Pelé – The Smiling and Happy King of Football

Pelé, the outstanding football player and passionate and friendly human being, is gone. I only photographed it once, in the bathroom at Giant Stadium in New Jersey. It was the frenetic, boisterous locker room scene that occurred right after the Cosmos successfully defended their NASL championship. The year was 1978, and the crowd at East Rutherford was still some of the largest ever to see a football game in North America. (I use the term soccer in reference to the game, as the league calls itself the North American Soccer League.)

Professionally, I’m still a rube, as can easily be seen from the pictures. Tri-x, pushed to ASA 1600, Vivitar flash cranked to “amber” mode, really hoping the output would somehow match my conjecture of f stops. Straight flash, hot white walls. I blew the grain in this frame so bad I might as well have used a bazooka.

Pelé did not play, having retired the year before in a much-watched exhibition match between the Cosmos and his former team, Santos. He played half for each team, and scored goals. As the world’s leading footballer, his farewell to the pitch, played in the rain, was so emotional that a Brazilian newspaper wrote about it… even the sky was crying.”

But it was his magnetic and exhilarating presence that lifted the Cosmos into championship realms, and filled the Giants Stadium. Getting him on the team attracts other outstanding athletes. Giorgio Chinaglia, seen below, headed the ball.

And Franz Beckenbauer, the famous German sweeper, is seen below lifting the championship trophy.

Pelé is a gift to all of us. Sorry I never took a picture of him playing. But the chaotic scene in the bathroom, and the pressure of covering a championship game, was really important to me. Larry DeSantis, cigar-loving, ever-blunt cable editor always told me, “Never shoot a locker room without a flash. I am giving this advice to you for free.” I did that. I just sadly realized that I had to get a lot better if I was to survive the photo assignment case in New York City.


I was a one-man show covering this event, and logged several high-speed runs in my gear, up and down the sidelines to the ceiling of the stadium and back again. Film is a physical item and must be transported, especially by a deadline. I had to shoot, and came back to process my film at UPI headquarters on 42nd St. Wire service work is one thing. I haven’t run into shooting deadlines for major magazines, and filming chrome films for a rush in bad conditions. I got a window of panic about this when I turned the corner to return to the court in the first half, and crashed into Co Rentmeester.

Co, aka, The Big Dutchman, in his youth was an Olympic rower who competed in the 1960 games for his native Netherlands. He later became a star photographer for many pubs, most notably LIFE magazine. At the stadium he was wild-eyed, and at the deadline. His assistant is my best friend, Les. He knew we were friends, and he looked at me the way a tiger might stare at a baby zebra. He gripped my shoulder. His face is very close to mine. “Have you seen Leslie???” he shouted over the din. “No,” I replied, weakly. I remember him shaking me during this interrogation, as if that might lead to an answer he liked. He shouted back “I have to meet the helicopter!” and disappeared hastily. Leslie, having a fairly laid back personality, had been sent by Co to the top of the grandstand with a wide mirror to make a pass and go, most likely for a hot dog and coke, MIA.

Such was the misery of that time. Slow glass, dark stadium, manual focus, 36 exposures, film in your bag. You can see grain from these images, hot soup on Acufin, or mulch via a Versamat processor. Unlike the one below, Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. Nikon D5, 400mm f2.8, ISO 2000, auto focus. As some might have said, 2000 is the new 400. Or maybe ISO 5000? See Jade Carey below, flying over the balance beam. Nikon D6, 70-200mm. We have traveled such a long distance as photographers.

The Cosmos and the NASL faded after that glory year. The long, deep battle cry of “COSMOS,” uttered in a bass vein, booms and rolls like a response to the biggest church service you’ll ever attend, no longer rattling through the old stadium ceilings, heard by the Jersey Turnpike.

And now Pelé is gone. We are poorer for that. He lifted our spirits and the game he played. And brings up memories for me of the live flash in the shower, and the lesson learned.

More thx….

The post Pelé – The Smiling, Joyous King of Football first appeared on Joe McNally Photography.

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