Olé O Rei | 

How photo with Pelé helped late Sunday World columnist Jimmy Magee befriend a Brazilian

Stories about him are legion. The one all Irish people hoped was true, was that he had been given his nickname by an Irish Christian Brother because he was always playing football in the school playground - Peile being the Irish word for football.

Brazil's Pele celebrates after scoring the opening goal© Action Images / Sporting Picture

Pele© PA

John BrennanIndependent.ie

His real name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento. To the relief of headline writers, copytakers, and the world at large, he was simply Pelé - the Greatest.

Born on the 23rd of October 1940, Pelé was the first football superstar in the age of modern communications.

Of course there had been great footballers before him, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo di Stefano and Stanley Matthews were just three.

But they were mythical figures almost, we knew them by their reported deeds.

At the start of his career, people could see this great new Brazilian star of the game on newsreels in the cinema.

Pele© PA

By the end of it, Pelé was coming straight into our sitting rooms via television at the 1970 World Cup.

Stories about him are legion. The one all Irish people hoped was true, was that he had been given his nickname by an Irish Christian Brother because he was always playing football in the school playground - Peile being the Irish word for football. Sadly the great man denied the link.

What he never denied was that his determination to succeed as a footballer was born out of something he saw as a nine-year-old.

Pele© AFP

His father, sitting in the kitchen of their home in the state of Minas Gerais, listening to the radio with tears streaming down his face as the ‘Maracanazo’ unfolded.

That is the name given to this day in Brazil to their defeat in the last match of the 1950 World Cup.

The end of that tournament was played on a group basis.

But, as it turned out, Brazil only needed a draw in the last match at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to claim their first World Cup.

And they led 1-0 after an hour. But two goals for Uruguay in the last 20 minutes stunned the host nation.

On seeing his heartbroken father, Pelé cried too, but the young boy swore in his mind and in his heart that he would avenge that day for his weeping Papa. He did, three times.

Though he played in four World Cups for his country, Pelé actually only played 14 matches at the finals, scoring 12 goals.

He was injured for much of the 1962 tournament, and he and Brazil were kicked out of the 1966 competition in England by brutal tackling.

My own favourite Pelé story involves our own late, great, Sunday World columnist Jimmy Magee.

We were having a Sunday World sports lunch one day in a pub near the office which employed a lovely Brazilian waitress Bianca, and whose mother was visiting her on a holiday and had called in to say hello.

The disbelieving lady refused to accept that this man in the pub was a famous commentator on Irish radio and television.

A 17-year-old Pele (left) in action for Brazil against Wales during his side's World Cup quarter-final in 1958. Photo by Getty Images© AFP via Getty Images

Fortunately Jimmy had a copy of his autobiography with him and I showed her a picture of Jimmy from it.

But first I covered one half of the picture and then removed my hand to reveal the other person in the picture.

The lady then simply said two very short words “O Rei” - The King.

For Pelé was truly a King to millions of impoverished Brazilians.

Once they had him, they had something in their lives to distract from the oppression and the poverty and the daily grind.

He may not actually have been a King, but he was officially a National Treasure.

That was the status the Brazilian Government put on the teenage Pelé in 1958, after he had stunned the football world with a hat-trick in the World Cup semi-final against France and two goals in the Final against the hosts Sweden.

It was the first time in six tournaments that a country had won the World Cup outside their own continent.

By making him a national treasure, the authorities blocked any chance of a lucrative move to a European club, many of whom were queuing up to pay whatever was needed to acquire the services of this boy genius.

The deal was then that Pelé's club, Santos, would be allowed skip matches at home to go on world tours, with Pelé able to drive his own side deal to play in games.

Pele © Getty Images

One such trip took Santos to West Africa in 1967. Nigeria, then and now, was a real football hotbed.

It was also, in that year, in the middle of a desperate civil war.

Yet such was the clamour to see Pelé that the suffering people forced the two sides to declare a 48-hour truce so that Santos and Pelé could come in, play their game in Lagos, and then get out of the country safely.

Another Santos world tour brought the great man to Dalymount Park in Dublin in February 1972 when Santos beat a combined Bohemians/Drumcondra XI 3-2 in front of a 30,000 crowd.

Pelé didn’t exactly turn on the style that grim spring afternoon in Dublin.

Most said the fastest he ran all day was his gallop to the dressing-room at the final whistle to evade autograph hunters.

But we had seen him in the flesh, that was all that mattered.

Two years previously, Irish people looked on enthralled as, late into the night in June, we saw Pelé and the Brazil of 1970 strut their stuff in the heat of Mexico.

This time Pelé would not be kicked around at a World Cup, and this time too, he had a supporting cast.

The names still trip off the tongue 52 years later.

Rivelino, Gerson, Tostao, Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho, the latter still the only man to have scored in every match at a World Cup Finals.

At 29, Pelé was at the peak of his powers, duelling with Bobby Moore, forcing a famous save from Gordon Banks, confounding Uruguay’s defenders with dazzling skill.

How he must have enjoyed that 20 years on from his tears, and finally scoring the opening goal, with a brilliant header, in a 4-1 win in the final itself against Italy.

He quit international football then, ignoring pleas to come back to the famed bright yellow shirt for the 1974 World Cup in Germany.

After leaving Santos too, Pelé stayed out of the game for almost a year before finally moving abroad, to try and kickstart ‘sawker’ in the United States, where he led the New York Cosmos to a national title.

Did he have any regrets? “Just one,” he said, “I never played at Wembley.”

Yes, Pelé was the best and most famous footballer on the planet for over 15 years, but he just never got the chance to play beneath what were then the Twin Towers.

1966 was his opportunity surely, but Brazil were initially based in the North-West of England and then did not get to play in the later stages of the event.

Many great players followed Pelé onto the World’s football pitches, but truly only three stand comparison with him, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Helped by a world club and national team football calendar that just didn’t exist in Pelé’s day, the latter pair have taken career goalscoring to places that not even the great man could have imagined,

In 1986 Maradona did what Pelé had done for his father, he put his country’s football team on his shoulders and carried them to a World Cup success.

Each of the three of them, in their time, was a most wonderful footballer.

But Pelé was of his time too and he was special, truly special. As that Brazilian lady said ‘O Rei’.


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