Nelson Cupello proudly displays his Pele jersey he earned in 1977. (Photo courtesy of Nelson Cupello)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

As a successful college coach for four decades, Nelson Cupello knew when to make the correct tactical moves.

As a player, he also learned when to be in the right place at the right time, even when he wasn’t performing.

That strategy led to the former Rochester Lancers midfielder-defender to securing Pele’s shirt during the soccer legend’s final season in 1977.

It happened against the New York Cosmos, who were making their final regular season appearance at Holleder Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. on July 15, 1977.

“I kept my mind and it’s my last chance at Pele’s jersey,” Cupello told co-hosts Andrew Battisti and Joe Sirianni on the Soccer is a Kick in the Grass radio show on Monday, Aug. 22. “I’m probably never going to see this guy again. We’re all warming up. He comes out and Ibraim Silva maybe Frank Odoi get our picture taken. Eddie Firmani [Cosmos coach] was maybe three yards away from us. And we say, ‘Hey, come on over get your picture taken with us.’

“As we’re standing there getting our picture taken, I said to Pele, ‘Can I have a jersey after the game?’ Firmani said, If someone else gets to before you.’ I don’t know how the game’s going to go. I wasn’t starting. I didn’t play that game. I said ‘OK.’ ”

That hardly put a dent into Cupello’s strategy to get the prize. In fact, it probably helped solidify his plans.

After playing to tie, the North American Soccer League match was decided by a shootout, not the penalty kick style, but the one in which players had five seconds to shoot at the goal starting from the 35-yard line.

Cupello watched the action from the Lancers’ bench and made sure he had an eye on the Cosmos bench across the field.

“We’re 55 yards away from each other on our respective bunches and I’m watching him,” he said. “He’s pacing back and forth. The shootout is going on at the close end of the stadium. They took their fifth shot and we’re tied. And our fifth shooter was Fazlic. Miralem goes up, sets the ball down, and I’m still watching Pele pacing back and forth, back and forth. And I’m watching him.”

Fazlic scored, boosting the Lancers to a win over the Cosmos.

“I take off,” Cupello said. “The crowd was cheering and [I’m thinking if they were] cheering for me because I’m running across the field to get this guy’s jersey.

“I get over there and pull the shirt off, hands it to me as I turn around and Silva, Odoi and whoever else is chasing me because they want the jersey. So I got a Pele’s jersey when he played here for his last season. I was very fortunate to do that.”

Cupello, who would go on to be an assistant and head coach at Monroe Community College and the head man at SUNY Fredonia, needed to make one more tactical decision because, hey, this was Pele’s jersey, the greatest player on the planet, and every Lancers’ teammate would have loved to make it part of their own collection.

So, he made an important decision, something he never had done in his career.

“I even had the shirt with me in the shower,” Cupello said. “I couldn’t trust those guys. If they got a hold of it, who knows where it would have ended up? I probably would never have seen it. It all washed it and put it in a nice safe spot, and I bring it out occasionally when people ask for it.”

 

If you want to read more about Nelson Cupello and his Rochester Lancers’ teammates over the years, do we have a book for you!