1. Hotbeds: When they came for Pelé that brisk June night, the locals ripped the shirt from his back. They absconded with one of his shoes, too, and tore his vintage Seventies-era short shorts. Global sporting icons deserve far more solicitous treatment, we can agree. But those American soccer fans of pitch-invasion age (let’s call it 18 to 25) didn’t know from matters of soccer etiquette, not back then, not halfway through the ever-so-brief Ford administration, not so early in the game’s modern evolution upon these shores. When, in its misplaced excitement, the crowd had finished with the 34-year-old Brazilian and some semblance of on-field order had been restored, Pelé was not seriously hurt. But he did lie prostrate for a time — and a bit freaked out, surely — on the weirdly verdant AstroTurf at Nickerson Field. His tying goal, late and dramatic, was exactly what we’d all come to see, or hoped to see. That’s precisely why and when folks stormed the field in communal spasms of ecstasy and adulation. That’s what happens, we the faithful discovered that night, when a flesh-and-blood savior comes to town and overdelivers.
The year was 1975. I was ten and three-quarters years of age. My father had chaperoned a few youth soccer teammates and me to our first-ever professional match: our Boston Minutemen home to Pelé’s New York Cosmos. Up and out way past our bedtimes, we innocents bore witness to this madcap scene, to its confusing aftermath, to the new era it signaled.
Capacity had been greatly exceeded that evening. This was obvious in the moment. Next morning, the crowd situation formed the basis of hand-wringing accounts from a variety of Boston-area journalists — “a security problem just waiting to happen,” they tut-tutted. To my friends and me, this judgment felt tone-deaf and priggish. The good-natured mauling of soccer’s most august ambassador was, in fact, just one of several equally important, electrifying takeaways. First, don’t bury the lead: Our Minutemen won this game, 2-1. Next, we watched American-born left back Benny Brewster help them do so, firsthand. Yes, Pelé was carried from the field, not to return — but we soon saw the man, with our own wide eyes, get up and walk the earth again, right there on the sideline below. Finally, it was the broader tableau inclusive of all this stimuli — almost cinematic in scope and shock value — that made our hair stand on end. It seemed to our impressionable, pre-pubescent brains that most of metropolitan Boston had flooded these modest premises to experience something truly massive and historic, something uproarious and unpredictable. Something almost holy.
We stood the full 90. Our serendipitous place in this passion play was a mere causeway, an interstitial place between places: a featureless concrete thoroughfare raised up in Brutalist fashion behind the west goal. Before and below us the action unfolded unobstructed, the spillover crowd enveloping the field in a picture frame of living, breathing, hooting and hollering humanity. During the match this pending security issue moved and morphed like a gargantuan amoeba, fattening in places only to thin back out, shifting sideways and backward but never losing its interior, rectangular integrity where it met the field of play — that is, until Pelé struck from just outside the box some 20 minutes from full time. Behind us loomed a trio of high-rise Boston University dormitories. I remember craning my neck to see their many windows all filled with ticketless spectators. Beyond the opposite goal, the city skyline twinkled in dark repose over the monolithic, man-made horizon that was the Massachusetts Turnpike. For a soccer-mad kid like myself, this was the stuff of some baroque fantasy become real, for I could never have conjured such a scene without having observed it with my own waking eyes.
With no seats to complicate our spectating experience, we did indeed stand — our flat chests pressed against a low, rounded bit of industrial railing. When Edson Arantes do Nascimento — the semi-mythical Pelé, his highness O Rei — tied the score with 20 minutes still to play, that’s when the invisible rectangular barrier gave way and they came for him. The masses. To lay hands on the man, the same jubilant, numinous fellow they’d seen jumping into the arms of teammates, in slow motion, every Saturday afternoon during the opening montage to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. That night at Nickerson Field, these would-be soccer fans acted (out) as any newly minted devotees might have: by touching the hem of his garment. Several garments, in fact.
