By DAN KARELL
August 14, 1977 is an unforgettable day in the history of American soccer.
On that day, a record crowd of 77,691 showed up to Giants Stadium to watch Pele, Franz Beckenbaur, and the New York Cosmos take on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the opening match of the North American Soccer League’s conference semifinal round of the playoffs. The Cosmos won that match, 8-3, and went on to win the Soccer Bowl in Pele’s last season with the club.
To witness a crowd of that size and stature in the United States was a “fantastic” day for Pele and the Cosmos.
“The crowd was one of the biggest in the history of soccer (in America),” Pele said in a conference call on Monday. “In Brazil, we have Santos, an international team, but I think we never get the median of the capacity that we used to get with the Cosmos. That day, the stadium was full. It’s amazing, it’s very good when you play when the stadium is full, when the people are there, it makes you feel more excited for the game.
“I’m never going to forget that day.”
Fast-forward to Saturday, the Cosmos and Strikers will renew acquaintances for the second time this season. The first time around was the Cosmos first match as a professional franchise since folding in 1985, and saw the hosts open the fall NASL season on a high with a 2-1 victory, thanks to a late Alessandro Noselli goal.
Talking about the rivalry between the Strikers and Cosmos back in the 1970s, Pele said he was pleased that the two teams are playing once more, after 30 years of inactivity, though he’s still going to be rooting for his former club.
“When I came here (to New York), we used to talk a lot about the Strikers and we used to talk about the players,” recalled the Cosmos honorary president. “I hope everything goes okay (on Saturday), that the Cosmos have luck and win the game.”
While Pele did admit that he’s disappointed that it’s much tougher now for NASL clubs to attract big-name players in Europe and South America than it was when he played for the Cosmos, he had plenty of praise for compatriot and fellow Cosmos player, Marcos Senna.
Senna, 37, spurned a number of offers, including ones from Major League Soccer clubs, to sign this summer with the Cosmos, and has started all seven matches the team has played in central midfield, scoring two goals. His performances made their mark on Brazil’s greatest soccer talent, as Pele said that at a recent meeting with Senna in New York, Pele jokingly tried to recruit him to play for Santos in Brazil.
“Marcos Senna was a big surprise for all Brazilians because he appeared to play excellent here for the Cosmos,” said Pele. “I met him two months ago and we had a get together in New York, and I said ‘Hey Marcos, why don’t you play with my team Santos,’ because he’s an excellent player and I like him.”
In all, Pele applauded the growth of soccer in the USA, how it’s played all the way from kids through high schools and universities, and even commending the U.S. Women’s National Team for being the top team in women’s international soccer.
Though the U.S. Men’s National Team still has a ways to go to catch up to the likes of Spain and Brazil, Pele was confident that soccer in this country will continue to improve.
“We have a lot of countries, like Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, they all have the same level of soccer as in the United States,” Pele stated. “Mexico, who has an experienced team, didn’t qualify (yet), and the American team qualified.
“To talk about the quality of the sport and the strength of the United States, there is no doubt.”