Deep in the bowels of Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island — a tiny, decrepit stadium tucked under an expressway in New York City — Pelé sits on a stool at his locker. It’s June 15th, 1975 and it’s halftime of his first game with his new team, the New York Cosmos of the fledgeling North American Soccer League. They’re down 2-0 to the Dallas Tornado, but right now, Pelé has bigger problems.

Pelé’s feet have made him a very rich man and brought him more fame and notoriety than any other athlete in the history of sport. Over the preceding two decades, they guided him to glory and fame at Santos, his long-time club, and to an unprecedented three World Cup championships with Brazil. His arrival in the United States, still a nascent soccer nation, has caused a global sensation.

Now, as Pelé removes his boots and socks, he stares down in disbelief. His feet are covered, absolutely covered, in some sort of green substance. He’s apoplectic. What on earth has he gotten himself into? Has he contracted some sort of airborne disease?

He turns to Professor Julio Mazzei, his longtime confidant and translator, and begins talking

“I have contracted a fungus,” he says. “And this will be my last game with the Cosmos.”

Charlie Martinelli, the Cosmos equipment manager, is seated at the locker directly next to Pelé’s. He also knows exactly what the green substance is. The playing surface at Downing Stadium is an atrocity, and the stadium itself is a Depression-era relic, a crumbling hulk that Martinelli describes as “a dungeon, in Rome, in the year 100.”

Pelé’s debut at this place is being watched by an audience of millions on national television, so Martinelli, along with a handful of other Cosmos employees, had spent the previous few days scouring local hardware stores for buckets of green house paint. Just a day before the match, they dumped it into galvanized watering cans, cut it with water and dumped it all over the playing surface in an attempt to make Downing Stadium more… camera-ready.

Nobody had told Pelé, and Martinelli is now watching as he prepares to abandon the match in a fit of panic. It’s concerning, but mostly hilarious — Martinelli gets up and walks into the showers, letting out a belly laugh. Then he tells Pelé what the issue is. Within moments, the Brazilian’s look of concern is replaced by his trademark smile.

“OK,” he says. “I play. I play.”

Pelé dresses in locker room before his New York Cosmos debut. (Photo by Eric Schweikardt /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

There is, though, the matter of the game itself. The Cosmos are getting played off the field by the Tornado. Pelé gets up and gathers the entire team into a huddle. He offers some halftime remarks in Portuguese, which Mazzei translates.

“What he said was, ‘Listen, they brought us here to bring football to the United States,” remembers former Cosmos midfielder Mordechai Spiegler. “He said, ‘If we lose today, in front of all of these people in the stadium, in front of all of these people on television, there is no football in this country.’”

Spiegler, and the rest of the Cosmos — a collection of journeyman South American and English players, and a mess of young American college kids — are a little confused. They’ve been playing for years in front of tiny crowds, with little to no media coverage. In a sense, they’re just along for the ride.

“My thoughts in that moment were like… ‘Why are you telling us this story?’” says Spiegler, laughing. “They brought you, not us, to make football popular in America. We have been trying, and we haven’t been able to do it!”

Forty-five years after Pelé’s debut at Randall’s Island, Lionel Messi’s arrival in MLS is being heralded as a watershed moment in American soccer history. The Argentine has yet to play a match for Inter Miami, yet journalists and league officials are already talking about pre-and-post-Messi timelines and speculating about his potential impact on the trajectory of a sport still fighting for mainstream relevance in the United States.

Some are already calling Messi’s arrival the biggest signing in the history of American soccer. There’s really only one other moment to compare it to — Pelé’s arrival in the NASL in 1975. If he were still here today, the Brazilian, who died in December at the age of 82, might be able to offer Messi a bit of advice in terms of what to expect.

Both players joined last-place teams in America, and when Messi makes his debut at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale on Friday night, he’ll be doing so in a venue that hardly seems fit for a player of his stature. It’s a modular facility, a bit of an Erector Set that was designed as a stop-gap while Miami constructs a more permanent venue in their city.

But Downing Stadium, which was demolished in 2002, makes DRV PNK look like Wembley.

