On Aug. 21, 1966, Santos of Brazil and Benfica of Portugal faced each other in a friendly at Randall’s Island in New York. This could have been one of the greatest days in the history of soccer in the United States, but it turned out to be something less.
Pelé of Santos and Eusebio of Benfica, ranked as the two greatest players in the world at that moment, both made their American debuts in this game, but the game drew attention for the unruly spectators rather than the two superstars. Sixty years ago, many Americans thought that soccer and crowd trouble were synonymous, and this game provided them with more ammunition for that viewpoint.
Fortunately the trouble at Randall’s Island on this day didn’t have serious results. Only about a dozen people received first-aid treatment. That trouble had its roots in the fact that Downing Stadium was overfilled for what should have been a dramatic encounter between two legendary players. The official paid attendance was 25,670, in a stadium whose capacity supposedly was 23,000.
The trouble began before the game, when can-throwing fans registered their impatience as they waited for the game to begin. It got worse in the second half, after part of the crowd had moved down onto the running track in front of the stands and surrounded the field. The fans who had stayed in the stands rained more beer cans and other missiles down on them, and the resulting battle caused the game to be delayed for 15 minutes.
Santos played an excellent game to win by 4-0. The Brazilians led by 1-0 at halftime and pulled away later, as Pelé got one of the Santos goals on a shot from 15 yards out. The game was hard to notice, however, on a day that was an example of why soccer had a bad name in the United States for so many years. Pelé undoubtedly regarded Randall’s Island with mixed emotions when he joined the New York Cosmos there nine years later.
This was by no means the first crowd trouble at a soccer game in the United States. Examples can be traced to soccer’s beginnings in the US, including an infamous 1897 championship game in St. Louis. The 1916 U.S. Open Cup final in Pawtucket, R.I., between Bethlehem Steel and Fall River Rovers finished with a brawl sparked by a penalty at one end and a non-call at the other end in the closing seconds. Then, during an American tour in 1927 by Uruguayan team Nacional, two of the nine games, in Newark and Boston, had to be abandoned before the end because of on-the-field battles. The worst may have been the one in Boston, where two players were carried from the field unconscious after a free-for-all involving both teams and the crowd.
The trouble at Randall’s Island in 1966 was nowhere near as bad as that, but with the world’s two greatest players on the field and the game in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities, it was much more unhappily visible.
A version of this article first appeared on Roger’s Big Soccer blog on April 25, 2011.