Beckham could lift US football: Pele

Pele arrived on American soil in 1975 to give North American soccer life. David Beckham's arrival three decades later is meant to give it a lift.

updated: May 19, 2007 14:53 IST
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New York:

Pele arrived on American soil in 1975 to give North American soccer life. David Beckham's arrival three decades later is meant to give it a lift.

The Brazilian soccer hero said on Wednesday that Beckham's highly anticipated debut later this summer with the Los Angeles Galaxy is not unlike his own.

There's the same fevered excitement, reflected in the number of people inquiring about tickets. Both international icons found their way to cities comfortable in the spotlight. And passionate fans and curious observers alike are eager to see what Beckham will bring to the Galaxy.

And to soccer in America.

"It's almost the same," said Pele, appearing untouched by age. "The game wasn't as popular (in the US) when we came. The first year was rough. The league was a new league."

After a brilliant international career, Pele joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. His first game was played at Downing Stadium on New York City's Randall's Island, a mud pitch painted green.

His team was made up of players just out of college. Few had professional experience, much less time with international clubs.

"I remember when we played at San Jose, we lost 2-1," Pele recalled. "I said, 'My God, what am I going to do here?'"

Pele primed the pump, though, and many European stars soon came to the United States. Germany's Franz Beckenbauer and Brazilian Carlos Alberto turned the Cosmos into an internationally recognised club. The game took off, the Cosmos drawing a sellout crowd of nearly 78,000 to the new Giants Stadium in August 1977.

But the league struggled financially and by 1984 it had folded. It wasn't until the United States reached the World Cup in 1990 - its first trip in 40 years - that the sport again attracted a following.

The 1994 World Cup, played in stadiums across the United States, drew a record 3.6 million spectators, and helped ensure the successful launch of Major League Soccer two years later.

Shot of momentum

Now the MLS is hoping Beckham will provide another shot of momentum.

"The thing with Beckham, they've got everything set up already," said Pele, who was in New York for a promotional event for GolTV, an English language soccer channel in the United States. "The league is OK. The team is established. They have done a lot to get everything down."

Unlike the muddy field in the middle of the East River, Beckham's a five-year deal will have him play in the gleaming Home Depot Center, one of many soccer-specific stadiums built for MLS teams in recent years. He will also be joining a team that won league titles in 2002 and 2005.

"In this moment, the MLS is more prepared than it was then," said Enzo Francescoli, who led the Uruguayan national team in two World Cups and now is chief executive of GolTV.

"Ten, 12 years the MLS has in this project," Francescoli said. "Finally coming here are the best players. Maybe it starts with Beckham and (Colombian forward Juan Pablo) Angel, and maybe in the future more players."

There have been reports that Zinedine Zidane - the French star known as much for head butting Italy's Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final as for his illustrious career - is considering following Beckham to the United States.

Zidane retired after the French lost to Italy in a penalty shootout. But Christian Dior's first male model certainly has the name recognition and rock star persona to draw more attention to the game stateside.

"If he comes, he comes this year," Francescoli said. "The next year, I think it's impossible. But I know Zinedine. For me, he doesn't want to play anymore."

For his part, Beckham insists he still wants to play. The former England captain seems intent on proving he has not lost a step, while telling anyone who will listen about his desire to grow the game in the United States.

That approach has many recalling another era.

"It's almost the same," Pele said. "There are a lot of similarities."