Pelé – The Smiling, Joyous King of Football


Pelé, the magnificent football player, and ebullient, gracious human, is gone. I only photographed him once, in the showers at Giant Stadium in New Jersey. The occasion was the happy, raucous locker room scene that occurred right after the Cosmos successfully defended their championship of the NASL. The year was 1978, and the crowd out there in East Rutherford still ranks as the largest crowd to ever watch a soccer game in North America. (I use the term soccer in reference to the game, as the league itself called the North American Soccer League.)

Professionally speaking, I was still a rube, as can be easily discerned from the picture. Tri-x, pushed to ASA 1600, Vivitar flash dialed into “yellow” mode, desperately hoping its output would somehow match up with my guess of an f stop. Straight flash, hot white walls. I exploded the grain in this frame so badly I might as well have been using a bazooka.

Pelé did not play, having retired the previous year in a hugely watched exhibition match between the Cosmos and his former team, Santos. He played a half for each team, and scored a goal. As the premier footballer in the world, his farewell to the pitch, played in the rain, was so emotional that a Brazilian newspaper wrote of it…”even the sky was crying.”

But it was his magnetic, joyful presence that lifted the Cosmos into the championship realm, and filled Giant Stadium. Getting him on the team drew another amazing athlete. Giorgio Chinaglia, seen below, heading the ball.

And Franz Beckenbauer, the renowned German sweeper, seen below holding the championship trophy aloft.

Pelé was a gift to us all. So sorry I never got to photograph him playing. But that chaotic scene in the shower, and the pressure of covering a championship game, was formative for me. Larry DeSantis, a cigar chomping, forever blunt wire editor always told me, “Never shoot locker room without a flash. I give this advice to you for free.” I did that. I just ruefully realized I had to get a lot better at it if I were to survive the crucible of photo assignment in New York City.


I was a one man show covering this event, and logged some high speed runs with my gear, from up and down the sidelines to the rafters of the stadium and back down again. Film was a physical item and had to be transported, especially on deadline. I had to shoot, and bolt back to process my film at UPI HQ on 42nd St. Wire service work was one thing. I had yet to experience deadline shooting for a major magazine, and shooting chrome film for a rush in shit conditions. I got a frantic window on this when I turned the corner to go back onto the field at half time, and ran smack into Co Rentmeester.

Co, aka, The Big Dutchman, was, in his youth, an Olympic rower who competed in the 1960 games for his home country of the Netherlands. He went onto become a stellar photographer for many pubs, most notably LIFE magazine. At the stadium he was wild eyed, and on deadline. His assistant was a dear friend of mine, Les. He knew we were friends, and he eyeballed me like a tiger might eyeball a baby zebra. He grabbed me by the shoulders. His face was close to mine. “Have you seen Leslie???” he shouted over his head. “No,” I replied, lamely. I recall him shaking me during this interrogation, as if that might produce an answer to his liking. He shouted back, “I’ve got to meet a helicopter!” and disappeared in a frenzied rush. Leslie, possessed of a pretty relaxed personality, had been dispatched by Co to the upper reaches of the stands with wide glass to make overalls and had gone, most likely for a (I suspected) hot dog and a coke, MIA.

Such were the tribulations of the time. Slow glass, dark stages, manual focus, 36 exposures, film in your bag. You can see the grain of these images, hot souped in Acufine, or mulched through a Versamat processor. As opposed to the below, Usain Bolt at the Rio Games. Nikon D5, 400mm f2.8, ISO 2000, autofocus. As has perhaps been said, 2000 is the new 400. Or perhaps ISO 5000? See Jade Carey below, flying above the balance beam. Nikon D6, 70-200mm. Such a distance we have traveled as photographers.

The Cosmos and the NASL faded after that glory year. The deep, extended battle cry of “COSMOS,” uttered in bass tones, booming and rolling like a response at the biggest church service you might ever attend, no longer rattles the rafters of the old stadium, heard by the Jersey Turnpike.

And now Pele is gone. We are the poorer for that. He lifted our spirits and the game he played. And invoked memories for me of straight flash in the shower, and lessons learned.

more tk….

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