Reprinted from yesterday's late edition.
Two hour before Pele would play his last real soccer game for 73,669 worshippers in this Fun City West, a gamboling fawn of a child named Jennifer Schecjterman, age 10, all brown eyes and freckles, said, "Baseball's too draggy."
"You are always sitting down."
"One batter gets up and everybody else looks at him."
How about football?
"They never get any touchdowns." Exasperation. Jennifer likes soccer.
"The movements, that's what I like."
In eight games this summer for the Blue Jays in the girls 9-to-11 division of the East Brunswick (N.J.) Soccer League, Jennifer scored seven goals. She played soccer four years and will play "until I get older," and her smile lit the dark corners of Giant Stadium when someone said maybe she'd play for the Cosmos someday.
"I don't doubt it for a minute," said her Mother, Myra."Then she can support me in my old age."
You giggle at your own risk. In 1977, it is no more foolish to imagine Jennifer Schechterman as a professional center forward than it was in 1967 to imagine 73,669 customers paying to sit in the rain and watched a Brazilian dribble a little ball with his toes. We should suspend our disbelief. Something's happening, and it's big.
The Brazilian is Pele, a legend. He pays no taxes at home because his country, to keep him there playing soccer, once declared him a national resource, kind of Grand Canyon, in shorts. He retired three years ago. Eight months later, the New York Cosmos of the sorry North American Soccer League said here's $4.5 million if you'll play three seasons. Pele's legs may have been tired at 34, but not his brain. And here was a real challenge: Make soccer big league in America.
Like every new sports league, the NASL first was a study in choas. An even dozen teams died in 1968, the league's second season. Of the present 18 teams, only Dallas and St. Louis are charter members. In 10 seasons, 10 different teams won the league championship, which is either great balance or remarkable inconsistency. And AMericans addicted to baseball, football and basketball thought soccer a silly game for sissies afraid of the dark.
Then came Pele. it was like hiring Babe Ruth to play baseball in Yugoslavia 50 years ago, a god come to teach. If soccer is the world's most popular game - and it is - then the arrival of its greatest player in the NASL, gave the league absolute legitimacy. Soon enough, players in Europe who had ridiculed the NASL was catching airplanes to play in Pele's league. These were men named Franz Breckenbaur and Giorgio Chinaglia, Gordon Banks and George Best, Carlos Alberto and Eusebio - athletes famous everywhere in the world; everywhere east of New York and west of Los Angeles, that is.
The resultant rise in the league's quality of play has been awarded with increasing attendance. The Cosmos average more than 34,000 a game, and last night's sell out crowd was the second largest of the season in the beautiful Giants Stadium here; 77, 691 paid 10 days ago when the Cosmos sold standing-room tickets.
"No, no standing room tonight," said Vicki Feller, a receptionist in the Cosmos' office. She was on the telephone. It was noon today and the phone was ringing constantly with people asking for tickets.
Has the phone been ringing that way all day, Vicki?
"All month," she said wearily.
In the hallway outside, Steve Vrohinski, 24, a park ranger from Middletown, N.Y., sat on the floor under the Cosmos' ticket window.He'd made a sigh: I Want Cosmos Tickets." He'd driven an hour and a half to sit there.
What would he pay for a ticket?
"I just got my paycheck with me," he said.
Because the television higwigs work in New York City, it is axiomatic that a league must succeed there if it expects to survive in the hinterlands.
Only when Joe Namath and the Jets won the 1969 Super Bowl did the American Football League achieve the respect that eventually produced a merger with the NFL. Julius Erving and the Nets kept the American Basketball Association alive past its time. Should there come a day when pro soccer is the NFL's match - don't giggle - it will have been made possible for Pele and the Cosmos in 1977.
The NASL Commissioner, Phil Woosnam, sees a wonderful future. "In 1987," he says in tonight's game program, "there will be 3 to 5 million boys and girls playing organized soccer . . . there will be upwards of 32 professional franchise in the NASL . . . the NASL will operate on a par with the NFL of today. It may possibly be the premier soccer league in the world."
All the NASL needs is national television. Regular folks can play this game; nearly one of every three NASL players has the good sense to be 5-foot-9 or less; only one of five is taller than 6 feet. As Jennifer Schechterman says: everybody moves; everybody touches the ball; everybody can be a star at any moment. surgery for repairs is a daily worry in football; in 22 pro seasons, Pele never has needed surgery.
Bu defeating the Rochester Lancers, 4-1, tonight in the final of the Atlantic Conference playoffs, the Cosmos advanced to the NASL championship game - the Soccer Bowl Sunday in Portland, where they'll play either the Los Angeles Aztecs or the Seattle Sounders.
Except for an exhibition game Oct. 1 against his original team, Santos of Brazil, tonight's game in the rain was Pele's last here. He made it memorable. Fourteen minutes 11 seconds into the second period, a Rochester defender interrupted a Cosmo pass with his head, bouncing the ball 20 feet high.
As the baseball desccended, Pele moved quickly toward it. Then he moved up to it, leaping and, at waist level, kicking it into the net. For Pele, the goal was his 1,277th in 1, 354 games, and the fans began a chant: "Pele . . . Pele . . . Pele." He raised both arms in salute.