I took the long way to Charles Martinelli’s house, leaving the noise of New York City in my rear view and driving north, hugging the banks of the Hudson River, winding through scenery that grew more and more picturesque. I hung a left onto a two-lane road, which cut through the center of a pretty little hamlet in Rockland County.
Martinelli’s place sits at the top of a hill. It was just after Thanksgiving, and I reached out to him a few weeks prior to set up our visit. His name won’t ring any bells, I’m sure, but Charles Martinelli was the equipment manager for the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos from 1971-1978. I’d been told he has something truly special at his house.
Martinelli and his wife Terry welcomed me into their home. We made small talk over the low hum of the television on the wall in the kitchen, which showed Argentina’s World Cup match against the Netherlands. Martinelli, 79, is old school, from Malta and an expert conversationalist. Terry was there next to him to interject her own observations and remind him of whatever he’d forgotten.
Charlie was with the Cosmos from the very beginning, single-handedly managing all of the club’s equipment needs. Back then, the club was nearly invisible, a skeleton crew of staff and a rag-tag collection of players from near and far. In just their second year, playing at a tiny stadium at Hofstra University, the Cosmos won their first of five NASL championships. Not that anybody noticed — on a good day, the club would draw a few thousand fans.
That all changed in 1975, of course, with the arrival of Pelé, the greatest player the world had ever seen.
By then, the Cosmos had moved to an even less desirable locale: Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in the East River. Calling the playing surface there a field would be a gross exaggeration. It was a glorified dirt lot, pocked with patches of grass.
Pelé’s American debut — a friendly against the Dallas Tornado — was set to be broadcast to millions on CBS. A city function at the stadium a couple of nights before the match had left the playing surface littered with broken glass. It was Martinelli who swept those bits up, scoured the area’s hardware stores for cans of green spray paint and returned to the field, laying down a thick coat over the dirt to get the stadium camera-ready. He and Terry spent the night before the match mopping up puddles in the locker room as a torrential downpour sent streams of water through the cracks in the roof. In the end, the game went off without a hitch, with Pelé heading home a goal to salvage a draw.
Terry had her own role with the Cosmos. Even after Pelé’s arrival, there were elements of the Cosmos that remained shockingly quaint. The Martinellis kept all of the club’s equipment — all of their jerseys, the whole lot of it — in their garage. When they received a batch of new shirts, Terry would sit at a table and painstakingly number and letter all of them, sewing on the club’s iconic logo as a final touch. She made short work of certain names. But as the Cosmos grew into an international powerhouse, her job became more difficult.
“(Lettering) Pelé was easy,” Terry said, laughing. “But others… Beckenbauer… Bogićević… Dimitrijević… those were harder.”
Eventually, the clutter in the garage became an issue. When Charlie Martinelli was relieved of his duties in 1978, he wanted it gone.
“Everything was in my house,” he said. “Even a huge, Atari soccer arcade machine which weighed a thousand pounds. I kept calling people at the club — I said, ‘Can you please send someone over here to get this stuff? Uniforms. Balls. All of it.”
By then, the Cosmos were in transition. Giorgio Chinaglia, the Italian great who would eventually become the NASL’s all-time leading scorer — and have a polarizing, controlling interest at the Cosmos — had pushed to change the club’s colors from green and yellow to blue, a nod to his former club, Lazio. The Cosmos, Martinelli remembered being told, didn’t have much of an interest in their past.
So Charlie Martinelli ended up with the whole lot. And that’s why I went to his house.
Martinelli got up and led me down a hallway, swung a door open and walked me through what he calls his “Pelé Museum.” His collection is staggering. The walls of the place are covered with hundreds of photographs, all of them taken by Martinelli himself. He was always toting around an old film camera, and by his estimation he has some 1,300 photos of Pelé — Pelé with Franz Beckenbauer, Pelé with Martinelli’s daughter on his lap, Pelé with glam rocker Alice Cooper. Every photo has a story, and Martinelli is happy to tell it.
We walked further into his collection. A pair of balls — those distinctive, star-laden NASL match balls — sat on a shelf, encased in glass. One of them was used in the 1977 Soccer Bowl, the NASL Championship match which was also Pelé’s last as a professional player. It bears his autograph. The other was used in his farewell testimonial, a game played before a sell-out crowd of 75,646 at Giants Stadium. Pelé played one half for the Cosmos, then another for Santos, the club where he’d solidified his legend.
