YOKOHAMA, Japan -- The United States is an underdeveloped nation. Just ask Pele.
When it comes to the ''beautiful game'' that made the Brazilian star famous -- he's still soccer's most popular figure 25 years after his last goal -- America still isn't a global power. Of course, the way the United States has performed at this World Cup, great things might be ahead.
''People don't realize all the youngsters in the USA who all play soccer,'' Pele said Thursday. ''There are 25 million kids ranging from the age of 8 to 25 playing in the States, and the No. 1 pastime of young Americans is soccer. It has great potential.
''But there are other important things. In this World Cup, the second-level team has played very good football and that is very important for the World Cup. It is important to give more attention to the sport in the United States and South Korea and the underdeveloped countries in football. This will be good for the future of the sport.''
Soccer has gotten periodic boosts in the United States. Pele provided one of the first when he played for the Cosmos in the old North American Soccer League. The team regularly drew huge crowds to Giants Stadium and the league had a national TV contract.
But that momentum faded and didn't pick up again until the 1994 World Cup was held in the United States. The tournament was a success and the Americans made the second round before losing to Brazil 1-0 on July 4 in a the highest-profile soccer game played in the country to that point.
U.S. soccer fans, front left, Eric Johnson, Josh Maxson, a napping Ashley Travis and Nick Waltz express their frustation early Friday morning, June 21, 2002, at Staples Center in Los Angeles while watching the last minutes of the televised World Cup quarterfinal match between Germany and USA. The televised game, which Germany won 1-0, was hosted by the Los Angeles Galaxy.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Again, the momentum died, only to be rekindled in 1999 when the U.S. women's team won the World Cup in the biggest soccer phenomenon Americans have been a part of.
That sparked a women's league, just as the '94 men's event led to the establishment of MLS. So will this strong U.S. showing mean much back home?
Pele believes it will.
''For FIFA, it is very important to take this opportunity to see in the future that it gives more support to those underdeveloped countries,'' he said. ''Imagine if teams like the USA and South Korea become strong in soccer. It is good for the game.''
Not so good for the game, according to critics of FIFA's scheduling of the World Cup, is the short break between the end of European club seasons and the start of the championship. This year, in an attempt to avoid the rainy season in South Korea and Japan, the World Cup kicked off on May 31, about two weeks earlier than usual.
That has been blamed for the poor showings by defending champion France, Argentina, Portugal and Italy. Pele says no way.
''Senegal's players almost all play in France,'' he noted. ''Five months ago, Brazil, England and Germany were on the second level. Italy, France, Argentina and Portugal were on the No. 1 level, and they have all gone home.
''You cannot say that a game will be an easy game. There are no easy games anymore. The danger is to always be the favorites. Sometimes you relax a little bit. That could've happened to Argentina and France.
''In this World Cup, South Korea, Senegal, Japan, the USA -- they play good football and they play equal.''
Pele had no equals on the field in leading Brazil to its first three world titles, in 1958, '62 and '70. Also in 1970, he began a tradition.
Pele wanted to honor England's Bobby Moore after the Brazilians beat the English 1-0 in Mexico. So he whipped off his gold No. 10 jersey and handed it to Moore, who gave Pele his white shirt.
''He was the best player in the World Cup that time,'' Pele recalled. ''Brazil won the World Cup, but he was the best player for me. He was the best who played against me my whole life. Bobby Moore was a very fair player, too.
''So I said, 'OK, we will exchange it.' After that, everyone began to exchange shirts.''
Pele even inspired a MasterCard commercial in which people in various nations exchange aprons, sashes and shirts.
''For me, it was just this friendly way of (paying) my compliments,'' he said, chuckling as he watched the commercial. ''It is a good memory for me.''
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