San Antonio soccer fans had the opportunity to watch Pele, (arguably still) the most famous soccer player in the world in 1976, when he and the New York Cosmos arrived to play the San Antonio Thunder in an NASL exhibition match on March 31st to kick off their second season.
Pele’s Impact on Soccer in the United States
It is difficult to overestimate the impact Pele had on soccer in the United States when he joined the Cosmos in the middle of the 1975 season. The NASL launched in 1968 when two separate leagues, who began play the previous year, overcame their differences and merged to form the new organization. Achieving any kind of professional soccer relevance in the U.S. was difficult in those days. The NASL almost folded after the first year and grew slowly for the next four years before Pele’s arrival created a buzz that turbocharged a few years of rapid growth in the league. NASL’s leadership knew that Pele was the only soccer player on the planet who could capture the imagination of the U.S. and Canadian general sports fan. In many respects his arrival in the mid-70’s created an even bigger buzz around the sport than David Beckham did when he joined MLS in 2007. The NASL was unable to secure a steady TV contract at the time and Pele’s arrival created enough interest that an internationally televised exhibition match against the Dallas Tornado was scheduled in June 1975 to kick-off his career here.
San Antonio Game Part of a NY Cosmos Preseason Trip
Pele was by far the most league’s expensive signing to that point. His seven-figure salary was jointly financed by the league owners, meaning that he was essentially owned by all clubs. Despite this joint investment, the Cosmos received a $25,000 appearance fee to come to San Antonio. This may not seem like a lot of money compared to fees today, but it was significant then since the top ticket price for this match was $5.00. In February, the San Antonio Express reported enough interest in Pele’s appearance that Mexicana Airlines would be flying charters to San Antonio from Mexico City and Monterrey for this game.
Prior to the start of the 1976 season, Pele and the Cosmos went on a six-match preseason trip to generate interest throughout the league. San Antonio was the third stop on this tour and the match was played three days after Pele was the featured attraction for the opening of the renovated Ownby Stadium in Dallas. On March 28th, New York beat the Dallas Tornado 1-0 on what was described as a “picture-perfect” Pele free kick.
Pele’s Visit Put Soccer on the Map in San Antonio
The Cosmos arrived in San Antonio shortly after this match. Taking full advantage of the opportunity to showcase Pele, the Thunder hosted multiple youth clinics including one he attended at a local school, a press conference, and a reception at what is now the Sheraton Gunter hotel in downtown San Antonio where the Cosmos were staying.
In an interview this week, Thunder head coach Don Batie told an amusing story involving the clinic Pele attended. Pele had picture cards he would hand out to youth he encountered at such events. At the conclusion of this clinic, Batie and Thunder midfielder Renato Costa brought their young boys to meet Pele. He had run out of cards to give the kids and was very apologetic. Batie forgot about this until a clueless security guard approached him in the Thunder locker room before the game and told him that “somebody named Pele” was at the door and wanted to see him. Sure enough, Pele was at the door in uniform with a signed poster (below) to make up for the lack of a giveaway at the clinic and later took a picture with the two boys.
Thunder defender Mark Stahl, in an interview this week, told me this story was consistent with his experiences during an exhibition series he played against Pele later that year. Stahl was a guest player with the Dallas Tornado who traveled with the Cosmos to play promotional matches in three potential NASL expansion markets. The limited time he spent directly with Pele in these travels left a positive impression. “Every interaction I had and my observations of him were that he was a class act, very humble and modest and extremely accessible to people.”
The press conference for Pele also marked the introduction of Thunder defender Bobby Moore who had just arrived from England. Moore, who was on loan from Fulham, still had responsibilities for his club so he flew in for a few days to play against the Cosmos before returning to England. Moore, who at the time was the most capped English international and captained the 1966 World Cup winner, had played Pele in the past, most famously at the 1970 Mexico World Cup in Guadalajara. This press conference was a love-in as Pele and Moore took turns gushing effusively about the excellence of the other. In Pele’s case this praise was not just for the press that day. After the 1970 World Cup game Pele said about Moore “He was one of the best players I’ve ever known. The best defender.” They also recreated the famous photo below captured after the World Cup match on the field immediately prior to the Thunder game. Batie mentioned this re-creation in our interview and noted that it was much friendlier than the perception presented by the initial image. He said that Bobby Moore’s memories of this encounter reflected this. “[The original photo] wasn’t a very affectionate time, actually what Pele was doing was taking out part of Bobby’s cheek with his fingernails.”
According to coach Batie, Pele was exhausted after the clinics and initially did not show at the reception which had been organized for him. Players, friends of the owner Ward Lay, and a local A-list were in attendance. A party of Brazilian players from both the Thunder and Cosmos were dispatched to his room to talk through the door and attempt to change his mind. He eventually came down and both he and Bobby Moore made a few comments. Pele then mingled for a short period before bowing out for the evening. When it appeared Pele would be a no-show, Batie said, in attempt to salvage the evening, Bobby Moore approached him and suggested that, since he was internationally famous also and was already there, that Batie should “go with that” and introduce him to the crowd instead. Batie noted that he dismissed this idea at the time and to this day believes it was a mistake. “Even I didn’t have brains enough to do that at that time. I kind of blew that off and went ahead and did what we were doing.” Batie continued, “I look back on it now and it is one of my biggest regrets. I should have said you are right Bobby; I should have gone to the crowd right then and said here is our star.” Batie noted that he did eventually introduce Moore to the crowd later.
