks later, the Cosmos held a farewell match at Giants Stadium. A sold-out crowd arrived and I sat before a television, along with at least 400 million other viewers around the globe, according to ABC’s Jim McKay. Pelé took the microphone, and emotions nearly overcame him as he stumbled through a short speech in a language, English, that he was still learning.

“I think that, I believe that, love is more important than what we can take in life — everything pass,” Pelé said.

He then urged the crowd to join him as he raised his right hand in a peace sign, chanting, “Love. Love. And Love.”


Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at frankdellapa@gmail.com.