On their own, those two items would be the prize catch of any collector. But what Martinelli handed me next — what I came to see — is truly breathtaking.
He unlocked a cabinet and pulled out a kit worn by Pelé in the ‘77 Soccer Bowl. The shorts were worn for the whole game. The shirt is the one he used in the first half of the match — former Seattle Sounders defender Jimmy McAlister grabbed the second-half shirt, which now sits in a safety deposit box in Washington state.
Even holding the kit was a little terrifying. Other items probably have an argument, but there’s a chance that this pristine kit is the single most desirable piece of memorabilia in American soccer history.
Just weeks before Pelé’s death at age 82, Martinelli’s voice was full of warmth when he spoke of his old friend. He recalled the first time he ever met Pelé and how, sitting next to him at a luncheon, he was so nervous he began to shake. He pointed at one of many photos of Pelé with the Martinelli kids and went on about how generous the global megastar always was with his time. And, getting emotional, he described visiting Haiti with the Cosmos in 1975. During the car ride from the airport to their hotel, Pelé kept his window down, often reaching out to touch the hands of the children who ran alongside the vehicle.
“I spent many hours and many days with him,” said Martinelli. “He was the humblest person to talk to, and he was so truthful to loving people. He was a saint in my opinion, and he might be the greatest player of any sport, ever.”
Ask anyone involved how the New York Cosmos landed Pelé and you’ll realize very quickly that the story is like some sort of gingerbread fairy tale. The bones of the story are always similar, but about a dozen versions exist.
There’s the one where Steven J. Ross, president of Warner Communications, which owned the Cosmos, ponders aloud “who is the biggest name in soccer,” hears it’s Pelé and then essentially waves a magic wand to lure him to the United States. There are stories of Warner executives playing beach soccer with Pelé, jetting south repeatedly to seduce him with untold millions. There are no shortage of people eager to claim credit for maybe the highest-profile international signing in the history of American sport.
One man, though, remains at the core of every single story: Clive Toye.
Toye was the chief sports writer at the Daily Express in 1967, one of the most desirable sports jobs in the United Kingdom at the time. He left that all behind and moved to the United States to help found the NASL, lured by the prospect of building a league from scratch. Over the course of a half-decade, it was Toye — who eventually became the first general manager of the Cosmos — who did the hard work of bringing Pelé to the United States.
In the late ‘60s, the NASL barely existed. Twelve teams, all hemorrhaging money, were spread out across the U.S. and Canada. Toye, along with Phil Woosnam, a former player who became the league’s first commissioner, were the league’s only full-time employees. The two worked out of the league’s headquarters: A pair of desks in the corner of the visiting locker room at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium.
“We did all kinds of planning there,” said Toye, now 90. “Pages and pages of stuff about how to develop the game — kids and the rest of it. At the top of the pile, we decided that we had two major things to do to draw attention to all the minor things that were being done: We had to sign Pelé and we had to host a World Cup.”
The league also had no team in New York City, and Toye knew that the NASL had no chance of survival without a thriving club in the country’s largest media market. They decided that whenever they managed to land a New York club, Woosnam would run the league full-time and Toye would run things in the Big Apple, dedicating himself to the task of luring Pelé. When Warner Communications entered the picture and founded the Cosmos, Toye finally got his chance.
“I mentioned Pelé to the Warner people, to Steve Ross, and he just said, ‘Who’s that?’” said Toye. “I had to explain to them who he was. Not long after the Cosmos came into being in 1971, Santos, with Pelé, were playing a game in Kingston, Jamaica. I popped down to Kingston and went to the hotel and met him. I’d never met him before. I explained to him what was going on in America. I said to him — as I said a few other times after that — ‘If you go elsewhere you can win a championship, if you come with me, you can win a country.’ He laughed and said, ‘Oh yeah, very nice, goodbye.’”
Pelé, who didn’t even know a soccer league existed in the United States, may have dismissed Toye as a zealot, but Toye was persistent. And almost more importantly, he was backed by Ross, who had the resources to turn his dream into a reality.