The Largest Crowd for a Thunder Match Came to See Pele
An estimated crowd of 14,800 showed up on a cool night at Alamo Stadium to watch the match. Though the attendance was well short of capacity, it turned out to be twice the size of any non-fireworks crowd at a Thunder game in the two seasons they played in San Antonio. This was also the first match the Thunder played at Alamo Stadium since their announced move from North East Stadium where they played in 1975. They now had the ability to sell beer at their games for the first time. This was not possible when they first explored playing at the school district owned stadium at the time the franchise was awarded, but this barrier was broken down by the arrival of the World Football League the previous year. Though that team only lasted one season, the ability to sell beer at the stadium remained.
Pregame entertainment was provided by a pipe organ supplied by the local Shriners and a mariachi band from a local restaurant. After Pele was introduced to the crowd and received a rousing ovation, he was surrounded by what Express columnist Dan Cook described as “everyone within a three-mile area with a flash camera. Pele was mobbed by amateurs who elbowed each other like professional photographers.” Cook added that a loud PA announcer and four policemen finally restored order and Pele was able to continue a brief warm-up session.
New Thunder Players Lead the Team to Victory
The Thunder won the match 1-0 on a 76th minute goal from Canadian International forward Victor Kodelja who was making his Thunder debut. The play started when Bobby Moore found midfielder Jim Henry open on the right side near the end line. Henry sent the ball to an unmarked Kodelja who slammed it to the left side of the net from 15 yards out past the sprawling Cosmos goalkeeper. Kodelja gave credit to Henry and Moore for the goal after the match “Henry made a really nice run down the right side. I’ve got to really give credit to Jim and Bobby. It was a heads-up play on both their parts. They really made that play happen.”
The unquestioned star of the night, however, was rookie Thunder goalkeeper Pete Mannos. San Antonio’s top pick from the previous NASL college draft was not even supposed to play. The Thunder had recruited Scottish International goalkeeper Bobby Clark, but like Moore, he was on loan and did not arrive in time for the match due to responsibilities to Aberdeen, his Scotland club. Mannos made two superb saves to keep the Cosmos off the board. The first save came in the 60th minute when Mannos stopped what was described as a cannon shot from Cosmos forward Tony Field from 15 yards out. In the Express after the game Mannos said “I never saw a ball hit like that. I got my right hand out and punched it out, but I was glad to see it go over the end line.” The second save was the one that caught the crowd’s attention. In a situation that was similar to the free kick goal that Pele scored to win in Dallas, Mannos was able to stretch far to his left to stop a Pele shot hit low to the back post that went through the Thunder wall.
Pele only spent a few minutes at the stadium after the match. In a brief interview he complimented Mannos for the save, then traded jerseys with Thunder defender Carlos Rodriguez and was quickly escorted to a waiting van to escape the mob that wanted to meet him. Rodriguez later gave the jersey to Batie who shared the image below.
Don Batie remembers how well the Thunder played that night “From back to front we totally dominated that game. We were much the better team on the field I thought in that game.” Pele had a below par match. Understandable given the constant pressure he dealt with as the face of the league, the fact he was 35 years old and that it was one of an absurd number of exhibition games he played in his career with both Santos and the Cosmos. Other than the free-kick, there was little of the technical magic he usually produced, like he showed a couple of times in the Dallas game a few days earlier. Dan Cook commented in his column “But to be honest, he didn’t look any better-or worse-than a dozen other guys on the field. He continued, “Father time has a way of sapping speed, stamina and skill and after he becomes a constant companion, to the mighty ones great deeds are not produced twice a week on signal.”
Cook, who was an iconic local sports columnist and sportscaster for KENS TV, perfectly summed up the reason why it did not matter. “But when we are treated to the opportunity of seeing a legend we shouldn’t expect legendary performances. It should be just enough just to see Pele doing his thing, the thing he did better than any other man for many years-and still does best once in awhile.”
Stahl agreed with Cook and observed over the course of his NASL career he took away one general memory of the numerous “slightly past their prime” international legends he played against. “Cook is absolutely on the money [with how Pele’s performance should be viewed]. But I saw this with other players too. They were not in their prime, but every once in a while, in the middle of the game they would pull something out that no one else could do. Those moments of brilliance, they happened but they simply didn’t happen with the consistency or frequency that they did in their prime.”
Even at that time Pele still had a lot left in the tank when it mattered. He played two more NASL seasons for the Cosmos and led the team to the title in 1977 after the Cosmos added several players capable of playing at his level. Except for a 1985 promotional appearance in Houston when he was in his mid-40’s, this exhibition match against the Thunder was the last time Pele would play in Texas.
This Event Did Not Translate into Future Success
It is unfortunate that the nascent soccer culture in San Antonio at the time failed to recognize the opportunity to see a legend. In retrospect, the inability to sell out an appearance by Pele, who filled stadiums elsewhere, was another warning sign that professional soccer was not meant to be in San Antonio in the mid-1970’s. The soccer culture in Texas is quite different now. I clearly remember the electric atmosphere produced by Lionel Messi’s appearance at Houston’s NRG Stadium for the 2016 Copa America Centenario semifinal against the U.S. Men’s National Team. An appearance by Pele or an equivalent player with star power in 2020 San Antonio would certainly produce a completely different reaction today than it did in 1976.
Unfortunately, occasional star-driven events do not translate into long-term success for professional soccer in this country. This visit by Pele was another example of this reality, though at the time it seemed to create a level of excitement that has only been duplicated in San Antonio in subsequent years when the Mexican National team makes infrequent appearances.
Sources for this article include: (1) San Antonio Express newspaper archives (sourced online from Newspapers.com) (2) Excellent reference material and images courtesy of Dave Morrison at http://www.nasljerseys.com (3) The Best of Dan Cook (2001) pages 137-39 (4) Don Batie personal collection