By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — A bizarre mashup of the greatest soccer player who ever lived and a chimpanzee holding a soccer ball is puzzling passers-by at West 65th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
The side-by-side black and white posters, pasted to construction scaffolding outside LaGuardia High School, show a chimpanzee holding a soccer ball and wearing a T-shirt for the New York Cosmos soccer team. Beside it is a photo of Brazilian soccer legend Pele — a former player for the Cosmos, and now their honorary president — on a soccer field flashing a peace sign.
Pele played for the Cosmos in the 1970s. The soccer phenom's support of the team ramped up this week as he traveled to Singapore to kick off a tour of Asia with the Cosmos. The team stopped operating in the 1980s, but recently relaunched under new leadership.
The posters elicited a mix of confusion and amusement Thursday as pedestrians paused next to the M66 bus stop at 65th Street and Amsterdam to catch a glimpse.
Among them was an MTA supervisor who said the posters had caught the eye of bus drivers on the M66 line, who get a close-up view of the photos when they pull into the bus stop.
"Everybody's puzzled by it," he said. "They don't know which way to go with it."
The supervisor, who asked not to be identified, said drivers were more mystified than offended by the posters.
"I really don't know what to make of it," the supervisor said. "I don't get it. It doesn't really disturb me. Monkeys are very versatile animals, so for a monkey to be sitting there with a soccer ball, I can't really say anything bad about that."
An MTA driver said Thursday that he is sensitive to racial stereotypes — but found the posters "too vague" to offend him.
He said as an African-American man he could understand why some people might interpret the posters as racist, because they seem to make a comparison between Pele, who is black, and the monkey.
"Some ads are blatantly racist, but in this case, no," the driver said. "There's not a definite stereotype and no connection between Pele and the monkey. It's not even on the same photograph."
Some passers-by said they had no idea who the soccer player on the poster was, others said they thought the images were meant to be funny.
"It's celebrating soccer, I guess," said Steve Knapp. "It's about playfulness."
Denise Madison, a parent at LaGuardia, said she thought the posters could be connected to high school soccer powerhouse Martin Luther King, Jr. High School across West 65th Street.
Bouna Coundoul, a Senegalese goalie for the New York Red Bulls professional soccer team, graduated from MLK High School.
"It might be publicity for the Cosmos," Madison said. "It could be they're trying to get players."
It turns out Madison was right. A spokeswoman for the Cosmos said Thursday afternoon that the posters are promotion to generate buzz about the team's rebirth.