The Grass Is Always Greener: The Story Of Pelé's Debut
In 1975, Pelé had won three World Cups, was declared a national treasure by the Brazilian government, and was enjoying a cozy existence in semi-retirement. In 1975, The New York Cosmos had missed the playoffs the year before and the team needed the spark totake it to the next level. Clive Toye, Steve Ross, and the rest of The Cosmos management knew that the club needed a player that could transcend soccer and capture the imagination of New York City. After trying to sign the legendary player for four years, they finally got their man and thirty six years ago to the day, on June 15, 1975, Pelé made his debut for the Cosmos. Charles Cuttone, a former Cosmos employee, was there on that historic day for American soccer:
Every sport has its moments that, while perhaps seeded in historical truth, have evolved into myths that seem bigger than that truth. Like Babe Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series…or painting the dirt green for Pelé’s first game with The New York Cosmos in 1975.
While there are conflicting reports as to whether the Babe actually called his shot, the dirt-painting legend is true. I know. I was one of the painters. It was all part of the glamorous job of being a PR assistant for what was soon to become one of the most famous soccer teams on the planet.
Though it happened more than 35 years ago, my memory of the day remains vivid, and while a bit of embellishment might have crept in over the years, it did happen. The story has been retold so often that it has somehow become a lead item in a lifetime of work in the sports industry, and I fear it might someday become the first line of my obituary.
It was a warm June Sunday morning. I, barely into my teens and freshly graduated from Catholic school, was eager to get started and attired in my brand new suede sneakers, a big step up from the beat-up canvas Keds or PF Flyers worn by kids in those days.
I rode up to Randall’s Island with other members of the team staff, hours before the game was scheduled to kick off. Upon arrival, we were informed that there would be additions to the normal gameday routine, especially since the largest crowd in The Cosmos’ then-brief history was expected, along with nearly 300 media and a worldwide TV audience.
Some staffers, all of whom were given t-shirts with the #10 on the back, were put to work setting up sponsor signboards along the sidelines. Others set about ringing the upper row of the concrete stadium with surplus school chairs, the kind with the arm and little desk attached. These were to be used for the overflow media that the tiny concrete press box could not possibly accommodate.
I was given an old metal watering can, the kind designed for watering flowers in the garden. Its contents? Watered down green paint. I was told to go cover the patches of bare dirt dotting the Downing Stadium field. Soccer had arrived as a big league sport, and needed to look the part!
Up in the broadcast booth, CBS announcer Jack Whitaker, who was doing the game for national television, had a puzzled look on his face as he gazed over the field. He said the grass looked a little strange in some places. I informed him it was because the dirt had been painted over. He, of course, did not believe the random teenager whom he had just met, so I pointed to the now green-covered suede sneakers I was wearing as proof. He just laughed.
The Cosmos drew with the Dallas Tornado 2-2 that day. Pelé scored one of the goals on an assist from Mordechai Shpigler, then returned the favor by setting up the Israeli for the other goal. It was a triumphant debut and at the end of the game, Pelé gave his jersey to Dallas’ Kyle Rote Jr..
When the game was over, I tried to make my way into the tiny, cramped and musty Cosmos locker room, already packed to the walls with media. I was wearing an “Official” pass, but it didn’t help get me any closer to my goal, which was to have Pelé sign my program.
Somehow, however, out of the corner of his eye, Pelé saw me trying to get through the crowd. Before taking a question, he waved his arm, and like Moses parting the Red Sea, he cleared a path for me to come up and get an autograph. That was the first experience in what has now been a more than 35-year friendship.
I didn’t get back home until well into the evening, armed with my signed program, #10 t-shirt, and a big smile on my face. What an incredible first day. However, when I walked in the door, it wasn’t the shirt or the program or the smile my mother noticed. It was my brand new, now green paint-covered sneakers. And she wasn’t very happy about it.
A few days later, back at work at the team offices, I was given an address and told to go see someone there. It didn’t seem like anything unusual—running errands was part of my usual after-school routine. When I got there, however, I realized it was the offices of team sponsor, Pony. I was taken to a storeroom and asked my shoe size, then given a brand new pair of sneakers. Just like that. Turns out my mother—all 4’10” of her—had given an earful to someone at The Cosmos about my sneakers being covered with green paint.
To this day, I still have the autograph, the t-shirt and a cherished memory. The shoes are long gone.
Charles Cuttone is Executive Editor of Big Apple Soccer.com and Soccer News Net, and while he has spent more than 35 years in soccer, he has never again had to paint dirt green.