Months later, Pelé visited New York when Santos played Colombian side Deportivo Cali in a friendly at Yankee Stadium. Toye was there. Before the game, he announced to the crowd in attendance that the Cosmos were retiring the No. 10 shirt until Pelé wore it. He handed the Brazilian a Cosmos jersey, turned to him and said, “Hang onto this, you’ll wear it one of these days.”
“Because I chased him so many times, he knew I was serious,” said Toye. “He also probably wished I’d go away. The things I’m talking to you about are just the surface of it. It went on and on and on and on, and I flew to Brazil so many times I suggested I should get a season ticket down there. The more and more I talked to him, the more serious it became. The only people there — we didn’t have an agent — it was usually just myself, Pelé, and sometimes Professor Julio Mazzei, the physio of Santos, whose English was very good and usually was there to help us to understand each other.”
By 1974, the Cosmos were applying even more pressure. Toye traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, to São Paulo, and even dragged Pelé into a meeting room at JFK airport in New York between flights. In Brussels, Belgium, in March of 1975, things finally came to a head.
“Things were getting hot, Pelé and I were getting on very well, I must say. He was starting to listen,” said Toye. “We met in Brussels, there was the testimonial there for Paul Van Himst, the Belgian coach. We were in this motel in the airport, and Pelé is weakening. We’re sitting in the bloody room, and we’re getting somewhere, I feel, and the door keeps opening and in comes superstar from here, superstar from there. In comes Jose Altafini, the last player to play for two countries in a World Cup (Italy and Brazil.) He was an exceptional player. He came in, looked at me, looked at Pelé, realized what was going on and said, ‘Okay, I’ll come to America too!’ To get rid of him, because Pelé had to leave to get a plane in a few minutes, I offered Altafini $15,000 a year, which was an insult, and he gave me a dirty look and left.”
At that point, Pelé grabbed a piece of paper from the nightstand in the hotel room and scribbled out an amount on it. Toye remembers it well. “Pelé’s last offer,” it said. “Two years for $3 million.”
Right there, in a tiny motel room on the other side of the world, Toye had — for the first time — drawn within striking distance of signing the biggest player on the planet. No agent, no notary, just Toye and Pelé and a hand-written note on a hotel notepad.
“We met in Rome a week later, at a restaurant,” said Toye. “The waiter, I remember this, told us not to order a main dish because they’d already prepared it — spaghetti a la Pelé. It was Spaghetti with little black dots of caviar all over it, as they called him ‘The Black Pearl.’ After dinner we sat in another hotel room. He used to call me ‘Clivey.’ He said, ‘Clivey, my English is not good. In Belgium I say, $3 million for two years, and now in Rome you offer me $2 million for three years.’”
The two laughed, and they ended up meeting in the middle. Pelé signed a three-year deal with the Cosmos for around $1 million a year. It was only then, at these final stages, that Warner truly became involved, sending over a fleet of lawyers and executives to make formal arrangements. Toye’s work, at that point, was done.
Nearly a half-century later, Toye doesn’t have any grand notion of the impact his work had on the game of soccer in the United States. He is a giant in the history of the American game, but he speaks of things more simply. Toye and Woosnam never thought of the state of the game in terms of years, or decades. They were simply focused on the next day. On what they could do to ensure the survival of the NASL and the popularity of the sport. His influence, though, is undeniable.
“Signing Pelé was about making soccer known,” said Toye. “I’m just pleased every time I watch television or read a newspaper, or I go out walking or driving past a field, that soccer is part of American life. That is what we set out to achieve. And that’s what happened.”
Pelé’s pact with Warner Communications extended well beyond the playing field. Ross and others realized his commercial power instantly and ensured that they owned his image rights during his time with the Cosmos. A chunk of Warner’s empire was Atlantic Records, a label founded in the ‘40s by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, a pair of Turkish immigrants responsible for signing some of the biggest names in music, like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.
In many ways, the two were responsible for the founding of the Cosmos. In the early ‘70s, When Nesuhi expressed a desire to leave Warner, Ross implored him to stay. Ertegun made a curious demand: he wanted to own a professional soccer team. Ross granted that wish.
