Pelé: The Man Who Came to Lunch

By Jerry Trecker

The North American Soccer League never seemed quite real, not even when we were living it.

The league never played a real game, always tinkering with the world rules as if the folks running the NASL show weren’t truly convinced Americans would buy the game without bells and whistles. Hence we had the 35-yard line offside experiment and shoot-outs to break ties. The NASL persisted with both despite the lack of any evidence that it improved the game or sold tickets.

And we had television commercials interrupting coverage of the games simply because that was the way all “real” pro sports in the United States operated. Since the American viewers didn’t know that global soccer TV showed games without ad stoppages they hardly seemed to notice.

Of course, there was also the problem that lots of the players filling rosters were unknown to most of the people watching — and too often writing — about the league. To say the NASL started on the fringe and hardly ever made it through the front door with most of the U.S. public is an understatement.

But, such hindsight, in this case, is probably wrong.

Indeed, back in the 1970s, the era of Pelé and the great burst of interest in the league, the Cosmos became the fad that swept New York. They filled Giants Stadium on countless occasions and are fondly recalled today for what they helped to create. It is certainly true that without the NASL there never would have been a World Cup in the United States and without 1994 I doubt there would be an MLS today.

That’s how significant the NASL was and remains: Even if the country wasn’t ready for the advent of big-time soccer and scarcely knew how good the product actually was, the league had global influence that was never clearly appreciated here.

I recall many conversations’ in Europe about the NASL in the late ’70s and ’80s when I spent long periods of time living in Scotland. Top-level people in the game, men like the legendary Jim McLean of Dundee United, hungered for information on “what was going on in America.” They were fascinated with the way the sport was marketed, intrigued by the idea of national television “windows” at a time when every game in Britain kicked off at 3 p.m. on a Saturday and nothing was shown live except for the major Cup finals.

Fellow journalists were constantly asking whether this or that player was headed to America because those were the days when pay packets in Britain and Europe had not become ridiculous. It was the fact that NASL teams could attract top talent that made the league both interesting and threatening in its salad days.

Yet, for all that, my special memory of covering the league from its inception and the Hartford — later Connecticut — Bicentennials in their three-year NASL life will always be because the greatest player in the history of the game spent an afternoon in my family’s house and played kickball in the backyard with my then 7-year-old son.

Yes, Pelé, that Pelé, is the man who came for lunch and stayed for a nap and it had nothing to do with me covering the league and, of course, I could always use an interview.

In fact, it was exactly the opposite: Soccer was never huge in Hartford, the Bi’s were generally ignored by most of the TV/print crew, but when the Cosmos came to town and Pelé was scheduled to play everybody wanted a piece of the action.

The Cosmos’ publicity machine in those days was in the hands of my younger brother, Jim, who managed Pelé’s ritual news conferences and also was tasked with keeping the great man safe from the hordes after he had fulfilled his commitments.

Hence, he decided that special Wednesday to stash Pelé in our house, about three miles away from Dillon Stadium and the downtown hotel where the Cosmos were staying. Presumably, there were reporters and TV crews staking out the restaurant and lobby hoping for a live look at the great man.

They were in the wrong place.

Pelé was having soup at our kitchen table and would nap for a couple of hours on the upstairs bed before rejoining his team in the late afternoon ahead of the game.

No, we didn’t frame the sheets nor have the cutlery gilded.

But I can always say we had lunch and a visit with the superstar away from all the hype.

Somehow that afternoon might encapsulate the funky nature of the NASL’s great soccer experiment, a league that arrived ahead of its time and departed too quickly.

 

Jerry Trecker covered sports for The Hartford Courant (1955-2004) while also pursuing a career as a high school teacher in West Hartford, Conn. The Courant had a tradition of reporting on high school, collegiate and state leagues, so he was fortunate to have an opportunity not available at most American media outlets. When the North American Soccer League came on the scene, Trecker was already an experienced writer of the game at all levels. He also was among the first Americans to report regularly on the international game. Starting with the 1974 World Cup he followed all of the major tournaments at national team and club level. He was the recipient of the first Colin Jose Award for media services and is a member of the United States Soccer Hall of Fame.