Robbinsville: US footballer Bobby Smith does not hold back his tears when paying tribute to “King” Pele. “The rise of the game in the United States owes almost everything to the Brazilian legend”, says his former New York Cosmos teammate. Pele’s impact on US soccer was very significant, his presence made people interested in watching the game of soccer on American soil.
Still athletic at 71, Robert “Bobby” Smith spoke at his training center for building players, the Bob Smith Soccer Academy in his native New Jersey. At the edge of the indoor synthetic fields where children train, Smith, who was top defender in his younger days, gazes fondly at a giant poster of him & Pele, who died Thursday of cancer at the age of 82.
Smith, a professional player in Philadelphia in te1970s, signed in 1976 with the New York Cosmos for $100,000. Pele, coming out of semi-retirement at 34, had signed a year earlier for at least 10 times that amount & would lead the Cosmos to the 1977 North American soccer championship , with 31 goals in 56 games.
Bobby is an ardent, lifelong fan of Pele. As a young boy, he said he “never thought for a second that we’d be on the same team.” The thought brings a smile to his face even today. Pele was key in attracting an array of other talent to the Cosmos team: After American goalie Bob Rigby, recruited at the same time as Smith , came Italian Glorigo Chinaglia, German Frank Beckenbaur & Brazilian Carlos Alberto.
“It’s almost like we were little kids everyday when we were around him,” Smith says. He is moved to tears as he stands before a photo of Pele’s last match, in late1977, when the star reached out to affectionately touch the younger man’s cheek. He was a surprisingly humble man , says Smith, “Just so kind to everybody. He had no big ego”.
Pele, who was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, “Was a great teammate, and he cared about his teammates, all of us. He wasn’t just a superstar.” And yet Pele was indisputably one of the world’s greatest sports superstars, the only player in history to win three World Cups (in 1958,1962 & 1970).
The global icon hung his boots for good after a friendly match at New York’s Giants Stadium in October 1977 between Cosmos & his old Brazilian club Santos. But he was already “ the biggest influence on soccer in this country” in its still faltering early days in the 1970s & ‘80s, Smith says.
“Him coming here just brought so much, like, legitimacy to the sport. You know, people started wanting to watch it. And he brought all the stars to the game,” Smith said, referring to foreign standouts like Johan Cryff, Bobby Moore & George Best.
“He played New York & it was 70,000 people who came to watch. We wouldn’t have the national program we have without Pele coming here. Not even close. (We) would be years & years behind” he says.