“Watching Pelé play there,” wrote a local paper after his debut, “was like seeing the Hope Diamond in a Times Square rubbish bin.”

Pelé makes his grand entrance at Downing Stadium, June 15, 1975. (Photo: Eric Schweikardt /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

The Cosmos, of course, are the stuff of American soccer legend.

The club, which folded in 1984 and exists now in name only, was this country’s first and only superclub, a collection of talent that included the likes of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and more. They were the pace-setters in a league that attracted other massive names — George Best, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Muller. They toured the world, filling stadiums in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

Prior to Pelé’s arrival, though, the Cosmos were very little to speak of. For the club’s early history, they played at Hofstra University on Long Island, often for a handful of friends and family. Players made little money. Joey Fink, a local kid who joined the team in 1973 and featured in Pelé’s debut at Randall’s Island, remembers the lean years well.

“The year before Pelé got there,” says Fink, “we played a game on a 4th of July weekend. It was a Sunday. We came out for warm-ups and looked around the crowd and there were less than 200 people there. I know this because I counted them all.”

But the Cosmos, owned by media titans Warner Communications, always had a much larger vision for the team. Years earlier, Clive Toye — a founding member of the NASL and the Cosmos’ first general manager — had already realized that the Cosmos, and the sport of soccer in the United States, needed a megastar. As Toye puts it, there was only one player who could break through the crust of apathy and indifference that Americans felt for the sport: Pelé.

Toye embarked on a half-decade long pursuit of the star, criss-crossing the globe and pitching him repeatedly. “If you go to Europe, you can win another championship,” Toye remembers telling him. “If you come to America, you can win an entire country over.”

After years of persistence, Pelé finally caved. It happened in a hotel room in Belgium, Toye will tell you, with Pelé’s first contract drawn up on a piece of the hotel’s stationery.

The press conference to announce Pelé’s signing with the New York Cosmos at 21 Club, June 11, 1975. (Photo: Eric Schweikardt /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The Cosmos would eventually move into Giants Stadium, in New Jersey, and draw record-setting crowds of over 77,000 fans. That venue, though, was still under construction in 1975.

“I eventually wanted that stadium,” says Toye, now 90 years old. “But for the time being, I just wanted us closer to the majority population of New York City. And the only stadium available, without us having to putz around playing here and there, or in a baseball stadium, the only place available was Randall’s Island.”

Downing Stadium was already 40 years old when the Cosmos moved in, a crumbling relic that barely met professional standards. Ringed by a running track, players hopped over long-jump and pole vault pits on their way to the field. The state of the place is maybe best described by CBS Sports commentator Jack Whitaker, who offered the following analysis during an NASL broadcast in the mid-’70s:

“I think perhaps symbolic of the state of professional soccer in the United States these past few years has been this stadium in which this game has been played. Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in New York lies like a derelict under the arches of the Triborough Bridge. It was built in the depression of the 1930s and it is worn down and poorly lit, with paint peeling — a sandlot, if you will, in a city of glass and steel.”

Charlie Cuttone, at the time a 13-year-old employee of the Cosmos, puts it a little more bluntly.

“It was a s—hole,” says Cuttone.

Pelé’s first exposure to the place came a few weeks or so before he officially signed with the Cosmos, when Warner flew him in to catch an early-season Cosmos match against the Connecticut Bicentennials. Not long afterwards, he descended like a manna from heaven onto the field at Randall’s Island, arriving for his very first training session in a helicopter. Kurt Kuykendall, the Cosmos backup goalkeeper, was readying himself in the changing room when it happened.

“I was putting on my stuff,” says Kuykendall, “and Gordon Bradley, our coach, walks up to me and just says, ‘Kurt, meet your new teammate.’ I looked up, and there was Pelé. I was speechless.”

Moments later, Kuykendall was in goal as Pelé demonstrated his quality to his teammates for the first time.

“We had a scrimmage, and he was cutting in from the wing without the ball,” says Kuykendall. “He overran the ball, and the flight of it. With any other player, the ball just goes across the far sideline and out of bounds. But Pelé, he just jumps up, and swivels, and does this beautiful bicycle kick. I will never forget it. The ball just went flying into the top corner of the goal.”