Tucked unobtrusively off Commonwealth Avenue, Nickerson Field had been pieced together slapdashedly, seemingly in sections, starting in the 1960s. It first took shape on the site of Braves Field, formerly home to the city’s National League baseball franchise, which had decamped for Milwaukee back in ’53. Despite this big-league heritage, and because The Hub has never been a college sports town, Nickerson would always play second fiddle in a city of philharmonics (Fenway Park, Boston Garden). For the breadth of their meager three-year existence, the expansion Minutemen proved fitting tenants for this second-rank stadium that, after all its evolutions, still seemed only half-finished in 1975. The single formalized stand, the old right-field grandstand, was located south of the playing surface. Across the way stood a skimpy, metallic, seemingly provisional bleacher. Official capacity: 12,500. There was nothing at all on either end of the pitch, and, in this regard, a healthy, well lubricated portion of the 20,000 on hand that June evening in 1975 could not believe their good fortune. They had arrived there, one imagines, to root for the home team — but also to get a real-deal, up-close glimpse of the visiting celebrity striker, the celebrated savior of American soccer. Pelé had joined his new teammates on the Cosmos only a few months before. Together they had arrived in Boston to take on our gallant Minutemen, whose fortunes rested largely on the aging shoulders of another imported megastar, a still-luminous figure named Eusébio da Silva Ferreira.
Many futbol aficionados during the 1960s placed Eusébio beside, if not above, Pelé in the pantheon of transcendent footballers. He was indisputably a giant in his own right — and the two icons knew each other well. Nine years prior, at the 1966 World Cup, Eusébio and Portugal didn’t merely defeat Pelé and Brazil in the final group-stage match. They roughed up O Rei and denied the defending champions a place in the quarterfinals.
The great Eusébio, the original Black Panther (born in Mozambique), would best his South American rival in this NASL rematch, as well — though he wouldn’t finish the game either. One wonders what Eusébio thought of Pelé’s tying goal and the intoxicated mob it inspired. The Portuguese had scored first that portentous night at Nickerson Field, to put the Minutemen ahead — his team, the home team. No one had invaded the pitch to celebrate his goal.
Just nine years later, this very same match and all its attendant pageantry — even the mauling of Pelé himself — had been more or less expunged from the public consciousness. The North American Soccer League (NASL) would abruptly collapse in late 1984. Thereafter, Pelé’s narrow escape from the Boston mob would register as but a footnote alongside all the other slices of U.S. soccer ephemera: the rock-hard synthetic playing surfaces, the head-spinning franchise shifts, the startling array of period pornstaches, all the imported talent, and the native-born drones who served them, literally and figuratively. Come 1985, outside the mind’s eye of young fans like myself, all of these memories lay buried somewhere in the rubble.
For 17 years, the professional game had flourished here, or so it appeared in the moment. Hadn’t NASL cheekily made off with top international players from all points across the civilized futbol world? Not just Pelé and Eusébio but glittering global icons like Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and George Best, as well? Yes. It had. It wasn’t just an extended fever dream. They had all competed here, in the flesh, before large crowds, on American soils.
When the league folded its tent, however, there was no slow fizzling out, no lingering soccer fandom to support a successor. NASL’s final Soccer Bowl was held in October 1984. By the following January, professional outdoor soccer lay comatose in the U.S. from sea to shining sea. In the immediate aftermath, the league seemed to many observers a sort of social experiment gone sadly and unforgivingly awry. They viewed NASL’s short tenure as an awkward sporting dalliance from which players and fans had quickly moved on. Within weeks, the foreign luminaries got straight out of Dodge — retired or moved back to Europe and South America. Without the skill or connections to follow them, native players found themselves immediately unemployed — or underemployed by random, low-budget indoor clubs.
