Pelé – The King of Football Smiling Happy

Pelé, the great football player, the vibrant, pompous person, is gone. I only photographed him once, during a shower at Giant Stadium in New Jersey. The occasion was the fun, noisy dressing room scene that took place shortly after Cosmos successfully defended their NASL championship. It was 1978, and the crowd out there in East Rutherford still ranks as the largest crowd ever to watch a football game in North America. (I use the term football to refer to the game, as the league calls itself the North American Soccer League.)

Professionally speaking, I’m still a moron, as can be easily seen from the picture. Tri-x, pushed to ASA 1600, Vivitar flash goes into “yellow” mode, desperately hoping its output somehow matches my prediction of the f-stop. Straight flash, hot white walls. I blasted the grain in this frame so badly that I could have used a bazooka.

Pelé has not competed, having retired the previous year in a much-watched exhibition match between Cosmos and his former team, Santos. He played one half for each team and scored one goal. As the world’s top footballer, his farewell to the pitch, playing in the rain, was so emotional that a Brazilian newspaper wrote about it… “even the sky is crying. ”

But it was his cheerful, masculine presence that lifted Cosmos to the realm of invincibility and filled the Giant Stadium. Putting him on the team attracted other great athletes. Giorgio Chinaglia, seen below, heads.

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

Pelé is a gift to all of us. Very sorry I was never able to take a picture of him playing. But the chaotic shower scene, and the pressure to cover a championship game, shaped me. Larry DeSantis, a cigar-chewing editor, forever blunt told me, “Never shoot a locker room without a flash. I give this advice to you for free.” I did that. I just sadly realized that I had to improve it a lot if I was to survive the challenge of being assigned to take pictures in New York City.


I was a solo presenter covering the event and recorded several high-speed runs with my device, from up and down the touchline to the stadium rafters and back. Film is an item and must be shipped, especially on time. I had to shoot and come back to process my film at UPI HQ on 42nd Street. Line service business was one thing. I have never experienced on-time filming for a major magazine and rushed chrome filming in poor conditions. I got a crazy chance on this when I turned the corner to get back onto the pitch in the first half, and bumped into Co Rentmeester.

Co, aka The Big Dutchman, in his youth, was an Olympic rower who competed in the 1960s for his native Netherlands. He has become an excellent photographer for many pubs, most notably LIFE magazine. At the stadium, he was very keen and on time. His assistant is a close friend of mine, Les. He knew we were friends, and he looked at me like a tiger staring at a zebra cub. He grabbed my shoulder. His face is close to mine. “Have you seen Leslie yet???” he shouted over the noise. “No,” I answered curtly. I remember him shaking me during this interrogation, as if that might create an answer to his liking. He shouted back, “I have to meet a helicopter!” and disappeared in a frenzy. Leslie, with a rather laid-back personality, was sent by Co to the top of the stands with a wide glass for coveralls and most likely went to buy a sausage (I suspect) and a coke, MIAs.

Those are the tribulations of time. Slow glass, dark stadium, manual focus, 36 exposures, film in your pocket. You can see the grain of these images, hot-mixed in Acufine or mixed through the Versamat processor. Contrary to below, Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. Nikon D5, 400mm f2.8, ISO 2000, autofocus. With that said, 2000 is the new 400. Or perhaps ISO 5000? See Jade Carey below, flying above the balance bar. Nikon D6, 70-200mm. We have come such a long way as photographers.

Cosmos and NASL fell apart after that glorious year. The low, long battle cry of “COSMOS,” uttered in a low, explosive and rippling voice as a response to the biggest church service you can attend, no longer shakes the beams. home of the old stadium that Jersey Turnpike heard.

And now Pelé is gone. We are poorer because of that. He lifted our spirits and the game he played. And brings back memories of the glare of the shower, and the lessons learned.

More tk….

Post Pelé – The King of Football Smiling Happy appeared first on Photographer Joe McNally.


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