The press in attendance — many of whom had never seen a minute of a soccer match and largely treated the sport with disdain — could hardly help themselves as they burst into applause.

Pelé delights the crowd with a signature overhead kick on his debut. (Photo: George Tiedemann /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The Cosmos had very little time to prepare themselves for Pelé’s debut. The playing surface wasn’t the only issue they faced. A night before the match, remembers Toye, the city of New York held a special event on the field. They hadn’t bothered to clean anything up, and Martinelli, Toye and Bradley spent the hours before the match picking broken glass and litter off the pitch. A rainstorm the prior evening only made things worse — Martinelli remembers patching holes in the roof of the locker room only hours before the team’s arrival.

“We’re on television, oh my God, we’re on television,” says Toye. “What is the world going to see? What is our population going to see? They’re going to come in and see a stadium full of trash and a field with great big bloody holes in it all over the place.”

The hastily-assembled friendly against the Dallas Tornado was a bit of a cash grab, one of 18 exhibition matches the Cosmos would play that year in addition to their 22-game league schedule. The Tornado felt like an obvious enough choice in terms of an initial opponent. Their owner, Lamar Hunt, was a formative figure in the NASL, as he’d go on to be in MLS. Maybe more importantly, the team featured one of the league’s premiere attractions: American phenom Kyle Rote, Jr.

Rote was heralded by many as the great American hope — a bright-eyed Texas kid who might be able to finally sell the general public on the game of soccer. A multi-sport standout and the son of a former NFL running back, Rote signed a contract with the Tornado right out of high school. He was an instant success, winning the league’s rookie of the year award in 1972 and leading the NASL in scoring.

CBS billed this as a matchup between the world’s best player and America’s best player. The state of the NASL, and soccer, could tidily be summed up in the differences, financially and notoriety-wise, between Pelé and Rote. Rote made about $3,000 a year. Pelé had just been signed to a $7 million, multi-year contract. His yearly pay was twice the sum of the combined salary of every other player in the league.

When Rote’s pregame press conference was interrupted by a throng of reporters seeking to speak with Pelé afterwards, Rote said he was “feeling like a juggler opening up for a Beatles concert.”

Hunt may have been an important figure in the NASL’s history, but he was also notoriously cheap. The Tornado arrived for their nationally televised match against the Cosmos just 18 hours after losing a league match in San Antonio the night prior.

“We got up at 3:30 in the morning to get the first flight out,” says Ken Cooper Sr., who played in goal for the Tornado that day. “I think we almost didn’t make the game. We started getting changed and warming up on the bus ride there, no joke. I remember pulling up to the stadium and just being shocked that Pelé was going to make his debut there. The field, well, it was a little bare, to say the least.”

“My god, the pitch,” adds Cooper’s teammate, David Chadwick. “It was so bad. I can’t tell you how bad it was. I looked at it and thought Pelé’s going to look at this and say, ‘What the hell have I signed up for here?’”

The field may have been bare, but the stands were not. There had been some uncertainty as to who would come to the match, or to what Pelé’s drawing power would be. Those concerns were assuaged when the expressway leading into the stadium became a parking lot. Hours before kickoff, fans left their vehicles and leaned over the railing of the bridge that overlooked the stadium, eager to get a peek at the action. In all, 21,567 fans packed the tiny stadium, with the Cosmos welcoming some 300 members of the press from 22 countries, seating many of them on folding chairs behind both goals.

“I remember seeing something very strange,” says Toye, “There was a guy very high up in the stadium throwing something down to his friend down below. And what was happening was that the people taking the tickets weren’t even bothering to tear them in half. So people in the stadium, they were passing them all the way up to the top row, and people in the top rows were dropping them down to people outside the stadium. There was crookery everywhere that day.”

In the locker room ahead of the match, Pelé was busy greeting a never-ending stream of local dignitaries and notable figures. The mayor of New York City, Robert Redford and a host of others got a few moments with him. So did John Palladino, at the time a 10-year-old youth soccer player. Palladino was there to play a pre-match exhibition with his youth soccer team (they lost 16-0, by the way) and somehow ended up presenting Pelé with a bouquet of flowers.