The Ertegun’s catalog of artists at Atlantic was far-reaching and diverse. A few years before the founding of the Cosmos, bossa nova and jazz were starting to seep into American airwaves. The Erteguns tapped a young Brazilian — Sergio Mendes — to record an album for Atlantic. ”In Person at El Matador” was released in 1965 and served as America’s introduction to a man who would go on to be a foundational figure in the U.S.’ appreciation of South American music.
Nowadays, Mendes lives in LA. He popped up on a zoom call to discuss Pelé, casually surrounded by Grammy and Academy awards. He exuded warmth and positivity, both trademark facets of his music. It didn’t hurt that Brazil had just beaten South Korea in the round of 16.
“I first met Pelé in 1970, at the World Cup, in Mexico,” said Mendes. “He was incredible, just a genius. Nobody has ever been like him — lots of good players but nobody close to him. A friend of mine, Nesuhi Ertegen, was the owner and president of Atlantic Records. He loved soccer, just an amazing guy. So soccer and jazz brought us together. And then of course, as time went by and Pelé came to the United States, Nesui put together the Cosmos. I was there (at Downing Stadium) for the first game — I got a nice picture with Pelé there. And eventually, we became friends.”
In 1977, at the peak of Pelé’s fame with the Cosmos, he was being tailed around by French film director Francois Reichenbach, who was directing a feature-length documentary about him. Reichenbach approached Mendes and asked him if he’d like to handle the soundtrack for the project, which would include a song written and performed by Pelé himself.
“I said ‘of course,’” remembered Mendes. “‘It would be an honor for me to do that.’ So that’s how it happened.”
Mendes glowed recounting his time in Los Angeles with Pelé.
“He came to LA here several times,” said Mendes. “I remember taking him to see my son’s soccer game in the park. The kids were all in awe that Pelé was there. Amazing guy, by the way. Charming and really, really soulful, you know?”
Mendes had a few guests at his house around the time Pelé was in town to record the soundtrack, among them was legendary sax player Gerry Mulligan, who Mendes described as the “Pelé of the baritone sax.”
“The situation was just perfect,” said Mendes. “I said, man, I’m going to produce Pelé singing with my wife Gracinha; that’s how the album went. We spent some time in the studio, I got some incredible musicians together and my wife sang, and we brought Gerry in to play sax and write a few songs. Pelé, though, wrote that famous song that he sings — “Meu Mundo é Uma Bola” (My World is a Ball.) I have only great memories of Pelé, honestly.”
Pelé was a natural in the studio, Mendes recalled. He never tried to be anything he wasn’t, never made any real attempt to refine his singing voice.
“There’s something very warm and also very simple and elegant about the way he sings,” said Mendes. “We were just there playing, and having fun. It was just so simple. He was very soulful. He never had a pretension to be a singer. But spontaneously he came out fantastic. I wish we had a camera — back then, we just didn’t think to take photos, or videos of all of this. It was really magical.”
Mendes and Pelé remained close through the years. On visits to Sao Paulo, Mendes would get a hold of his old friend and they’d catch up. A couple of years ago, while filming “In the Key of Joy,” a documentary chronicling Mendes’ life, the two were reunited. They picked up right where they left off.
Listening to Mendes reflect on his time with Pelé in the weeks leading up to his passing, you start to understand why he is viewed as a national treasure in Brazil. So many who have crossed paths with him speak of him in terms normally reserved for a deity.
“Pelé means hope,” said Mendes. “And we need hope right now. Esperança, we call it in Portuguese. Because of the whole situation in the world, with all the wars, and all the political stuff. And I think Pelé represents a figure of peace and hope. There he is right now in the hospital full of hope. People love him — I can’t remember a single other person in Brazil that was loved universally, like him.
“I hope he pulls through,” Mendes said before departing. “I hope to hug him after we win this World Cup.”
Arnie Ramirez, who helped run Pelé’s soccer camps in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, has his own memories of Pelé’s music.
He remembers late nights at the camp, then held at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, sitting around with Pelé and the camp’s counselors. It’s like a scene out of an ‘80s summer camp movie come to life, the kind of thing that seems entirely impossible in this millennium.
