Cosmos, Strikers matchup brings back memories of storied rivalry

Pelé will not be on the Lockhart Stadium field Saturday night when the reincarnations of the New York Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers attempt to recreate the storied rivalry of the 1970s.

Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia won’t be in uniform. Neither will Gordon Banks, George Best, Nene Cubillas, Gerd Muller or Ray Hudson.

But the Strikers’ familiar red and yellow ringed shirts, the Cosmos’ green and white and the team names alone should conjure up memories of the NASL heyday.

“It was a very important rivalry, the Cosmos and Strikers,” Pelé, 72, said by phone Monday. “We used to get great crowds; people talked about those teams. There is a big difference now. It is more complicated to get the name players. We lost the reputation. But still if you go to China, to South America, anywhere, everybody remembers Cosmos. The name is still there.”

Thirty-six years have passed since Pelé and his star-studded Cosmos beat the Strikers 3-0 at Lockhart Stadium. An overflow crowd of 14,358 showed up on June 8, 1977, to get an up-close look at the one-named Brazilian World Cup legend, and his teammates, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia. It was a rematch between Pelé and Banks, the English goalkeeper who made a great save on a Pelé header in the 1970 World Cup.

Pelé had signed with the Cosmos in 1975 for $1.4 million per year, and his presence elevated the sport to unprecedented heights in this country. He scored on a free kick that day against the Strikers.

Vivid memories

“I remember slide-tackling Pelé in that game, greatest tackle I ever made,” said Hudson, the former Miami Fusion coach, now a commentator at BeINSport USA. “For a lad from Newcastle to chase down Pelé, that was massive. I tracked him like a cheetah chasing a gazelle, slid in and hooked the ball from behind, and he went over. I almost wanted to go back and help him up, I mean, it’s Pelé. I still got a picture of that play. I’ve got the evidence.”

The rivals met again in the playoffs later that season in front of a record crowd of 77,691 at Giants Stadium.

“The Cosmos personified fantasia,” Hudson said. “They were spellbinding. I remember looking around the field in one game and there were seven World Cup captains on the field. It was the zenith point for all of us who had the privilege to play in that league at that time. It will never happen again. I remember I-95 shut down with fans getting off the exit ramps for Lockhart, and fans shoehorned into that place, pushed up three deep against the fences.”

It will be a more intimate affair this Saturday at Lockhart, but the game should be a good one.

The Cosmos are still a very international bunch, led by an aging Brazilian. This one is 37-year-old midfielder Marcos Senna, who spent 11 years with Villarreal in Spain’s La Liga. He played for Spain in the 2008 European championships.

“Senna was a big surprise for Brazilians,” Pelé said. “ I met him two months ago, and said, ‘Why didn’t you play for my team, Santos?’

“The quality of soccer in the United States is very, very strong. A lot of countries like Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, have the same level as the United States. Mexico hasn’t qualified for the World Cup, and the U.S. did. There is no doubt [the U.S. leagues] will continue to be better and better.”

The Strikers are led by 19-year-old goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, who plays for Mexico’s U-20 national team. He is on loan from FC Dallas of Major League Soccer and is a key reason why Fort Lauderdale is tied for second place with Tampa Bay and Carolina, behind the Cosmos.

Exciting match

Nobody is more excited about Saturday’s game than Strikers president Tom Mulroy, who grew up in New York, loved the Cosmos and idolized Pelé to the point that he patterned his signature after his.

“Back then, there was no soccer on TV here, no video of yesterday’s goals on YouTube,” Mulroy said. “But we knew who Pelé was. When he signed with the Cosmos, that was huge. Even though these are different teams, the Cosmos name adds credibility to our league. And anytime a New York team plays in South Florida, it’s a big deal, right? Jets, Giants, Knicks. So many New Yorkers here. We’re hoping for a great atmosphere.”