To say we were excited about meeting Pele is one of the great understatements of modern times. Even to this day he is the most identifiable footballer on the planet, as likely to be recognised in Brooklyn as he is Birmingham and his impact upon the game over a glittering 20-year period is unlikely to be bettered. Some players might, at a push, win more than him, but no-one will score as many goals or steal as many hearts.
Emerging as a 17-year-old for Brazil, Pele dragged the game kicking and screaming into a new age with his hat-trick in the 1958 World Cup semi-final and continued apace until Mexico in 1970. The first World Cup screened in colour, his pass in the 4-1 victory over Italy in the final -that was met by the on-rushing Carlos Aberto who, due to static cameras, literally came flying out of the side of the screen – is one of the most enduring and iconic moments in the history of the game.
Here was a boy who learned to play by kicking a grapefruit
It’s all too easy to get caught up in statistics when talking about the boy born Edson Arantes Do Nascimento – over 1000 goals, three World Cup wins, 10 league titles – but those numbers have been well documented and fail to tell the full story, for Pele is much more than just a footballer.
Here was a boy who learned to play by kicking a grapefruit such was the poverty in which he lived, a teenager who listened to his father’s command that he should train harder than anyone else to become the best, a man who has tirelessly campaigned for under-privileged children the world over and, lest we forget, an icon whose aura and talent combined to sell out football stadiums in New York.
Yet what comes across when meeting him is that, beneath the glitter of stardom, he remains the humble boy from Três Corações in south-west Brazil who is obsessed with the beautiful game he helped to make prettier. He talks of the team ethic, why he loves Wayne Rooney for this very reason and how he’s told Neymar to not ‘play for himself, or the cameras, but for his teammates…’ That’ll do for us.