“At night, after we’d put all the kids to sleep, Pelé would take out his guitar,” said Ramirez. “All the coaches, the counselors, we’d sit around the fire and eat pizza; Pelé would start singing. Every night we did this, and every night Pelé would bring out his guitar and sing with us. Old Brazilian songs, some Spanish songs. (His trainer and assistant) Professor Mazzei would take out two spoons and then with the two spoons he’d make his own rhythm part.”
Ramirez is one of many key figures in the history of the game in New York City. For 19 years, he was the head coach at Long Island University. He coached at Manhattanville and NYU, and was the long-time coach of the women’s team at Ramapo College in New Jersey. He served in various roles with the hosting of the 1994 World Cup and the early days of Major League Soccer, as well.
In 1979, not long after Pelé hung up his boots for good, Ramirez was approached by Mazzei — probably Pelé’s closest confidant — to gauge his interest in helping Pelé found a soccer camp. Though Pelé never expressed much interest in professional coaching, he remained committed to the idea of growing the game, that lofty ideal that had drawn him Stateside to begin with. A summer camp, Pelé thought, might be the most direct way to leave an impression on a future generation of players.
Arrangements were made and in 1979, Pelé’s first-ever camp became a reality. A few weeks prior to opening day, Pelé, Ramirez and others met with the president of Manhattanville College, who assumed Pelé would simply show up for a day or two and then jet off to another locale. He was shocked to find out that he intended to stay for the duration of the camp, and offered him the nicest lodging the college had — the guest house.
“Pelé said ‘No, no, no. I want to be with the coaches and the kids,’” says Ramirez. “‘I want to live in the dorms, just like the kids.’ And that’s what we did. He was there every day. The only time he came late was when he was in Hungary filming ‘Victory.’ He arrived two days late that year. But Pelé was deeply involved in the camp all the time.”
The camp was split into four groups. The Little Pelés were the youngest. Then came the Dicos, who got their name from Pelé’s childhood nickname. The Edsons, Pelé’s birth name, were the 13- and 14-year-olds. And the oldest group were simply the Pelés.
“I used to wake up Pelé every morning, at 6:30,” says Ramirez. “To do his own training. Then we’d eat breakfast with all of the kids. At the beginning, they all wanted to touch him, to be around him. But by the end, since he was always with us, you know, 24 hours a day, they just got used to him.”
On fields named after the legends of the Cosmos – Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Pelé himself — the kids were put through their paces, often after demonstrations by the camp’s namesake. After lunch, they’d sit for a lecture, or participate in small-sided games. During the twilight hours, they’d take the field for the camp’s league matches, with Pelé walking the sidelines and offering his own observations. After the last of the campers retired to their dorms, the guitar came out.
“He was such a humble person,” says Ramirez. “I remember the closing ceremonies every year — all the parents, and all of the kids wanted to get Pelé’s autograph. He’d stay for about two hours giving autographs. He was such an incredibly kind person.”
That humility was a stark contrast to many other high-profile athletes of the day. Ramirez remembers watching Pelé train at Hofstra University, when the Cosmos were based there in 1975. The New York Jets, led by Joe Namath, were also using the facility.
“Pelé comes out of the shower and starts giving autographs to the people that were there,” says Ramirez. “Joe Namath came out and just walked by everyone and left. The next day, a repeat of the first day — Pelé is giving autographs. But now Joe Namath saw that Pelé was giving autographs so he started signing things, as well.”
The New York Post summed it up the next day with a headline that read, “Pelé Gives Joe Namath a Lesson in Humility.”
Ramirez left the camp in 1982, when Cosmos vice president Peppe Pinton took control of it. Like Martinelli, and Mendes, he managed to stay in touch with Pelé for years, though the two eventually lost contact. He last saw Pelé in 2014, while the Brazilian was out promoting his book. He walked up to his old friend at a book signing on 42nd Street and was quickly hustled back by security. Pelé caught a glimpse of Ramirez and quickly told his bodyguard to back off.
“Let him through,” Ramirez remembers him saying. “That is my professor.”
When Steve Marshall arrived at the New York Cosmos in 1974, he didn’t even know the club existed.
Back then, his father was the president of Rockefeller Center, where Warner Communications — and the Cosmos — were headquartered. His father, Marshall recalls, was keen on finding him a job, so he approached Steve Ross.
