THE DAY I MET PELE

 

Banks 001 - resizedIn the 1970 World Cup in Mexico Alf Ramsey’s England team faced the mighty Brazil team that included the player whom many regarded as the best ever, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele. The England team had great players but the goalkeeper Gordon Banks was seen by many as the best in the world in his position. During that game Pele rose above the England defenders to make the perfect header. The whole world was about to cheer another great goal by the master when Banks pulled off what was regarded as his finest save. In 2008, as a commemorative statue to that save was unveiled, I had the great pleasure to meet them both and to chat with Pele in his native Portuguese.

I was playing for The All Stars charity soccer team when we were asked to play in a match at Stoke City’s ground. The match was part of a series of events, one of which would be the unveiling of a statue in Gordon Banks’ honour. On the way to the ground we were told that our team manager for the match would be none other than the great man himself. We knew that Pele and Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be attending but some of us thought that it was probably a wind-up that Pele would be our manager. I would have been happy enough just to have met our 1966 World Cup hero Gordon Banks but Pele as well!

As we made our way to the changing rooms we were met by Archbishop Tutu. We were told that he would be our trainer, our “sponge man” for the match. We ece-12-pele-footballhadn’t expected that either. Now we realised that it was not a wind-up: Pele was going to be our manager for this match. We dropped off our stuff and went onto the pitch to watch the unveiling of the statue. Archbishop Tutu, Pele and Gordon Banks said a few words. We got to meet Gordon Banks. When you think about it as a football fan we’ve only ever won the World Cup once. This man was one of the world’s greatest in his chosen sport and today would have been a multi-millionaire superstar. Like a lot of his contemporaries he was a quiet and humble man. He was probably a bit overwhelmed by the fact that he was being honoured with a statue.

With soccer superstars flying in from all over the world to play in the main match, our match was lower down the bill. Back in the changing room our Brasil kits were all hung out on the pegs and each player had a commemorative Brazil training top with the name Pele and the number 10 on them. In any football changing room there is always lively banter and mischief. On this occasion one member of our team, a former professional footballer who shall remain nameless, noticed that his Pele 10 top was missing from his peg. He turned around and shouted “which one of you thieving ‘so and soes’ has nicked my top? There was an awkward silence from the rest of us because he hadn’t seen the Archbishop come into the changing room and didn’t know that he was bent over behind him putting on his socks. The archbishop pretended not to have heard. I hope our team-mate said three Hail Marys that night!

ece-30-pele-footballWe got changed and Archbishop Tutu came round giving each of us the “high-fives.” He was such an energetic and enthusiastic character that he was great fun to be with. In his trainer’s outfit and with his sense of humour it was easy to forget that he was an archbishop. Not merely a priest but an archbishop!

Our gaffer Steeno came into the changing room and asked us all to sit down. I was sitting next to a young actor from Hollyoaks. Steeno said “He’s here so let’s give him a big round of applause when he comes in.” I’m sorry Archbishop but this is Pele we’re talking about now. You’ve done great things for your fellow man and we all are full of admiration for your part in struggle against Apartheid but this is a footballing god we’re talking about.”

The applause began as we saw Pele approach the changing room. I was surprised at how small he was because I could remember how high he could jump to head the ball when he was in his prime. He also seemed to be a gentle kind of soul which again surprised me because as a player he was as hard as nails. The applause died down and we waited for him to speak. I was expecting him to say “thank you” but instead he said ”obrigado” and then asked in Portuguese if anyone spoke Portuguese. I stood up and began to speak Portuguese to him. As our chat came to an end I thanked Pele for coming and told him what an honour it was for all of us who loved football.

I sat back down next to the young actor who was staring at me                             ece-22-pele-football

“Wow,” he said “ What did Pele say to you?”

I told him that he’d said “I loved Phoenix Nights but who are all these others”

He said “He didn’t did he?” before he realised that I was joking.

What a day! Not only did I get to meet Archbishop Tutu but as a football fan I got to meet one of our heroes from the 1966 World Cup winning team. To top it all I got to meet Pele and chat to him in his native language! Don’t anyone tell me it’s a waste of time learning a foreign language because you never know when you might bump into the greatest player of all time!

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