FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Pele will be spectating, not playing this time, when the franchises that helped suggest that soccer truly had potential in this country will renew acquaintances.
He's eager for it anyway.
The Brazilian soccer legend's former team, the New York Cosmos, will visit the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on Saturday night — 30 years after their last meeting in South Florida and 36 years after the franchises made a big splash by drawing a then-record 77,691 for a North American Soccer League playoff game in East Rutherford, N.J.
And even though the NASL doesn't make the same headlines now that it did a generation ago, the Cosmos name — almost certainly because of Pele's association with it — remains one of the most storied in soccer.
"I'm not surprised," said Pele, whose team rolled to an 8-3 win in that 1977 playoff game. "Unfortunately, I think we lost a little bit of the reputation. ... But even now, if you go to China, if you go to South America, everybody remembers, everybody knows the New York Cosmos. The name's still there. The name, New York Cosmos, people will never forget."
The rivalry once had some of the sport's biggest stars, names like Pele and Ray Hudson and Franz Beckenbauer. The teams drew crowds of more than 70,000 three times, a far cry from what the NASL typically does these days. Only one NASL match has had an announced attendance of more than 10,000 this fall — and that was when the Strikers visited the Cosmos last month.
The names involved are not the same, nor is the NASL.
"Unfortunately, there's a big difference now," Pele said. "All the teams were very well-organized. You had excellent players. I think that was the difference. Now it's a little more complicated."
Still, there's significance, both in the historical and on-field senses. First place in the league is at stake, with the Cosmos coming in one point ahead of the Strikers in the standings.
"There's a lot of excitement about our game against the Cosmos," Strikers coach Gunter Kronsteiner said. "Not only because of the historical significance of the match, but the implications in the table."
Pele has been talking about the match all week, clearly enjoying the trip down memory lane.
"This will be fantastic," Pele said. "After 30 years, we have this game."