“My father was wondering — hey, you got anything for my kid?,” said Marshall. “They said sure, he can come work for the Cosmos. I didn’t know what the Cosmos were from a dirty sock.”
Marshall, though, got lucky. The Cosmos were nothing to speak of in ‘74, but a year later, when they signed Pelé, that reality changed quickly. The club’s visibility skyrocketed; suddenly, they were being mentioned alongside the Giants, Yankees and Mets, no longer relegated to the tiny print in the back of the sports section. That summer, they played their first three games with Pelé at home, which limited some of the growing pains associated with the sudden entree into the big time. But after their first away match, against the Los Angeles Aztecs, it became very clear very quickly that they were ill-equipped to handle their newfound fame.
“They weren’t ready for anything,” said Marshall. “No buses, no meals, all of that stuff. The press was not taken care of. I walked into Clive Toye’s office and asked him how it went. He yelled, ‘Bloody hell, Marshall, it was a disaster.’”
Marshall told Toye that he thought the club probably needed a traveling secretary to help with those arrangements. Toye then pointed at him and said, “Okay, you’re it.” For the next seven years, Marshall was in charge of facilitating the Cosmos traveling circus. Hotels, buses, assistants, translators, meals.
Marshall had no real idea what he was doing at first, but got the hang of it pretty quickly. That doesn’t mean there weren’t growing pains. In 1976, after an early-summer match against the Boston Minutemen, Marshall loaded the team onto a bus. The game had ended around 9 p.m. and Marshall, in an attempt to save a little bit of money, had chosen a bus instead of a plane. What he didn’t realize when he booked it, though, was that the bus had no restroom.
“We won that game,” said Marshall. “Everybody is happy on the bus, Pelé has his guitar going. So then it’s about 1 a.m., I told Jack, our bus driver, ‘Jack, we gotta pull over. These guys are gonna piss their pants.’ We get out. Now here is the most famous soccer team in the world, and I mean that — Beckenbauer, Alberto, Chinaglia, Pelé; these guys were the who’s who. The players and press and everybody are standing alongside the bus taking a piss.”
Their duties taken care of, the team loaded back on the bus. Marshall took a head count and gave the okay to the driver to head out.
“We started pulling away and all of the sudden there’s a banging on the door,” said Marshall. “And all I can see now, in the middle of the night, was this smiling set of teeth and a white towel. And it was Pelé. I almost left Pelé in the emergency lane on the side of the road in Massachusetts. I’ve told that story a few times over the years but I never told anybody at Warner Communications. I’d have been fired on the spot.”
Oftentimes, Marshall’s job was made difficult by the Cosmos’ preposterous travel schedule during the offseason. Ross and others at Warner wanted to build the brand’s global appeal and in nearly every year of the club’s existence — after Pelé arrived, at least — the Cosmos became a globetrotting sensation. Europe. South America. Asia. Marshall recalled one particularly memorable visit to Haiti, the same one Martinelli spoke of.
“We’re practicing, we’re playing, everybody is happy and safe and all of it,” said Marshall. “They say to me one night, ‘Marshall, you should go check on Pelé’s room.’ I walk into Pelé’s room and there he is in bed with a blonde and a dark-haired woman. And come to find out, one of the girls he was with was one of Baby Doc Duvalier’s many girlfriends.”
Duvalier, who ruled Haiti during the ‘70s and ‘80s and oversaw the torture and killing of thousands during his regime, was a very serious man. Marshall was beside himself.
“I’m like, ‘You have got to be s—ing me, Pelé. You’re going to get us all killed!’ I got out of that room so fast.”
Marshall laughs whenever he tells the story. But like nearly everybody else who crossed paths with Pelé during his time in the United States, his voice takes a more tender tone when he speaks of the person he worked alongside for three memorable years.
“Pelé was a good friend,” said Marshall. “He would play softball with us; he was just a good person, you know? Messi, Ronaldo, Maradona, Cruyff, George Best, these are all super players. But nobody could touch Pelé. Nobody. I loved every minute of my job with the Cosmos, and I loved every minute I worked with Pelé.”
(Top photo courtesy of Arnie Ramirez)