Also alone and abandoned were all the young soccer fans minted during the league’s heyday. Few of them ever moved on, however. Starting in 1985, as young adults, they would produce from this forbidding void what American soccer had failed to create in a century of trying: a golden generation of native-born players and an audience that would care — the nation’s first legitimate futbol fan base. This epic transformation, however, was ultimately forged on the field of play: down in the Caribbean, on the Korean Peninsula, in the Eternal City of Rome. Just five short years after professional soccer imploded here, these children of the Seventies did the impossible: They climbed out of the resulting crater, covered in primordial ooze, to redeem the U.S. game at a stroke — and to show that NASL had not died in vain.
2. Pushback: When American soccer went suburban during the Nixon Administration, “hotbed” went along for the ride. In a literal sense, the term has always meant “a bed of earth heated by fermenting manure, for raising or forcing plants.” When deployed in the soccer context, “hotbed” proved equally apt when describing the game’s regional, urban popularity prior to the 1970s, and its new suburban incarnation thereafter. Unfortunately, the word also came pre-freighted with a dumpster-load of subtler, more unflattering baggage. Secondary definitions include “an environment promoting the growth of something, esp. something unwelcome.” (The italics are mine; definitions from Merriam Webster.) Neighborhoods or cities or entire regions are routinely described today as “hotbeds” of vaguely foreign or sinister attributes: unrest, political agitation, even terrorism.
In the parochial hands of sports media and other self-appointed cultural guardians during the Seventies, this particular expression would prove wantonly double-edged. While the Youth Soccer Revolution was a demonstrable phenomenon, the label simultaneously served as a sort of backhanded shorthand for the game’s suspect interloper status on these shores. After all, throughout the 1950s and Sixties, American soccer hotbeds had in fact been almost exclusively urban and ethnic in nature.
The mainstreaming of soccer across the nation’s Rockwellian suburbs unnerved old school media in particular. Then Pelé showed up, and the North American Soccer League started making actual headlines. Come 1976, the once-struggling league even signed a network television contract with ABC. All this growth and attention further augmented prevailing negative views on and anxieties about the sport. Rather than evaporating over time, the country’s thinly veiled xenophobia with regard to futbol — and immigrants, and city folk generally — lingered, festered, then continually bubbled up in print, in schools, on playgrounds. Anywhere the sport bumped up against the status quo.
That June ’75 match at Nickerson Field remains a vivid case in point. The match was not, to be clear, Pelé’s Boston debut. He had toured the U.S. with his former club side, Santos FC, seven years prior. (His Brazilian squad easily dismantled the semipro Boston Beacons, 7-1, at Fenway Park on July 9, 1968; the Red Sox were off on the All-Star break). Santos would return to Greater Boston two years later and meet Italian club AC Milan in another exhibition, at Everett Stadium, on June 17, 1970 — but Pelé was not there. He was competing for his country that summer in Mexico, at the World Cup.
I share these minutiae to illustrate two matters of interest: First, there was, at this time, clearly an emerging appetite/market for soccer outside NASL and suburban youth leagues. It was precisely this sort of broader interest that made the sporting establishment, working press included, resentful and dismissive by turn. Second, and more to the point, when The Boston Globe reported on the 1970 Santos-AC Milan match in Everett, the four-paragraph story indicated an attendance of 4,500. Former Globe staffer Frank Dell’Apa believes this figure to be wildly inaccurate — and not by accident. Or so he reported via his eponymous blog in 2019:
There was more to the crowd, as well, according to Frank Mirisola, former supervisor of referees for Boston Public Schools, who acted as a linesman (assistant referee) in the game.
“There were 18,000 at the game,” Mirisola said in a recent interview. “Everett Stadium was a big horseshoe, with bleacher seats, and it held 20,000 at the time. There was a long line at the ticket booth.”
What about the discrepancy in crowd numbers in news reports?
“That happened a lot, because they didn’t want soccer to make it,” Mirisola said. “When we played Liverpool (in 1964) they said the crowd was 10,000. But it was 15,000 – I saw the ticket receipts.”
