[See here an excerpt from Chapter 1 of “Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, HiddenHistories and the Making of Soccer in America,“ a manuscript now in the final editing stage and scheduled for publication in 2021.]
When they came for Pelé that brisk June night, the locals ripped the shirt from his back. They got one of his shoes, too, and tore his shorts. Not the way to treat a global sporting icon, we can agree, but those American soccer fans of pitch-invasion age (let’s call it eighteen to twenty-five) didn’t know from matters of soccer etiquette, not back then, not halfway through the ever-so-brief Ford Administration, not so early in the game’s modern evolution upon these shores. When, in their misplaced excitement, they had finished with the 34-year-old Brazilian and some semblance of on-field order had been restored, Pelé was not seriously hurt. But he did lie prostrate for a time (and a bit freaked out, surely) on the weirdly verdant Astroturf at Nickerson Field. His tying goal, late and dramatic, was exactly what we’d all come to see, or hoped to see. That’s precisely why and when stormed the field in communal spasms of ecstasy and adulation. That’s what happens, we the faithful discovered that fateful night, when a flesh-and-blood savior comes to town and over-delivers.
The year was 1975. I was ten and three-quarters years of age. My father had chaperoned a few soccer teammates and me to our first-ever professional match: Boston Minutemen home to New York Cosmos. Up and out way past our bedtimes, we innocents were eyewitnesses to this madcap scene, to its confusing aftermath, to the new era it signaled. Capacity had been greatly exceeded that late-spring evening. This was obvious in the moment. The next morning, that situation would form the basis of hand-wringing accounts from a variety of Boston-area journalists — “a security problem just waiting to happen,” they tut-tutted. To my friends and me, this judgment seemed tone deaf and priggish. The good-natured mauling of soccer’s most august ambassador was, in fact, just one of several equally important, thrilling takeaways. First, our Minutemen won this game, 2-1, in overtime. Next, we watched American-born Benny Brewster and Shep Messing help them do so, first hand. Yes, Pelé Salvador was carried from the field — but we soon saw him, with our own wide eyes, get up and walk the earth again, right there on the sideline below. What’s more, for us, it was the broader tableau inclusive of all this stimuli — almost cinematic in scope and shock value — that made our hair stand on end. It seemed to our impressionable, ten-year-old brains that most of metropolitan Boston had flooded these modest premises to experience something truly massive and historic, something uproarious and unpredictable. Something almost holy.
We stood the full 90. Our serendipitous place in this passion play was a mere causeway, an interstitial place between places: a featureless concrete thoroughfare raised up in Brutalist fashion behind the west goal. Before and below us the action unfolded unobstructed, the spillover crowd enveloping the field in a picture-frame of living, breathing, hooting and hollering humanity. During the match this pending security issue moved and morphed like an amoeba, fattening in places only to thin back out, shifting sideways and backwards but never losing its internal, rectangular integrity where it met the field of play — that is, until Pelé struck from just outside the box some 20 minutes from full time. Behind us loomed a trio of high-rise Boston University dormitories. I remember craning my neck to see their many windows all filled with young, ticketless spectators. Beyond the opposite goal, the Boston city skyline twinkled in dark repose over the monolithic man-made horizon that was the Massachusetts Turnpike. For a soccer-mad kid like myself, this was the stuff of some baroque fantasy become real, for I could never have conjured such a scene without having witnessed it with my own waking eyes.