Pele was awarded an honorary degree at Hofstra University on...

Pele was awarded an honorary degree at Hofstra University on April 11, 2014. He was at the Hempstead campus for a four-day international soccer conference. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Pelé may have been born in Brazil, but soccer’s greatest player planted deep roots on Long Island and the New York City area, according to a Hofstra University professor who studies sports and popular culture.

Pelé, who ended his career with the New York Cosmos at the age of 37, joined the North American Soccer League club two years after it left Hofstra Stadium for the Bronx and Yankee Stadium. But he owned a home in the Hamptons for nearly 40 years that he sold in 2018 for $2.85 million and raised his daughter in the New York City area.

He also received an honorary doctorate from Hofstra in 2014 during a conference titled “Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity and Politics” that included 100 speakers and journalists from 20 countries who participated in more than two dozen panels and roundtable discussions.

“My sense is that he loved the New York area,” said Brenda Elsey, an associate professor of history at Hofstra who has written extensively about the game.

Elsey, who helped organize the 2014 conference, said Pelé should get a lot of credit for transforming soccer from a fringe pastime to one of the nation’s most popular sports.

“It was brief but it was a lightning rod for excitement about the sport in the greater New York area,” Elsey said of Pelé’s three years with the Cosmos. “He was very charismatic, he was very handsome, he was very affable. He was the first superstar to make that splash in a big U.S. market.”

Pelé may have been the most popular athlete in the world during a professional career that began in 1956 when he was just 16 years old. He was a Black man who came of age during a time when “hierarchies were being challenged,” Elsey said. African nations had declared their independence from European colonizers and were being integrated into FIFA. Black South Africans were challenging apartheid and African-Americans in the U.S. were pushing for civil rights.

Pelé was a working-class icon who exemplified the ideal that talent and hard work can provide a boost up the social ladder, she said.

“It was important that he was Black and the best athlete in the world’s most important sport,” Elsey said.

Elsey said Pelé was at the height of his fame when he signed with the Cosmos and ignited a soccer boom in the United States that continues to this day. He served as a bridge between Long Island natives and the immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean that began to move into the region in the 1970s.

Pelé reacts after the Cosmos' win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers...

Pelé reacts after the Cosmos' win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Aug. 14, 1977. Credit: Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/George Tiedemann

Elsey said she heard many stories about Pelé’s impact on Long Island at the 2014 conference. “People talked about their parents taking them to see him,” she said. “People talked about getting Pele lunchboxes.”

Pelé also easily adapted to life as a celebrity in New York. Although he was gracious and religious, he also knew he was a superstar. Like Walt Frazier, Joe Namath and other New York stars of the 1970s, he wore a big fur coat during the winter and enjoyed Manhattan night life.

“He was very Studio 54,” Elsey said. “He was not so managed on social media like athletes today.”

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