Further disclosure on that 1975 Minutemen-Cosmos match: While the game did end 2-1, Pelé did not score — not officially. After the Brazilian potted his apparent equalizer and fans rushed the field, play would not resume for fully 15 minutes, according to Seamus Malin, who called the game on radio. When it did, the referee had waved off Pelé’s goal and awarded a goal kick. In his autobiography, The Education of an American Soccer Player (Bantam Books, 1979), then-Minutemen keeper Shep Messing asserted the ball hit one of the fans crowding the field, beside his goal, and bounded back into play. This ricochet was interpreted as a carom off the inside frame of the goal, fooling much of the overflow crowd and many of the players.
“I agree with Shep that the ball never went in,” reports Malin, who went on to become the television voice of U.S. Soccer throughout the 1980s and Nineties. “It rebounded quickly back into play, possibly off the post but more likely off one of the many fans who had invaded the field and were swarming around just behind the end line, by the side of the goal. That is what I called on radio anyhow. Did Shep tell you that when the crowd burst onto the field to congratulate Pelé on his ‘goal,’ that Shep dived on top of the fallen Pelé to protect him from the wild mob? Can’t make this stuff up.”
I was there that night, but somehow did not recall these quite salient facts and keen observations. Until consulting the Globe archives, neither did I remember that New York’s Mark Liveric would tie the match anyway, before Wolfgang Suhnholz won it for Boston in overtime. In the end, none of these results proved official, as Cosmos general manager Clive Toye successfully appealed the result, citing the home team’s obvious security failures. The match was replayed, back at Nickerson, in August of 1975. Both Pelé and Eusébio watched from the stands — a 5-0 Minutemen blowout, before a crowd of just 4,445, or so the Globe reported.
Forty years on, it’s instructive to read these archival press clippings. They are full of revealing details, anachronistic observations and subtle digs. When the Globe reported on that original June 1975 match, for instance, the paper concentrated not on the spectacle, the overflow crowd it drew, or the condition of world futbol’s most celebrated citizen. Instead, the staff writer fretted openly about how the event had “turned Nickerson Field into a shoving, marginally controlled maelstrom, and ruined what could have been a wondrous piece of nostalgia.” A colleague wrote, “What resulted last night was a chaotic and nearly tragic nightmare that never would have happened anywhere the game of soccer is taken seriously.” That’s some peculiar and petty reporting. Journalists in the 1950s wrote similarly about Elvis Presley and the prurient movement of his hips. Come the Nineties, mainstream media similarly derided hip-hop culture for its dangerous low-riding jeans.
As a rule, sportswriters are more often taken to task for their cheerleading. From 1974-78, Boston was home to a brand-new, ultimately ill-fated World TeamTennis franchise, the Lobsters. Go rifle through the Globe stacks for those game stories. I have: They were downright celebratory — and probably inflated attendance! Because tennis was familiar and “American” enough to worry no one.
Professional soccer in the 1970s remained but a minor feature in America’s exceedingly crowded sporting landscape. The league had formed in 1967, nearly went under in 1969, rebounded thereafter, yet remained some distance below the mainstream sporting radar — even after Pelé arrived. By late 1984, the entire enterprise had disappeared. But these realities were largely lost on contemporary mainstream media. Because soccer was perceived as something “other,” coverage routinely attacked, held down and/or minimized it. Not all, but most sports writers felt it was their obdurate patriotic duty to protect the country’s economic and cultural status quo. American soccer would battle this closed-shop media mentality for many decades to come, and this prejudice was not the territory of sports writers alone. Their cause was aided and abetted by gym teachers, Little League coaches, high school athletic directors and policemen alike.
Two days after the fact, Pelé’s mauling at Nickerson Field remained front-page news in his hometown paper, The New York Times: “Cosmos Demand More Security for Pele,” the headline blared. According to the story: “The Minutemen had assured the Cosmos they would have at least 200 policemen at the game. Toye said he had counted only 14 Boston policemen and eight Boston University guards at Nickerson Field, the B.U. stadium. Rafael de la Sierra, a vice president for Warner Communications, which owns the Cosmos, said he went to the nearest police station at halftime to ask for help. ‘They told me soccer attracts only 2,000,’ he said.”