PELE--STILL THE KING
by Charles Cuttone

When Pelé joined the New York Cosmos in 1975, he not only put soccer on the map in North America, he also put soccer collecting on the map in this country.

Although he played in North America for only three seasons, there is a large array of Pelé memorabilia available.

Since his retirement nearly 25 years ago, the great star's popularity has not waned, a fact which has only increased the popularity of Pelé collectibles, and led to the continued production of a number of items since that time.

One of the most highly-sought Pelé items is a uniform jersey. Since Pelé made a habit of presenting his shirt as a personal memento to opposing players, as well as writers, dignitaries and fans, there are many in circulation, but they remain highly prized possessions and are rarely seen in the marketplace.

Of course there are several types of Pelé jerseys, as well as a myriad of styles. Among the most rare are any from his Santos or Brazil days. During his Cosmos years, the team changed uniform styles several times.

In Pelé’s first season, the Cosmos wore a cotton T-shirt type jersey. The 1976 and 1977 jerseys were similar in design to the 1975 type, but the material changed several times, from a nylon mesh in 1996 to a polyester long sleeve used at various times in 1977. The team also dropped the word New York from their logo in 1997, coinciding with their move to Giants Stadium.

Pelé began generating memorabilia from the first day he donned a Cosmos uniform. Although the team did not issue a special ticket for Pelé’s first game -- an exhibition against the Dallas Tornado – the club did print special VIP and media passes for the occasion.

Pelé made his first appearance on the cover of a North American Soccer League program only a few days later, when the Cosmos played the Toronto Metros. The cover featured a shot of Pelé in a Santos uniform and was the national cover of Kick Magazine -- the only one Pelé appeared on during the 1975 season. The national cover of Kick also featured Pelé twice in 1976 and three times in 1977. Most clubs used the Pelé covers to coincide with the Cosmos appearance in their city. In some instances, teams printed special Kick covers to coincide with Pelé’s visit.

Perhaps the most sought after Pelé-related program is the commemorative issue from his Farewell Game on October 1, 1977. Fewer than 20,000 were printed, and they sold out almost immediately at the game. On occasion one of these colorful books does appear for auction.

While with the Cosmos, Pelé appeared in one club yearbook, the 1977 edition, which was the team’s first. He also appeared in two team media guides, 1976 and 1977, and on the cover of the 1976 and 1977 NASL media guides.

Opposing teams often got in on the act of producing Pelé-related memorabilia. The Hartford Bicentennials, for instance, used the same photo of Pelé on both their 1976 schedule and media guide.

The Las Vegas Quicksilvers, seizing on a historic situation, minted a special commemorative button featuring Pelé and Eusebio in what was to be their last matchup against one another, April 9, 1977 at Las Vegas Stadium.

Trading cards are among the most popular collectibles. Pelé never appeared on a card during his playing days, but was featured on a pair of team-issued postcards. The first, issued in 1975, features an action shot of Pelé dribbling against two Dallas defenders. The same photo also appeared on a presentation folder the team used during the 1976 season. The other card features a posed shot of Pelé taken on a field in Brazil. It was distributed during the 1977 season. Both postcards were printed with and without a facsimile autograph and have blank backs.

Pelé appeared on an American-issued soccer card more than a dozen years after his retirement, when Soccer Shots issued a special Pelé promotional card in conjunction with their 1991 Major Indoor Soccer League set. Pelé also appeared, along with San Diego Sockers players Michael Collins, Victor Nogueira and Waad Hirmez, on a special edition commemorative sheet distributed at the National Sports Collectors Convention. The Soccer Shots card has been listed in price guides for as high as $100.

More recently, Kenner issued a Pelé card packaged with a Starting Lineup figure.

Since Pelé was such a highly marketable personality, Warner Communications, the Cosmos parent company, produced many Pelé related items through their Licensing Corporation of America subsidiary. Merchandise included lunch boxes, soccer balls, posters, video games and clothes.

Among the more rare and difficult to find North American Pelé items are those from prior to his Cosmos playing days.

With both Santos and the Brazilian national team, Pelé appeared in numerous exhibition games in North America—sometimes against foreign opponents such as Napoli or Bologna of Italy, and other times against NASL clubs, such as the Washington Whips and Baltimore Bays. Programs from these games, though quite rare, do show up from time to time.

In addition to the program, Pelé’s farewell made for an interesting array of collectibles. A poster, which was produced -- ostensibly to sell tickets to the game – wasn’t delivered by the printer until after all the tickets had been sold. It is a rare item, and quite interesting. Special tickets for the farewell game also were issued. The ticket, printed in full color, featured five different photos of Pelé, the Cosmos and Santos logos and a facsimile autograph. Two different color backgrounds were used, red and light blue, each representing a seating area at Giants Stadium and price level of the ticket. The same design was used on media and VIP passes for the game, although they were printed in black on various color card stock.

Clearly Pelé remains a favorite of soccer collectors. His popularity is unsurpassed on a global basis among soccer players and only on a region by region basis by current stars such as Michael Owen, Mia Hamm or Ronaldo.