Mention the name Edson Arantes do Nascimento to a sports fan and some might recognize it.
Others would give you a quizzical look.
Mention the name Pelé and it’s a different reaction.
The Brazilian soccer legend who led his country to three World Cup titles passed away from cancer on Thursday at the age of 82.
I was lucky enough to watch the world’s most popular footballer play live.
Bobby Lenarduzzi was even luckier – he got to play against him.
It was a magical night when Pelé and the New York Cosmos arrived in Vancouver to play the Whitecaps on June 30, 1977 in front of 30,277 supporters in a sold-out Empire Stadium.
“I knew because of the fact that Pelé was playing with them that there would be a big crowd there. Between Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, they all had superstar status but it was Pelé who was the main drawing card. The atmosphere was fantastic. People came just to see him,” recalled Lenarduzzi.
Pelé would be held off the scoresheet as the Whitecaps defeated the Cosmos in a wild 5-3 match. Vancouver got two goals each from Derek Possee and Buzz Parsons in defeating the New York side that would win the first of its back-to-back NASL Championships two months later.
Lenarduzzi pointed out the match would be the genesis of a Whitecaps team that would win a championship two years later. The crowd that came to see Pelé saw quality soccer that resulted in a rise in the Whitecaps attendance. Interest grew in the team, as did expectations.
“That’s the type of impact he had on North America. It’s the type of impact he had everywhere he went. Even if you didn’t know much about soccer, you knew about Pelé,” said Lenarduzzi.
As for the match itself, Lenarduzzi remembers being star-struck, even as a professional footballer, and then having to reset.
“You almost had to pinch yourself. Then you had to say ‘OK that’s enough now’. The hero worshipping is over because you have a game to play,” explained Lenarduzzi, who remembered as a seven-year-old watching Pelé weave his magic during Brazil’s 1962 World Cup win, then as teen, watching him play a pair of friendlies at Empire Stadium in the early ’70s.
But this wasn’t the same Pelé that had led Brazil to glory that Lenarduzzi was facing that night. At the age of 37, his physical skills had diminished but Pelé still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
“He had dropped deeper from the position he had played in his peak, which was more up top. He was more of a provider. I remember the ball at his feet… he would give you a look that would suggest he would be going in that direction then he would cut back on you and he did it so quickly that he would wrong-foot the defender and then have that little burst of speed to get away from you. I remember he did that on a number of occasions,” said Lenarduzzi.
So did the then 22-year-old Lenarduzzi have enough wisdom to exchange jerseys with Pelé after the match?
“It’s funny you bring that up. Here’s the wildest thing. I was talking to my brother Sam today – we actually have a picture with Pelé in our street clothes with him in the middle. It was up on the wall at my parents’ house forever until my mom passed. Sam has it now and they used it for a story on Global TV. While we are having this conversation, Sam tells me that he actually got Pelé’s jersey at the end of that game. I’m like ‘what?’ And he tells me that he can’t find it. It’s somewhere in storage. I said ‘are you nuts? You have his jersey?’ I never even knew that and he brings it up to me today matter-of-fact. I told him that I’d be spending my day trying to find that thing,” said Lenarduzzi.
As great of a footballer as Pelé was, perhaps the biggest compliment that can be said of him was how humble he was despite all of his tremendous accomplishments.
“He always played to the crowd. He knew why he was in North America. I’m not sure every player of that stature would do it but he did. Bruce Wilson (a former Whitecap and longtime Canadian National Team member) knew him from this time in New York.
He said Pelé was the most down-to-earth guy you would ever want to meet.
“For all that he had done, there was no ego, there was no arrogance,” said Lenarduzzi.
Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.