The 40th Anniversary of Pelé’s Farewell

The heavens cried on Cosmos Country as the King said farewell to the Beautiful Game.
Published Oct 1, 2017

The heavens cried on Cosmos Country as the King said farewell to the Beautiful Game forty years ago on October 1, 1977. A crowd of 75,646 at Giants Stadium, together with a global television audience estimated at 500 million, gathered to watch Pelé play his last match as a professional footballer in a friendly between the only two clubs he had played for, Santos and the Cosmos.

It was a fitting finale to a fairy tale season, the Greatest of All Time saying his last goodbyes as a champion. Having won Soccer Bowl 77 at the end of August, the Cosmos and Pelé took one last victory lap around the globe with friendlies in Trinidad, Venezuela, Japan, China and India. The Cosmos played 51 matches in front of 1,621,289 fans in 1977. Finally, it came down to one last match to celebrate not only a magical season, but the greatest career in the history of the sport. Those lucky enough to be watching on the first day of October were treated to an emotional spectacle they will never forget.

When he arrived in 1975, the mission was to popularize soccer in the United States, Pelé and his mentor, Professor Mazzei, working tirelessly giving clinics wherever they would be given an audience. The missionary effort converted a generation as the youth soccer explosion saw kids suddenly kicking balls on fields in every town in America. And all of them dreaming of playing like Pelé. These efforts were represented in the prematch ceremony, as Pelé recalls in his autobiography, Why Soccer Matters:

We made one last gesture toward the growing popularity of the game in the States. Nine youth teams formed a circle around the middle of the field – six of them boys’ teams, two of them girls’ teams, and one team made up of athletes from the Special Olympics. They dribbled some balls around to show off their considerable skills. (250)

Representing clubs from across the tristate region, players from Long Island’s Farmingdale-Howell, North Babylon, Hicksville and Masapequa clubs, players from Westchester’s Larchmont, players from Westport, Connecticut, and players from Middletown and Kearny, New Jersey, joined players from Special Olympics, circling the field.    

The youth players were joined by captains from four of the five last World Cup winning teams. Bellini, his teammate on the 1958 Brazilian champions, Bobby Moore representing the 1966 England side, and his fellow Cosmos teammates, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer, captains of the 1970 and 1974 champions, respectively. Joining these champions were boxing’s Greatest, Muhammad Ali, and Frank Gifford of the Football Giants, who served as Master of Ceremonies. No greater constellation of sporting talent has ever been gathered at the same time in one place as were there at the Meadowlands that day, all to pay homage to the world’s greatest athlete.

Joining the celebrated athletes were celebrities from the worlds of music and film. Robert Redford, Diane Keaton and Claudette Colbert were there among the 75,646 who made the pilgrimage to the Meadowlands. Mick Jagger and Barbara Streisand were there with Sergio Mendes, who performed a prematch concert, and Roberta Flack, who sang the National Anthem.

At last, Gifford introduced Pelé, who was overcome as he addressed the silenced crowd:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to be here with you in this greatest moment of my life. I want to thank you all, every single one of you. I want to take this opportunity to ask you to pay attention to the young of the world, the children, the kids. We need them too much. And I want to ask you because I think that, I believe that, love is the, the, the… Love is more important than what we can take in life. Everything pass. Please say with me, three times: Love! Love! Love!

His heartfelt words, broken with emotion but nonetheless powerful and eloquent, provoked on outpouring of emotion as his message resonated, this lesson of caring for the children of the world, this message of love, his most lasting legacy.

For all the ceremony and fanfare, there was still a match to play. The clubs agreed to have Pelé play for the Cosmos in the first half and for Santos in the second half. All anyone could hope for now was to see the King score one more goal. He did not disappoint the millions watching.

The visitors took the lead when Reynaldo scored the opening goal in the 14th minute. Rain began to fall in the 38th minute. With 2 minutes and 34 seconds left in the first half, Tony Field won the ball just outside the Cosmos penalty area and charged up the middle of the pitch until he was fouled 30-35 yards from the Santos goal. Pelé would seize the moment with the ensuing free kick. Taking four big strides to the ball, he smashed it straight and true low and inside the far right post. The rain-soaked crowd went wild.           

And then, at halftime, the man who had taught the greatest to ever play the game how to play the game, his father, Dondinho, appeared, escorted by Cosmos captain Werner Roth:

On this most special of days, the true and final farewell of my long career, Dondinho made the effort to come. The sight of the man who had taught me everything I knew about soccer, walking out there on the field of Giants Stadium that day, was one of the most profoundly emotional moments I ever had. (251)

Pelé removed his Cosmos shirt and gave it to his father. This would be the last time a player would wear the #10 jersey for the Cosmos, the club vowing to retire his number in perpetuity. Putting on the famous white Santos shirt one last time, he would finish his career playing for the club that made him famous, the club he joined at age 15, against the club he made famous, the club he was leaving three weeks before his 37th birthday.

In order to allow fans at each end of Giants Stadium to see Pelé attack, the teams did not switch ends after intermission. But the King would not score on the Cosmos. Fittingly, Ramon Mifflin, formerly of Santos, took Pelé’s place as a substitute. Mifflin would score the only goal of the second half, smashing home a loose ball after a Steve Hunt cross in the 50th minute. Pelé took five shots for Santos, forcing two saves from Erol Yasin, who replaced Shep Messing in goal for the Cosmos at halftime.

At the final whistle, Pelé went to the center circle and gave his Santos jersey to the man who identified his talent as a barefoot preteen, Waldemar de Brito. With an American flag in his left hand and a Brazilian flag in his right, Pelé was hoisted to the shoulders of Cosmos goalkeepers Messing and Yasin, and they carried him around the Meadowlands turf for one truly final victory lap, surrounded by his Cosmos and Santos teammates as the sounds of “Auld Lang Syne” rang out. As he waved to the adoring crowd, the rain and tears continued to flow, as if the soccer gods themselves were crying.

Forty years on, the memories from that magic day at the Meadowlands have yet to fade. With the Cosmos, Pelé literally changed the landscape of American sport. Despite his farewell that October day, his legacy of love has not diminished and will forever be celebrated in Cosmos Country.