Jan. 7—When Pelé first came to Philadelphia with the New York Cosmos, the crowd of 20,124 fans at Veterans Stadium was left disappointed because he didn't play.

But there were three opportunities to see the late Brazilian legend play here over the years. And in fact, just one of them was with the Cosmos.

Here's a look back at those games, and how The Inquirer and Daily News covered them.

'Soccer's king'

In 1973, Pelé toured the United States with his longtime Brazilian club team, Santos. On June 10 of that year, Santos played an exhibition game against German club Arminia Bielefeld at JFK Stadium, drawing a crowd of around 20,000 fans.

"So what if Pele only played three-quarters of Sunday's game against Arminia Bielefeld of Germany?" The Inquirer's Dave Sims wrote. "Philadelphia got a chance to see an interesting international soccer match. An estimated crowd of 20,000 saw the Santos team defeat the Germans, 5-0. Soccer's king, Pele, assisted on the first goal and scored on a blast from 20 yards out in the second half."

It was big enough news to make the front page of the sports section, along with a Phillies win and a PGA Tour stop in the region. The Daily News gave the game just a few words but had a big photo of Pelé leaping for a header.

"Pele was the man the crowd wanted to see in action," Sims wrote. "When he first touched the ball, an electric charge was set off in the audience in anxious anticipation. His brilliant footwork set up teammate Leo in front of the German goal. Leo drove in an on-target shot. Santos breezed the rest of the game."

(For the record, The Inquirer and Daily News didn't print accents on names back then, so the one on Pelé's name did not appear.)

Neither paper ran a box score from the game, so we don't know everyone who played. But Pelé was just one of many famous names on Santos' squad at the time. Two of the biggest were midfielder Clodoaldo and right back Carlos Alberto, who also were Pelé's teammates on Brazil's legendary 1970 World Cup-winning team. Together, they set the gold standard for o jogo bonito — the beautiful game. They also later played in the NASL, Clodoaldo with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Carlos Alberto with the Cosmos.

Sims later gained some renown too, though not in soccer. A college intern at The Inquirer when he covered Pelé's visit, the Philadelphia native later spent many years calling college football and basketball for ESPN, and the NFL and college hoops on Westwood One radio. In 2007, he became the local TV play-by-play voice of the Seattle Mariners, and he's had that job ever since.

The Cosmos era starts

In 1975, Pelé shook the soccer world and America by coming to New York. Their first visit of his tenure to Philadelphia was on June 10, just hours after he signed his Cosmos contract at a wild news conference. It was that night at the Vet when Pelé didn't play, and it was known in advance that he wouldn't. But he did make the trip and made ceremonial appearances before and after the game.

Even with just that, the Atoms drew one of their biggest-ever crowds. The Inquirer splashed big photos on the front of the sports section, and the Daily News had one on its back cover.

The Atoms won the game, 1-0, in overtime, with a goal from Chris Bahr — a son of Philadelphia-born U.S. national team legend Walter Bahr who was an all-American in soccer and football at Penn State. He went on to greater fame for winning two Super Bowl rings in a 14-year NFL career as a placekicker. But before then, he was the NASL's Rookie of the Year in his one year as a pro at the world's football.

The Inquirer's Bill Livingston wrote that Bahr's goal produced "the only roar of the game to rival even remotely the one that greeted Pele."

Phil Jasner covered the game for the Daily News, and if you only knew him as a legendary 76ers writer, now you know he knew a lot about soccer, too. He found Pelé in then-Eagles owner Leonard Tose's suite near the press box. Longtime Daily News photographer Elwood P. Smith was there too, and snapped a photo of Pelé and his first wife, Rosa.

Daily News columnist Larry McMullen painted a portrait of the scene.

"Television cameramen and still photographers from every station and newspaper in our town gathered at Veterans Stadium to take pictures of Pele not playing," he wrote. "Me, too. I was there to write about Pele not playing. I know nothing at all about soccer, but I do know about the greatness of an athlete who attracts that much attention by not playing."

And while the column was headlined "Yes, We Don't Understand Soccer," the end of it makes for funny reading 48 years later.

"Soccer is fast and violent," McMullen wrote. "If we had thought of it first, it would be a success here. We are still working on ice hockey."

Spirit in '76

A year later, Pelé finally played here again. In fact, he played in Philadelphia twice in 1976. The first time was an exhibition tournament with a NASL All-Star squad. "Team America," as it was known, played England at JFK Stadium on May 31 to cap off a nationwide tour with Brazil and Italy.

With 16,239 fans in attendance, the English won, 3-1, with two goals from star forward Kevin Keegan. The NASL's stars included Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia, English World Cup winner Bobby Moore, and Ridley Park-born goalkeeper Bob Rigby.

Pelé's only notable contribution was a free kick early in the first half that forced a diving save from English goalkeeper Ray Clemence. Rigby was in the bigger spotlight, because he made 12 saves.

"Nobody was toasting Team America yesterday after the NASL All-Stars were turned into a burnt English muffin during the Bicentennial Soccer Cup game," Dick Weiss wrote in the Daily News — another renowned basketball scribe who covered soccer back in the day.

A TV broadcast of the game is on YouTube. It's the only one of Pelé's visits here for which video footage exists.

On July 10, Pelé finally suited up for his only Cosmos-Atoms game.

Two days before kickoff, the teams held a news conference to build some buzz. Longtime Inquirer staffer Don McKee was there to cover it — and to capture a gem of a quote.

"Look at ice hockey ... The scores are low and nobody complains about that," Pelé said at a time when the Flyers were the toast of the town. "That's because the people who understand the game appreciate the defense and the efforts the players are making to do certain things. When more Americans learn what to watch — the defense, the footwork, the passing — they won't complain that soccer scores are too low."

Here we are in 2022, and there are still plenty of complaints. But on the whole, Pelé has been proven right. When the U.S. men played England to a scoreless tie in the recent World Cup, many casual fans understood the high quality of the Americans' play.

(As for the Flyers, well, that's another matter.)

'The magic of Pelé'

Two days after his prophecy, Pelé scored a header in the fourth minute to open a 2-1 Cosmos win over the Atoms at Franklin Field. Alas, neither The Inquirer nor the Daily News had a photographer there, and the game wasn't broadcast on TV. And because the game was on a Saturday, the Daily News' Monday edition gave only a short mention.

So all we have are McKee's words, on the front page of the Sunday sports section, surrounded by news on baseball, the Olympics, and the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament in town.

"The magic of Pele can accomplish many things, as soccer fans have known since 1958," he wrote. "Last night, the North American Soccer League's traveling missionary brought his revival meeting to Philadelphia and managed several things not seen before in this city."

One was in the stands.

"The opportunity to see the King of Soccer drew the largest crowd in the Atoms' history — 25,311 — which also created the first traffic jam prior to any known Atoms games," McKee said.

Another was on the sidelines, and it was more familiar. After the game, Atoms manager Jesus Ponce accused the referee of "helping the Cosmos all the way."

It didn't help that Atoms striker Victor Perez was sent off just six minutes in for his role in a shoving match with New York's Dave Clements. But after the game, Pelé praised the home team's play.

"Technically, there is no doubt in my mind the Atoms are one of the best teams in the league," he said. "They are very skillful ... You will see improvement next year."

This prompted McKee to conclude: "We're waiting, King, we're waiting."

Alas, the wait never came to fruition. The Atoms finished fourth in the Atlantic Conference's Eastern Division that year, failed to make the playoffs, and folded after the season.


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