Pele made NASL history against the Rochester Lancers at Holleder Stadium on June 27, 1975. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

After he signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975, Brazilian great Pele scored a goal in his inaugural match with the team in a friendly draw with the Dallas Tornado. Several weeks later, on June 27, 1975, he found the back of the net for his first North American Soccer League tally in a 3-0 win over the Rochester Lancers.

The following is an excerpt from FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis’ new book, ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers, which detailed Pele’s first NASL goal. The book is available on www.Amazon.com.

The next Friday, Pele and company came to town. The Brazilian superstar had performed at Holleder Stadium before, but not in a competitive league match. He wasn’t necessarily promising instant results. “I have not come over here to just make a championship,” he said through his interpreter and confidant, Prof. Julio Mazzei. “I have three years to do that. The main reason is to help American soccer grow. If we win it this year, beautiful. If we don’t, we still have two years to go.”

The Cosmos were forced to change their pace of play from up-tempo to a slower one. “In the beginning, all the team looked toward me,” Pele said. “They played for me and not for the team. After that start, I know we will finally be a team. Sometimes I think I’ve brought more problems to the Cosmos than solutions. Now every team wants to beat the Cosmos and Pele. Because of that, the Cosmos have more work to do.”

Pele admitted that he had trouble getting accustomed to the Cosmos’ style in his first two games with the club, even though he had scored in a 2-2 tie against the Dallas Tornado 12 days prior. But that was an exhibition game at Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island.

George Lamptey, a member of the Nigerian national team, was selected to cover Pele. The 23-year-old Ghana native, was all of 6-2 and 180-lbs., an intimidating, physical defender who seemed to always smile. He was known to open soda bottles with his teeth, and had two-inch long incisions on his cheek bones that marked him as a member of the Ga Tribe in Accra, Ghana.

“Naturally, I will do my best not to allow him to score,” Lamptey told the Rochester Times-Union. “Our main concern, however, is winning points in the standings. It is very important that we win the game. As for Pele, the job is to try to take the ball, to keep him away from it because when he has the ball, he’s tough to defend. Timing is very important in facing Pele because he’s such a great master.”

There were other concerns — Pele’s health and security.

In Pele’s first road game against the Minutemen at Nickerson Field on June 20, the home team wanted to squeeze as much money as possible out of a confrontation between Pele and Eusebio. However, the Minutemen couldn’t get the math correct as an estimated 20,000 people crammed into a venue that could hold but 12,500.

“You could not have gotten another feather into the stadium, it was so packed full of people,” Cosmos president Clive Toye said. “They were all across the touchlines. If someone wanted to take a throw-in, they had to ask someone to move because they couldn’t step over the line.”

In the 79th minute, Pele had a goal nullified, and the fans stormed the field. The Black Pearl fell to the ground and his bodyguard, Pedro Garay, tried to protect him. “The fans raced onto the field and went after Pele, who had fallen to the ground,” Garay said. “I found him, and I draped over him. At that particular time, it was a matter of ducking and trying not to get hurt.”

Pele suffered injuries to his right knee and ankle.

Not surprisingly, Toye was adamant about security at future games. “Unless I am personally assured he is going to be safe, Pele will not play in Rochester or any other place in America,” he said. “He is too precious a person to be treated like he was here [Boston]. I am going to make sure of his safety, even if I have to get the United States Marines.”

Marines were not needed for the game in Rochester, though a club-record 14,562 fans jammed Holleder. It turned out to be a historic night for Rochester sports as another 14,081 fans, the largest crowd at Silver Stadium in nine years, watched the Rochester Red Wings lose to the Toledo Mud Hens (baseball fans had come to see a list of baseball personalities, led by then commissioner Bowie Kuhn and former Red Wings, as well as post-game fireworks).

As the soccer game progressed, the Cosmos seemed to become more confident in their actions. Pele decoyed goalkeeper Ardo Perri to score the game’s first goal. In the 31st minute, Julio Correa’s shot from 18 yards hit the crossbar while Perri jumped for the ball. The ball bounded back to the field and an onrushing Pele headed it into the unprotected net for the 1,222nd goal of his career. Pele then did his signature leap and a punch to punctuate his goal.

“This is just normal in my progress,” Pele said. “In my first two games, I didn’t know my teammates Tonight I felt more comfortable on the field. You could see it. I began to take my forward position as the game went on.”

Pele’s exit from Holleder after a 3-0 win was far different from his Nickerson departure. Instead of going home, fans stood outside the Cosmos locker room, hoping for a look at the superstar and perhaps an autograph. Garay was forced to use another strategy.

“There were so many people hanging around trying to get to Pele, to touch him or get an autograph, that to get him to the bus, Pedro, [Warner Communications head of security], Lou Luca and myself made a three-man wedge like blocking for a running back, with Pele in the center,” said Sports Vue Interactive executive editor Charlie Cuttone, who worked for the Cosmos at the time.

Pele left the stadium for a flight to Washington, D.C., where he met President Ford the next day.

The Lancers just left in awe.

“He is simply impossible to stop,” Rochester head coach Ted Dumitru said. “Pele is still the greatest. He simply destroyed our team . . . He made us watch him play.”

 

You can read about Pele and more in ALIVE AND KICKING:

FOR YOUR SUMMER READING: An entertaining book about the Rochester Lancers and an education about the early days of the modern pro soccer era