Pele and Santos made several visits to Yankee Stadium and Downing Stadium back in the day. (Photo courtesy of FIFA)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Well before he donned the green and white uniform of the New York Cosmos, Pele made quite a few appearances for Santos in New York City.

In fact, he played at least 10 times before joining the North American Soccer League side in 1975.

Not only did Pele make his New York City debut on Aug. 21, 1966, it was his first game in the USA.

Born as Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele passed away on Dec. 30. He was 82.

This story does not include games Pele played in New Jersey (at Giants Stadiums at in Jersey City), only in NYC.

Here is a quick history of the Black Pearl in the Big Apple:

Santos 4, Benfica 0 (Aug. 21, 1966)

In a confrontation of the two greatest players on the planet, Pele and Santos prevailed over Eusebio and Benfica at Downing Stadium in Randalls Island. Pele scored one goal, but the star of the match was 17-year Edu, who tallied twice before a record crowd of 28,000 (of which 25,670 were paying customers). The match was not without several rather unusual incidents, according to The New York Times.

This was Times sportswriter Gerarld Eskenazi’s lead to his story:

The second half of the soccer game between Santos of Brazil and Benfica of Portugal was supposed to start, but a thousand men, women and children took the field at Downing Stadium on Randalls Island yesterday, carrying banners and flats, signing and jumping.

Bare-chested men ran over to Eusebio, the Portuguese star, and stuck pencil and paper in his hands. A girl in a blue dress ran over to hug Pele, the Brazilian hero.

Minutes later the second half started up, but it was stopped as been cans were thrown onto the pitch for no apparent reason. Finally, the deluge subsided and the game resumed.

Santos 1, AEK 0 (Aug. 24, 1966)

In front of only 11,214 spectators at Downing Stadium, Santos prevailed over AEK of Greece. Pele took what The Times said were “impossible shots,” at goalkeeper Theodor Maniateas, who made several huge saves. In fact, after Maniateas denied the Brazilian early in the second half, Pele applauded his efforts. Maniateas made 14 saves, seven in each half.

Toninho, who rose to the occasion when he played in NYC, converted a feed from Pele from 12 yards for the game’s lone score.

Late in the contest, Pele scored off a free kick after he was fouled, but it was disallowed.

Santos 4, Inter Milan 1 (Sept. 5, 1966)

Pele scored once and set up another goal, and had two more called back for offside, as Santos rolled over Inter Milan (Italy), 4-1, before a crowd of 41,598 at Yankee Stadium.

“This once again proves that Brazilian soccer is still tops in the world,” Santos head coach Luis told The New York Post.

This match was played about two months after the two-time defending champions had been eliminated from the World Cup in England.

While he was fouled several times, Pele showed his magic to the crowd of 41,598 in the second half, getting the ball in front of the goal, dribbling past a defender and blasting a shot past the Inter goalkeeper. Edu, a 17-year-old who was hailed the new Pele, scored in the fourth minute and in the second half. Pele set up Toninho in the 49th minute before Pele tallied, drilling a shot home in the 71st minute. Pele received a Zodiac watch after he was named the game’s MVP.

Inter Milan 1, Santos 0 (Aug. 26, 1967)

Inter gained a measure of revenge after losing the 1966 confrontation between the two teams before a crowd of 37,063 at Yankee Stadium. Sandro Mazzola scored the only goal as the Italians defeated Santos. Sergio Santarini closed down Pele before a knee injury forced him out of the game in the second half.

The game originally was scheduled for Friday, Aug. 25, but rain pushed it back to Saturday. The Yankees had the first and last words on field availability and could cancel a match on a moment’s notice.

“With an advance sale of close to 20,000, the rain really cut into the game,” soccer promoter Enzo Magnozzi told the Post.

How great an impact did Pele make? Even though he did not score a goal, he still mesmerized and entertained the fans. Jim Trecker, just out of college and who later worked with Pele as the Cosmos public relations director (and in a similar capacity with the NASL and World Cup USA 1994), was among the crowd who watched the match.

“It was an electrifying match,” he said. “I do know that Pele lived up to everything everybody said that he was. And so was Santos. I remember as clear as day. I do remember seeing Pele take the ball in his half of the field and seeing him go all the way down to the other end, beating everybody but not scoring. It was one of the first things I had ever seen in person, live, of a true, true, superhuman magic with the ball.”

The Yankees and Cosmos agreed that the baseball club or city had the right to postpone a game no less than four hours before the kickoff in case of adverse weather conditions.

“I remember we were always pins and needles when the weather was a little dicey because the Yankees held a veto over games on whether they can be staged or not,” Trecker said. “There was a day or two in the summer of ’76 when we weren’t sure if we were able to play the game or not, whether it was drizzling or this or that.”

