The vision of Pele and Bobby Moore stepping out onto the field in the colours of USA may sound like the fantasy of some 1960's soccer-obsessed American fan, but for one tournament in 1976, that vision was a reality.
It may be up to Thierry Henry and Co to represent the MLS against Bayern Munich, but the roots of the All-Star team go back some way. Almost 40 years ago a squad of North American Soccer League (NASL) players took on the likes of Brazil, England and Italy under the name 'Team America' in the American Bicentennial Soccer Cup, marking 200 years since independence.
The final line-up of 22 featured players from 12 different nations and five Americans, while the tournament meant – in the eyes of US Soccer president Gene Edwards – that “for the first time ever, the United States is the soccer capital of the world”. With England and Italy both failing to reach the European Championships, and no international tournament for Brazil, it was seen as a huge boon to have three former FIFA World Cup™ winners playing on American soil, and was presented as a call to arms for local fans to prove their love of the game to the globe.
Such was the desire to draw new supporters to the sport too, the tournament programme even carried the rules of the game to welcome fresh-faced fans. It was largely heralded as a success, as the competition covered the length and breadth of the country – from Los Angeles, to Seattle, to New York – attracting on average 45,000 fans. Pele and Moore were by far the star attractions for the home side, which also included New York Cosmos legend Giorgio Chinaglia – who finished his career with almost a goal a game from 250 appearances for the east-coast side.
Team America opened the tournament in Washington D.C. against an Italy side boasting a formidable spine, including goalkeeper Dino Zoff, captain and Juventus great Giorgio Facchetti, Fabio Capello and Marco Tardelli. Unsurprisingly coach Ken Furphy hoped to keep things tight against Gli Azzurri. “I told our guys, 'stay together and play together. Let's keep everybody tight in a 4-4-2. Don't rush forward and leave holes because, (Bob Smith) and (Dave) Clements, you'll never get back,'” he recalled.
The approach began positively, although future Russia and England manager Capello opened the scoring after 15 minutes. Furphy felt they were ultimately undone by a difference in training styles. “For 25 minutes it worked well, but then we lost the ball and they had a one-on-one against the keeper, Bob Rigby. He had been taught to come out with his feet first, not sideways to make himself big.” Goals from Francesco Graziani and Francesco Rocca secured a 4-0 win for the visitors.
Across on the west coast, Oswaldo Brandao's Brazil faced Don Revie's England in Los Angeles. With talent on either side, seeing the likes of Roberto Rivelino, Zico and Falcao in yellow and Kevin Keegan, Gerry Francis and Trevor Brooking in white, the game was actually decided by a last-minute scramble, tapped in by substitute Roberto Dinamite for a South American win.
As Team America, who sported a red shirt emblazoned with 'USA' across the players' chests, gelled as a team, their performances notably improved. Facing Brazil in the Seattle Kingdome they looked a more solid outfit – in spite of Pele not appearing against his homeland. The visitors were still ahead at the break however, with a neat shimmy from Gil beating two defenders before firing into the roof of the net.
Neat wing-play between Dinamite and Zico in the second period sealed victory, as the latter turned inside only to see his shot parried by Rigby, with Gil duly doubling his tally on the way to finishing as tournament top-scorer. Furphy was buoyed though, with the unfamiliar all-weather surface troubling A Selecao, saying “we nearly beat them because they weren't used to Astroturf!”
In New York, Italy raced into a two-goal lead against England through Graziani, firstly after the ball was gifted to Franco Causio who laid it on for him to rifle home, before the Torino man tapped in a second inside 20 minutes. England returned after the break a different side however, with Mick Channon on target following Zoff's save just 30 seconds after the restart. Two minutes later Phil Thompson had headed them level, and by eight minutes into the half a miraculous turnaround was completed with Channon sweeping the ball in after a flowing move.
Moore faces his Lions
That result meant any of the three former World Cup champions could claim the title on the final day, where Moore led out Team America in Philadelphia, in a bid to deny the side he led to glory a decade earlier. Keegan dented the former England captain's chances of an upset in the first half with his free-kick finding the bottom corner, then stealing in behind the defence to slot past Rigby.
But the hosts looked their most lively of all in their final-ever outing, with Pele a constant worry for Ray Clemence and Chinaglia also threatening. All hopes of a comeback were extinguished when Channon picked out skipper Gerry Francis who , danced past Rigby before nut-megging Keith Eddy on the line.
The game was played in good spirits, typified by a cheeky attempt by Pele to nick the ball out of Clemence's hands – before breaking into his familiar broad grin. There was time for Furphy's side to get their first goal of the tournament, with Scotsman Stewart Scullion finishing from 15 yards after good work from Chinaglia.
“Ray Clemence had to make one or two world-class saves,” Revie said after the game. “Pele had a two free-kicks and Clemence had to make two world-class saves from them. Without these they might have been able to get back into the game. [Pele's] very quick for a man who's getting past 30 and he's still a dangerous player with loads of skill. I think it was a pleasure for some of our lads to play against him.”
The re-run of the 1970 World Cup Final would decide the tournament, where a win would put Italy top on goal difference. Unlike in Mexico, the Azzurri went ahead after Capello headed in with goalkeeper Emerson Leao all at sea after just two minutes, but things followed a similar pattern to six years earlier from then on.
A stunning ball from star-performer Rivelino triggered a South American counter-attack which Gil converted, and he then struck his fourth of the competition shortly after the break, showing great strength and composure to weave through the Italian back-line. A pair of great finishes from Zico and Dinamite sealed the title and brought to a close one of football's more unique tournaments.