A week into the 2018 World Cup, we’ve seen our fair share of jubilant celebrations. But exactly 43 years ago this week, bearing witness to one of soccer’s all-time greats, Boston fans took it too far.
On June 20, 1975, the city played host to Pelé. At the age of 34, the Brazilian soccer legend had resurrected his career from retirement to play in the fledgling North American Soccer League. It was the Pelé’s first season with the New York Cosmos, as well as his first game in Boston to take on the city’s NASL team, the Minutemen.
“The messiah has arrived to convert pagan Bostonians to the religion of soccer,” The Boston Globe’s John Powers wrote ahead of the game.
But former Santos star and all-time leading Brazilian goal-scorer wasn’t the only draw.
On loan from Portugal’s Benfica, the late Eusébio was also starring in the game, having joined the Minutemen for the 1975 season. Nicknamed the “Blank Panther”, the renowned 33-year-old Portuguese striker was voted one of the top 10 all-time soccer players and was considered a peer by Pelé.
And now, the two aging titans of the game were once again squaring off, not on soccer’s greatest stage, but on an AstroTurf field in Allston.
Nickerson Field was more than 50 percent overcapacity for the highly anticipated Friday night game — with an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 fans in the 12,500-person stadium. As Powers wrote in the next day’s paper, the overflow crowd “turned Nickerson Field into a shoving, marginally controlled maelstrom, and ruined what could have been a wondrous piece of nostalgia.”
According to the Globe, the Minuteman had talked about moving the game to a larger facility or potentially adding extra bleacher seats at Nickerson field, the home of Boston University. Neither happened. Instead, shortly before kickoff, the overpacked crowd spilled over the wall separating the stadium seats and the sidelines. The New York Times reported that “several thousand” fans left the standd and surrounded the field to get an up-close view of the two former all-world players plod around midfield, directing the game.
“The fans and the players were so close they could shake hands,” the Times reported. “And a lot of them did.”
Minutemen coach Huber Vogelsinger later told the Globe that he “had to stand on a bench just to watch my team.”
The game was scoreless through the first 75 minutes, until Pelé committed a foul outside his own penalty area and gave the Minutemen an opportunity. Though perhaps past his prime, Eusébio apparently hadn’t lost his shot. His 78th-minute free kick beat the Cosmos’ goalie into the back of the net. 1-0, Minutemen.
That’s when things started to get chaotic.
Moments later in the 79th minutes, Pelé seemingly answered back on close-range rebound that he “passed cleanly” into the left corner. However, the referee said Pelé guilty of pushing a defender prior to his shot and the goal was disallowed — but not before the excited fans had already rushed the superstar in celebration.
‘They swarmed him, burying him from view for several minutes,” Powers wrote.
According to the Times, Cosmos employees and Pelé’s personal bodyguard rushed onto the field to try protect their player — who had signed a record three-year, $2.8 million contract with the team — from the mob of overly enthusiastic fans.
“We just threw ourselves over Pelé to protect him,” John O’Reilly, the Cosmos’ publicist, told the New York paper. “Those people were wild.”
“Somebody ripped his shoe and pants off,” Cosmos general manager Clive Toye reportedly added.
When the fans were pulled off, Pelé was revealed to have been injured. Out of caution, he was even taken off the field in a stretcher and brought to the Case Center where Cosmos players huddled to find out if he was OK. According to the Globe, it took more than 15 minutes before play resumed.
“Somebody jumped on the back of his right knee,” a spokesman for the Cosmos told the Times. “We think he has pulled something inside his right knee and has sprained his right ankle.”
Though the injuries weren’t as serious as some observers feared as they watched fans engulf the star player (Powers suggested the league was fortunate he wasn’t killed), Pelé was taken out of the game for good and, four minutes later, so was Eusébio. The Cosmos did equalize within the final minutes of regulation, but the Minutemen ended up winning in overtime, 2-1.
After the game, Pelé himself expressed concern about the severity of the injury.
“I won’t know until tomorrow how serious it is,” he told the Globe after the game.
The next day, he reportedly flew back to his home country of Brazil to get an assessment from his doctor. The injuries weren’t apparently weren’t too serious and Pelé returned to the states the following weekend to beat both the Rochester Lancers and the Washington Diplomats, score a goal in the latter game, and even paid a visit to President Gerald Ford at the White House.
The Cosmos did however file a official protest of June 20 game with the NASL, arguing that Boston officials failed to provide proper security for the star. The league actually agree and granted the team’s request for a replay on August 3.
For better and worse, the rematch was nothing like the original.
Back at Nickerson Field, Pelé and Eusébio — both of whom were injured in subsequent games — watched from the sidelines as the Minutemen thrashed the Cosmos, 5-0, before a significantly smaller crowd of 4,445. Fortunately, none of them caused any incidents on the field.
Pelé would go on to play two more seasons in the NASL, setting soccer broadcast and attendance records. Decades later, he told The Guardian that coming to play in the United States was “best thing I did in my life.” It’s unclear if he would say the same about coming to Boston.