"YOU COULD WIN A COUNTRY."
Real Madrid, Juventus, or the New York Cosmos. These were the options Pele faced after retiring from his boyhood club, Santos, in 1974.
By now, Cosmos President Steve Ross had made it his mission to sign the Brazilian superstar, whatever the cost. General Manager, Clive Toye did his best to convince him to go Stateside, telling Pele: "With Real, you could win another championship. With us, you could win a country."
Whether it was Toye's profound message, or the more-than-generous pay packet (I can't imagine which one held more sway!) - it worked. Pele joined the Cosmos and became the world's highest-paid athlete.
Suddenly, the eyes of the football world were on New York. The player everyone had heard of had signed for a club nobody had heard of. But among the hysteria and excitement was a hint of suspicion and bitterness.
Dick Young (left), a long-standing US sports journalist, was the most vocal of the naysayers. He attended Pele's unveilling press conference, and spent the entire time heckling from the back of the room. Young saw soccer as a foreign import that was about to steal the limelight from baseball. In fact, Young was even more furious when Pele received a standing ovation from a sold-out baseball game just a couple of years later.
The Cosmos didn't care. They'd just pulled off the biggest transfer coup in football history, and they immediately set about impressing their new celebrity. At the time, they were still playing at the run-down stadium on Randall's Island. Before his first match, they spray-painted the surface green, to make it look healthier.
After the game had ended, Pele stunned the Cosmos staff: "This is the first and the last game I will play in this country." he announced. "My feet are the most important thing in the world to me. And in my first game, I have contracted this green fungus!" Luckily for the player and the club, it was just the spray paint and it washed off in the showers.
In his second season with the club, the Cosmos moved to the Giants Stadium in New York. The team's popularity soared, and with Pele in the squad, they regularly broke attendance records home and away. He was soon rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrites, and even had a kick-about with President Gerald Ford (left). Pele had himself become one of America's best-known names.
Meanwhile, Pele's success in the States was turning heads in Europe too. Suddenly, the NASL was attracting players like Gordon Banks, Geoff Hurst, Rodney Marsh and even George Best, who joined the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1976. When Marsh first arrived in the US, he gave his famous quote to a journalist who asked "Are you the white Pele?". "No," he responded. "He's the black Rodney Marsh."
My father, an ardent Kopite in the 1970s, told me that England was definitely aware of the Cosmos and US football. "It got a lot of attention and everyone knew about the New York Cosmos in England, due to the big names. But you knew they were going over for a swansong at the end of their career, usually. We never thought a team like the Cosmos would stand a chance against English clubs."
But not all players were in the final chapter of their playing days. In 1976, Italian bad-boy Giorgio Chinaglia signed for the Cosmos from Lazio, at the top of his game. Having fallen out with the entire Italian national team following a bust-up with the coach, he fled Serie 'A' for pastures new.
Steve Ross adored Chinaglia, and he became a Cosmos fan favourite, scoring an obscene amount of goals for the club. But with Chinaglia's ego, playing second fiddle to Pele was not easy. And soon enough, sparks were flying in the Cosmos dressing room...