The year was 1973, I think. A small parcel, delivered to my desk at Scottish Television, disclosed a plain, white football top with a large number 10 emblazoned on the back. Ad-free, its main adornment was the distinctive crest of Santos Futebal Clube of Brazil. Over it, in large looping letters, I detected a simple scrawl: Pelé
No-one born after 1958 can remember a time when Edson Arantes do Nascimento (or, quite simply, Pelé), wasn't famous. That was the year, aged 17, looking impossibly young, he helped Brazil to its first World Cup triumph, scoring twice in the final against Sweden, the host nation. Four years later, in Chile, he was sidelined with a serious groin injury after only two games. However, even without their star attraction, Brazil won, beating Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the final. World Cup medal number two for Pelé. Next stop England.
Intending, perhaps, to make life as difficult as possible for the home-side-besotted London media, the reigning champions, whose early matches were due to be played in Liverpool, travelled to an outside football jurisdiction to complete their preparations, Scotland. Did anyone, in their wildest dreams, ever expect to see Pelé, Garrincha, Gerson and Jairzhino practising their tricks at Portland Park, Troon, home to the local juniors? Who knows. On the other hand, seeing the world champions held to a 1-1 draw against a capable-looking Scotland side, which included John Greig, Jim Baxter, John Clark and Billy Bremner, was the least a majority of the 75,000 spectators attracted to Hampden Park expected.
Could Brazil make it three in a row? Despite the attention paid to the man in the number 10 shirt, a 2-0 win in their opening Group 3 match against Bulgaria at Goodison Park was hailed as 'business as usual' for Pelé's side. Shock greeted their defeat (3-1 on both occasions) by Hungary and Portugal. Hugh McIlvanney didn't hesitate to point the finger of blame. Pelé, he wrote, had been 'brought low by inadequate team-mates and brutal opponents'.
This was the year England defeated West Germany in a fiercely fought and deeply controversial final, witnessed by a near-capacity crowd of 96,924 at Wembley (official limit 98,600) and an estimated 400m television viewers worldwide. The result (4-2 after extra time) made England the third host nation (after Uruguay in 1930, and Italy in 1934) to win the World Cup in its own backyard. Since then only West Germany in 1974, Argentina in 1978 and France in 1998 have converted home advantage into complete victory at this exalted level.
Following the heavy kicking he experienced at the opening stage of the 1966 finals, Pelé announced his retirement from international football: 1966, he made clear, would be his last World Cup. How would Brazil fare without their great talisman?
It's a safe bet there was wild samba dancing in the streets, in every bairro throughout the land, when personal ambition, national pride, money – lots of money! – combined to change his mind. In 1970, when the ever-growing World Cup circus arrived in Mexico for the first time, the main presence in a Brazil attack that also featured Tostao, Rivellino, Gerson and Jairzinho, was, once again, Pelé.
A group three encounter between England and Brazil at Guadalajara was billed by one football historian as 'the inventors of the game against its spiritual masters… Europe versus South America… regimentation versus artistry… enemy number one versus the fan favourites'.
A solitary goal, scored by Jairzinho, assisted by Pelé, was all that separated the two sides at the finish. As a number of people predicted, the game itself fell well short of the pre-match hype.
Two long-lasting images (both involving Pelé) made this a match to remember, however. In the first, Gordon Banks, the England goalkeeper, brought off perhaps the greatest save of his career. A swift, downwards header from the Brazilian, operating from what looked like an impossible angle, appeared destined for the net. Banks, scrabbling furiously, somehow managed to scoop the ball off the line and over the bar. Pelé, his arms already raised in triumph, shook his head in astonished disbelief.
Afterwards, on-field hostilities over, Pelé and the England captain, Bobby Moore, were photographed swapping shirts. The two men are smiling broadly, totally at ease in each other's company. It's an image that captures what many people would like to believe is the true nature of competitive sport – amateur or professional – at the highest level.
Mexico 1970 concluded with Brazil beating Italy 4-1 in the final, entitling the South Americans to keep the Jules Rimet trophy in perpetuity, while adding a third World Cup medal to Pelé's unique collection. By this time, the man from Santos was easily the best known (and, presumably, the richest) footballer on the planet, lauded by millions who had never seen him play.
Henry Kissinger claimed: 'Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us. For those who love soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, generally known as Pelé, is a hero'.
At one stage during the 1970 final after Pelé went down, pushed and kicked in the shin, Patrick Allen, who voiced-over the official FIFA film of the tournament, intoned darkly: 'That isn't a footballer looking at an injured leg. That's a corporation inspecting a damaged asset'.
By then, as a recent tribute claimed, Pelé was 'the most famous man in world sport, with only Muhammad Ali as instantly recognisable and universally idolised'.
Described at an early stage of his career as a 'non-exportable national treasure' by the president of Brazil, Janio Quadros, Pelé spent virtually all of his days as a player at Santos, accumulating 643 goals in 659 matches, as well as honours and endorsements by the dozen. Counting international matches and friendlies (as the man himself never failed to do), his official goal tally stretched to 1,279 goals in 1,363 games. Voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics – in a similar poll conducted by FIFA he shared the honour with Maradonna – to the astonishment of many of his admirers worldwide, Pelé spent his last years as a player with New York Cosmos.
New York was a chance to make money in seriously large amounts. However, as one of his advisers explained, helping to establish the North American Soccer League (NASL) also provided him with an opportunity to 'win a country'. Clearly, as people have been known to say in these parts, this was an offer Edson Arantes do Nascimento couldn't refuse.
That shirt: Originally a spin-off from a series of football learning programmes presented by Pelé and shown on Scotsport
, the shirt sent to me by his sponsors is now in the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park, part of an interesting display which also pays tribute to Ferenc Puskás (Honvéd), Diego Maradona (Naples) and Zinedine Zidane (Juventus). There's nothing to indicate my son, at the age of nine, wore the slightly crumpled Santos shirt to kick a ball around in the garden. Or, seeing it was dirty, his mother thought it would be a good idea to pop it in the washing machine for a spell. Miraculously, the famous signature survived, unscathed.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento – Pelé – died on 29 December 2022
Russell Galbraith is a writer and former television executive