“It was like no other game I’d ever gone to before, or since,” says Palladino. “The media attention along the sidelines, fans of all types. Here I was, 10 years old, and at one point women were lifting their shirts up to have Pelé sign their breasts. It was crazy, and you got the sense that this was something extraordinary, and special and the start of something bigger.”

Palladino and his teammates spent the rest of the game wandering the running track around the field, getting an up-close view of the match. Palladino had a pocket camera with him, which he used to document the entire experience. Years later, he still has his original ticket from the match — still untorn, as Toye remembered — and a handful of photographs.

CBS’ broadcast of the match is a time capsule in and of itself. It’s a must-watch for any soccer fan, a relic that provides some much-needed perspective. Lionel Messi’s arrival in MLS has been covered wall-to-wall, with his unveiling and first training sessions receiving breathless coverage by media outlets across the world. Millions will likely tune in to watch Inter Miami’s Leagues Cup match against Cruz Azul on Friday, Messi’s debut.

Whatever the television/streaming audience for that match will be, it will pale in comparison to the viewership for Pelé’s debut. Exact numbers are hard to track down, but it’s arguably the most widely-viewed match in American history involving any given American club, with a Nielsen rating of 10.5. A third of all possible households in New York City watched the broadcast live, and the game was beamed elsewhere, as well, with viewers from 12 different countries tuning in.

If the Tornado’s players were supposed to go out and be awestruck, they didn’t get the memo. They went out and scored the game’s first two goals, and they could’ve scored more — Cooper, among the greatest goalkeepers in NASL history, stood on his head.

On the other side of the ball, things were brutally physical, a trademark of the game in the 60s and 70s. Tornado players frequently took their shots at Pelé, looking to make their mark.

“He was targeted in some games,” says Cooper, who would go on to play alongside Pelé in exhibition matches with the Cosmos. “It’s not easy to stop Pelé. He liked to not just dribble one person, he’d take on two or three or four. He always drew a crowd. And sometimes all (players) wanted to do was to kick him. It was very sad to see.”

Tornado midfielder Neil Cohen, who like Rote had turned pro straight out of high school, took his own shot.

“I tried to nutmeg Pelé,” says Cohen. “And he put his forearm right in my Adam’s apple. I don’t know what I was thinking. I should’ve had more respect, I’m 18, he’s probably 34 or 35 at that time. But I was just a kid, I wanted to take my shot, so I did.”

At halftime, around the same time Pelé was considering ending his American sojourn because of a suspected fungal infection, Cosmos head coach Gordon Bradley was mulling over some changes. Tony Picciano, a 23-year-old Long Island University graduate, had had a rough go of it on the backline.

“This is something that’s stuck in my head, it’s branded like a tattoo,” says Picciano. “I’m sitting right next to Professor Mazzei, who was translating for Pelé. And Gordon Bradley, he says, ‘OK Picciano, you’re coming off.’ And Pelé all of a sudden says, ‘No, no, no. Picciano no go out.’ It was an out of body experience for me. Gordon Bradley must’ve been blown away. I didn’t come out, and I went out and played a tremendous game, because of the confidence he gave me.”

Picciano wasn’t the only one who raised his level. Spiegler, who’d featured for Israel in the 1970 World Cup, pulled the Cosmos within a goal just five minutes into the second half, running onto a through ball from Pelé and just barely finding the far post with an awkward finish.

“Now we have another 40 minutes to tie things,” says Spiegler. “We pressed them and played much better, with more confidence. We made some good moves. A few minutes before the end there is a corner from the right side and John Kerr, I came close to him and said, ‘Give it to me, give it to me.’”

Kerr obliged, and Spiegler played a bending cross into the area. Pelé rose above the crowd and headed it home from the top of the six-yard box. Most everything Pelé did has been converted into mythology, and his equalizer against the Tornado is no exception. Reading the coverage from the day, you’d think Pelé levitated 15 feet above the backline and headed it through the back of the net. “He was a pearl surrounded by rhinestones,” wrote the New York Daily News, “soaring above two defenders, all 5’9” of him, and sending a rocket header into the goal.”