Santos 4, Napoli 2 (June 21, 1968)

The headline in the New York Post said it all:

Explosive Pele Paces

Smash Stadium Show

A record paid crowd of 43,002 showed up at Yankee Stadium last night to see Pele, the king of soccer, and they weren’t disappointed,” Marcus wrote.

Pele, who was fouled six times in the first half, scored off a brilliant header on the hour.

Toninho who stole the show with a hat-trick, two goals coming from penalty kicks. Jose Altafini had both goals for the Italians.

Asked why he didn’t attempt any of the PKs, Pele told the Post, “I used to before I hurt my foot, but we’ve found out that Toninho is better at it now.

“I was very satisfied with my overall performances. However, I think that tonight we proved that Santos has 10 other top players besides me.”

Santos head coach Antonino Fernandez was asked how he would defend the Black Pearl.

“I’d put one man in back him and two men in front of him … with guns,” he said.

Santos 6, Napoli 2 (June 26, 1968)

In a rematch of the two great sides, Santos rolled over the Italian squad in front of 7,237 on Randalls Island.

“Without a doubt Santos is a very good club and when Pele plays like he did against us tonight they can really be great,” Napoli head coach Egido DiCostanzo told the Post.

“Against us tonight he did just about everything a great player is supposed to do out there. He was amazing. We had several injuries, but I think the way Santos played tonight they could have beaten anyone.”

New York Generals 5, Santos 3 (July 12, 1968)

In its second appearance of the year at Yankee Stadium, Santos was upset by the North American Soccer League team, 5-3, only its fifth loss in 61 games to that point in 1968.

New York Daily News sportswriter Norm Miller wrote that it was “as staggering an upset as ever” at Yankee stadium.

“It was as though the town baseball team from Sandusky, Ohio, had beaten the Cardinals; the Westchester Bulls manhandled the Green Bay Packers, and Chaminade HS topped the Boston Celtics,” he continued.

Some 15,645 spectators saw Pele held scoreless. Gordon Bradley, who would later become Pele’s coach on the Cosmos, held the superstar scoreless. Pele showed flashes of brilliance in the second half. His most memorable moment was a pass to Toninho for a goal that closed the gap to 4-2.

The general grabbed a 3-0 advantage 24 minutes into the encounter behind a pair of goals by Warren Archibald. Cesar Menotti, who would go on to direct Argentina to the 1978 World Cup title, scored his first goal for the team that season.

Santos 3, Benfica 3 (Sept. 1, 1968)

In the second NYC confrontation between Pele and Eusebio, Santos and Benfica played to a 3-3 draw before 36,904 at Yankee Stadium. Incredibly, the players combined for only one goal – by Eusebio in the 48th minute. Pele was part of a build-up to a Brazilian goal as he was fouled to create a penalty kick that Brazilian World Cup captain Carlos Alberto converted to knot things up at 1-1 in the 42nd minute. Pele had an opportunity to score the game-winner in the waning minutes but shot wide of an open net. The game was an attack-lover’s heaven as Santos took 31 shots, Benfica 28.

Santos 2, West Ham United 2 (Sept. 23, 1970)

The final score also could have read:

Pele 2, Clyde Best 2.

The two superstars traded goals before 22,000 fans at Downing Stadium. Pele gave the Brazilian side a 19th-minute lead but Best, who went on to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Portland Timbers (North American Soccer League) lifted the London squad with a pair of goals in the 27th and 29th minute.

Pele, however, equalized several minutes later as he wove his way through three West Ham defenders, scoring from 10 yards for a 2-2 tie. He was so mesmerizing and entertaining that 200 spectators ran onto the field “to show their approval” The Times of London reported.

The opening kickoff was held up for 70 minutes due to heavy traffic on roads leading to Randalls Island.

Santos 2, Deportivo Cali 2 (Aug. 2, 1971)

Cosmos president Clive Toye saw Aug. 2, 1971, as a red-letter day in club history. Willie Mfum recorded scored 21 seconds into the game, the fastest goal in club history, in a 3-2 victory over the Rochester Lancers. But it was only the appetizer as Santos and Deportivo Cali played to a 2-2 tie in the second game of a doubleheader.

In his endless pursuit of Pele, Toye tried another ploy to lure the Black Pearl to the Cosmos.

“I was constantly niggling him, you might say, to remind him that we were serious about it,” Toye told this writer. “That was an ideal opportunity. We had retied the No. 10 until he wore it. Before the kickoff, I went on the field and got on the microphone and made the announcement that was the Cosmos shirt for him to wear one day and we hoped it would happen one day. So, I gave him the No. 10 Cosmos shirt, having already taken the Cosmos colors, which was Brazil’s colors. I told him we had picked the colors to make him comfortable when he wore the shirt.”

As for the game, Edu, who also wound up playing for the Cosmos, set up the first goal. He later dribbled through four Cali players before bending a shot into the net.