All week there have been eloquent tributes to the great Brazilian footballer Pele. The news of Pele's death came too late for last week's column but I would like to offer a belated salute, however inadequate, to this man who provided such joy to my generation. Just like Muhammad Ali in boxing, Pele transcended his own sport to become a figure of international standing.
In England he was the first foreign footballer to become truly a household name. Ask anyone in the 1960s who was the best player in the world and the answer would be Pele. At school if any of us came up with some fancy footwork the sports master would rebuke us with "Who do you think you are, Pele?"
Like most children of my age I first became aware of Pele's extraordinary talent while watching him perform in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. At the age of 17 he was sheer magic, notching a hat-trick and becoming the youngest to play in a World Cup final, scoring twice in Brazil's 5-2 triumph over the hosts.
It was not just the goals but the style in which he played. Pele simply loved football and his enthusiasm for the game rubbed off on anyone who watched him. Even when he missed goals he did it with a certain flair that you could only applaud.
A day to cherish
I never actually met Pele but did enjoy the privilege of talking to him on a live international audio call prior to a World Cup in the 1990s. I was fortunate enough to be one of half a dozen journalists from different continents invited on the forum to ask the great player questions about the forthcoming tournament. I was a little nervous about speaking to such a legend and even more so when the moderator asked me to kick off the questions.
We exchanged greetings and Pele's relaxed, friendly demeanour put me at ease. My question was rather bland, about the prospects of Asian teams. Pele gave a diplomatic answer about the huge improvement in Asian football but believed it would take time before an Asian country would hold the trophy.
After the audio call I was so chuffed I could not resist going around the office and annoying colleagues with "I've just been speaking to Pele!"
'He could do anything'
An example of the influence of Pele back in those days is reflected in the experience of former Scottish professional footballer Derek Currie, now resident in Bangkok, who became a Hong Kong international. Currie says that what sealed the deal in his move from Scotland to Hong Kong in 1970 was that he would have the opportunity of playing against Pele whose Santos team was touring Hong Kong later that year.
"A chance to play against the greatest footballer of all time was just an offer you could not turn down," he told Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK last week. Currie's dream came true as he went on to play against Pele on five occasions.
Currie said there was so much excitement amongst the Hong Kong fans at seeing Pele that "there was a wonderful, wonderful atmosphere". And how did Pele perform? "He could do anything," Currie told RTHK. "He always came up with something different and that was the beauty of Pele, you never knew what would happen next."
Price of fame
I had really looked forward to watching Pele performing in the 1966 World Cup in England, but his skills had made him a marked man. Although Pele scored the opening goal in a 2-0 victory over Bulgaria, lax refereeing saw him hacked down time and again which led to him missing the next match.
Although he was clearly injured he was back for the final group game but suffered the same treatment from the Portuguese. It was quite distressing watching Pele limp through that game and Brazil were eliminated. Despite his rough treatment you never saw Pele dive.
Four years later in Mexico a superb Brazilian team deservedly won the trophy and Pele was declared "player of the tournament". For many the best moment was seeing Pele and England captain Bobby Moore warmly embracing at the end of their group game. They showed true respect for one another and it epitomised Pele's sense of sportsmanship.
The esteem in which Pele was held continued long after his retirement. In the early 1990s there was a classic quote from Partick Thistle manager John Lambie. On being told during a match that one of his players, Colin McGlashan was concussed and didn't know who he was, Lambie said "tell him he's Pele and get him back on".
As usual I have escaped to the Northeast for a few weeks to savour the delights of being woken up by a concerto of screeching roosters at 5am every day. Apart from that it has been pleasantly peaceful.
The cooler weather is just about perfect as far as I am concerned, although it's admittedly a bit nippy at night with temperatures of about 15C. For the locals it gives them a chance to wear something a bit different. After sundown a familiar sight has been villagers buried in winter woollies, jackets, blankets and balaclavas while even the monks are wearing woolly hats. Brrr!
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