“It was like his goal in the 1970 World Cup,” says Spiegler. “There, Rivelinho had served him the ball. At Downing Stadium, it was me. And from behind the goal in the old stadium, all these photographers and journalists were running onto the field. Even I felt like a fan, or a supporter. Just happy for what happened. Then Pelé runs to me, takes me in his hands and brings me up like I am the hero, you know? I was not a child, I was already 31, but I can tell you he taught me about life in that moment, about what makes a team work. He knew that to make things succeed here, we’d have to work together, and celebrate each other.”

Pelé had proven tough to neutralize all game. By the end of the match, four, maybe five Tornado players were marking him. This had little to do with his ability, though. They all wanted his jersey — it’s a scene that would repeat itself over and over again throughout Pelé’s three years in the U.S.

“I ended up with the shirt,” said Tornado midfielder Tommy Gore. “Honestly it was just pure luck, I happened to be walking next to him as we left the pitch. I don’t think he really wanted to give it away, but I was there, so we traded shirts.”

Gore’s teammates were furious, remembers Cohen. Albert Jackson, a rough-and-tumble defender on loan from Wigan Athletic, got his revenge later that night. When Gore stepped out for a drink, he set up shop in his hotel room, racking up a slew of long-distance calls back home.

It’s unclear how much that cost Gore, but acquiring Pelé’s first-ever Cosmos shirt paid dividends down the line: it sold at auction for $180,000 earlier this year.

Pelé making his New York debut under an overpass. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

By and large, Pelé’s debut was viewed as a success. Whitaker, the CBS commentator who called Downing Stadium a “sandlot,” offered his thoughts after the match:

“To lift soccer out of stadiums like this, to lift it out of the darkness into the sunlight of a well-seeded pitch, is the task that has now fallen on the shoulders of Pelé. And it will certainly be one of the most interesting sports stories to chronicle in the next few months, to see if this man, at the age of 34, some of his artistry dimmed by age, can give prominence to soccer in the only country in the world that has treated it with apathy.”

For a moment, it seemed as if the Brazilian might succeed in doing so. The Cosmos left Randall’s Island at the end of the 1975 season and moved to Yankee Stadium in 1976. As their attendance steadily increased, they finally moved into Giants Stadium in 1977. It was hardly the “well-seeded pitch” Whitaker had imagined — the artificial turf was like concrete — but it didn’t matter. The Cosmos shattered every record the NASL had for attendance, points and goals. They won the Soccer Bowl that year, with Pelé carried off on the shoulders of his teammates in his final professional match.

Yet seven years later, the Cosmos — and the entire NASL — collapsed under a flood of red ink. To many, it has reduced the league to an afterthought, or worse. Pelé’s debut at Randall’s Island, that too has been largely forgotten.

The match, though, and Pelé’s entire tenure with the Cosmos, remains an essential piece of American soccer history.

Pelé waves to the converted. (Photo: Peter Robinson)

“Look, the game itself wasn’t much to speak of,” says Paul Gardener, now 93, who worked the match for CBS as a correspondent. “But it signaled something very important — that American sport, which at that period simply did not include soccer, was perhaps ready for the sport. This was a sellout crowd. It was a symptom, if you like, of what was coming, of soccer’s greater prominence.”

Lionel Messi’s legacy in MLS, whatever it ends up being, will likely be measured in dollars, clicks and MLS expansion fees. Pelé’s impact feels more unquantifiable — he planted the seeds of fandom in millions of Americans who didn’t even care about the game prior to his arrival. The U.S. national team’s first great generation of modern players in the early ‘90s came of age during his time in the NASL, and to many he remains the greatest player in the history of the game.

Toye, a formative figure in the history of American soccer himself, remembers taking a moment during Pelé’s debut to take it all in. For years, the Brit had been told that soccer would never make it in America. That was never his belief, and for a brief moment on Randall’s Island in 1975, he felt truly validated.

“We damn well did it, I thought,” says Toye. “Pelé’s here, and all these people who have been saying Americans will never like soccer can go and stuff themselves in the damn cupboard. Americans are going to love this game.”

(Lead images: Jerry Cooke, Eric Schweikardt /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images; Focus on Sport/Getty Images)