Pele, 53, still scores with fans Promotes World Cup at Inner Harbor stop

September 23, 1993|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

Michelle Yurchak has been at her new job for only two weeks, but yesterday she took a day off, pulled her son Stephan, 13, out of school and drove three hours from Gibbstown, N.J., to Baltimore.

Only an appearance by Pele could cause such interruptions.

"Somebody at work gave me a pamphlet that he was going to be in Baltimore," said Yurchak. "Stephan has all his movies and videos. He does all his school reports on Pele. This is big, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We had to be here."

Pele, regarded as the greatest player in soccer history, was at the Inner Harbor yesterday, signing autographs, posing for pictures with babies and promoting World Cup '94, which will be played in the United States this summer.

He also shared his dreams for soccer in the United States with the several hundred fans in attendance, and talked about the political problems he has encountered in his homeland of Brazil, which he led to three world championships.

"I am surprised. Every place I go, people love me," said Pele, 53, who scored 1,282 goals in 1,324 games that spanned nearly three decades. "But that's what we need in this country [enthusiasm for the sport]. And we must make space for the younger players.

"Everybody knows how hard I fought to bring the World Cup here to the U.S. when I played for the New York Cosmos [1975 through 1977]," said Pele. "A lot of U.S. papers and reporters teased me. But now my dream has come true, and hopefully the U.S. will develop a strong league. In the old league, they gave too much space to foreigners and ignored the younger players."

Pele had a number of young followers yesterday, even though some of them were not born when he was at his peak. They never saw him shoot a straight-on 60-yard shot over an off-balance goalkeeper or perform a bicycle kick from almost anywhere on the field. Pele also was an astute passer with relentless desire and outstanding speed.

"I've seen him in magazines, and I know he was the world's greatest soccer player, and the highest scorer in the world," said Jason Taitague, 11, of Millersville.

Jake Naish, 10, of Baltimore said: "I knew he was the best in the world, and this was the only time in my life I would get to see him. I think there are two other great players, too -- Billy Ronson [former Blast player] and Tony Meola [U.S. national team goalkeeper]."

But even veteran players, such as Spirit assistant coach Mike Stankovic, came out to see Pele.

"He has done an incredible job in the U.S.," said Stankovic. "Some foreign players come here, make money, and never come back. Pele always came back. You always wanted to play against Pele, but he retired my first year at Memphis. I never had a chance to kick him, but now I finally get to shake his hand."

Pele spends most of his retirement as an ambassador to soccer. He recently returned from China, and has made stops in Moscow, South Africa and Tokyo during the past year. Next stop is Brazil, where he will help prepare the national team for the World Cup.

"I once had problems in Brazil because I fought against corruption, against the poverty there," said Pele. "Some people ask me if I want to be president there. But I fought that as a person, not as an athlete. Sport and politics don't mix.

"But in the next 10 months, Brazil will prepare for the World Cup," said Pele. "Brazil will make the final four. My dream is to have Brazil and the United States play in the finals."

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