On July 9, 1968, a Boston Beacons soccer game attracted 18,431 spectators to Fenway Park. Actually, Pele brought in the fans, his Santos club taking a 7-1 victory.
That might have been the first tangible indication in the modern era that big-time soccer could have an audience in the Boston area. It was the largest crowd for a soccer game in the region since the 1930s.
Other foreign professional clubs visited places such as Everett and Hudson, and Portuguese powers Benfica and Sporting performed in Foxborough in the early ’70s; crowds were substantial, but few records survive of those matches, which were not covered by the mainstream media.
But the Beacons-Santos game put soccer on the local map and was an early step in building a foundation for Boston/Foxborough being chosen as a venue for the 1994 World Cup and the establishment of Major League Soccer.
Rick Copland, for one, did not believe he would have to wait 42 years for the game to return to Fenway.
“Back in 1968 I thought they’d be coming back in 1969,’’ said Copland, a ballboy that July day. “It was a great day, it was just a lot of fun, because the players were very friendly. We ran around the field with them and had a lot of fun.’’
Copland, brought his family to last night’s Celtic-Sporting match, which drew 32,162 spectators. The teams played to a 1-1 tie, Georgios Samaras scoring on a 72d-minute penalty kick for Celtic and Helder Postiga tying the score on a header in the 81st. Celtic won on penalty kicks, Paul McGowan sealing the victory in the sixth round of the tiebreaker.
“This is a great crowd, better than the game in 1968,’’ Copland said. “The Red Sox organization has done a great job with this. I’m hoping they do this every year — as you can see the fans are loving it.’’
Copland also brought along an autographed program that noted under a headline “The Beacons keep growing: The Boston Beacons were born in April of 1967. Major League soccer was introduced at the time by a group of successful businessmen with a love of sports.’’
Among the directors were Red Auerbach of the Celtics and Dick O’Connell, a Red Sox vice president.
In fact, the Beacons did not last past that season. The Minutemen arrived in 1974, playing at Nickerson Stadium. Then, the Tea Men lasted three years at Foxborough. And professional soccer disappeared until the Revolution arrived in ’96.
But the Beacons and other long-forgotten teams paved the way for the game’s popularity today.
“You go through the great years in the NASL in the mid-to-late ’70s and ’80s, I think that has created a fan base which, very honestly, created World Cup ’94,’’ said Jim Trecker, who was a consultant for last night’s exhibition. “And that has led to all the things that we now know of in the sport.
“But there were a lot of days in the wilderness, a lot of days when you were going out and trying to tell people it’s 11 men, it’s 90 minutes, some pretty basic information. But that has all paid off when you look around at Fenway.
“And when you see what has happened all throughout the sport it really does go back to those early days, the old New York Skyliners, the Boston Beacons, the old ASL — Celtic played here in 1931. The debt of gratitude is just hard to quantify for all the people who went before; it pays off.
“It certainly didn’t go away, it’s about as solid a foundation as you can find in sports. We’ve been waiting a long time but over the last 15 years, from World Cup ’94 onwards, I think we’ve seen a pretty steady progression, as a lot of those people became older, they became parents themselves and they became immersed in the game.
“When Pele came here, they sold out Yankee Stadium, every place they played. They played Inter Milan at Yankee Stadium, the place had 75,000 fans in it — for a soccer game. And we’re talking long before NASL, so I think it’s always been in America but it’s taken a long time for it to coalesce.’’
Trecker said the sport “was never not there, but it’s been waiting for something to embrace it and I think it has it now on multiple fronts — a series of international exhibitions that are held all over the country every summer, MLS is a huge factor, and, of course, the national team, which has had increasing success.’’