revisits an encounter with one of the few people on the planet who can get away with referring to themselves in the third person.
Hey, Ronnie Whelan, Pele liked your goal.
It was a few weeks before US ’94 when the world’s greatest footballer — no offence, Ronnie, but that’d be the other fella — paid a flying visit to Dublin in his globe-trotting role as a World Cup ambassador for a credit card company.
When I arrived at the bank HQ to interview the great man, I found him in a room full of suits, staring intently at a TV screen which was showing a montage of outstanding moments — his own included, naturally — from football history.
And suddenly there was one of quite recent vintage: Ronnie Whelan’s spectacular volley — or “shinner” as Big Jack always took mischievous pleasure in describing it — against the USSR in Hanover in 1988.
It was plain to see, however, that there were no such reservations about the quality of the strike on Pele’s part, his eyes widening and his mouth forming a perfect circle as the ball crashed into the net.
So, one more time with feeling: hey, Ronnie Whelan, Pele liked your goal.
When I started rolling the tape, however, it quickly became apparent that the man they called ‘El Rei’ — at the time still a very youthful-looking 53 — was not exactly holding his breath in anticipation of a host of similarly memorable moments in America.
“As a show, it will be very successful and every game will be a sell-out, but I can only hope the football will be as exciting and as full of goals,” he said, his downbeat tone suggesting he expected anything but.
Football, he lamented, had gone into its shell.
“It’s a worldwide problem,” he opined. “The mind of the coach now is directed at telling the team: ‘Don’t take risks’. This is the game of today, so it is difficult to score goals. I think the game went into decline when teams stopped using wingers. The last great winger was George Best. In Brazil, it was Jairzinho, and that was nearly 25 years ago.
“Yes, they still use the wings, but now they ask the full-backs to do the work. Today, the full-back must be able to go forward, cross, then get back and defend. This is the big change. With wingers, the game opens up, but now everyone tries to play through the middle. Too many teams play defensively and I just do not understand the mind of the coach who wants to play this way.”
Which seemed like, um, a timely moment to canvass his opinion of the Irish team which was bound for USA ’94.
“Very competitive,” came the diplomatic reply, followed by the observation that where Brazilians had long been familiar with the man he called “Big Jack” now, from watching coverage of English club football on the box, they were also on first-name terms, as it were, with such entities as “Roy” and “Andy”. (As the Brazilian penchant for single monikers goes, not quite as catchy as Zico, Socrates, and Rivelino admittedly, but then maybe Pele wasn’t entirely familiar with “Aldo”, “Cas”, and “Trigger”).
As to his own country’s chances in the upcoming Mundial, Pele wasn’t a whole lot more enthusiastic.
“In the past year, Brazil played in three different tournaments — the US Cup, the Copa America and the World Cup qualifiers — and in them, we have used three different teams. And the problems that caused were clear to everyone in this World Cup campaign when we lost a qualifying game for the first time ever and came close to going out.
“Since 1970, we have not won the World Cup, although the team that played in Spain in 1982 was a fantastic team, in my opinion. But after that, it was back to the old problem of not being able to keep a side together mainly because so many players went to Europe.”
He did see one glimmer of hope, however.
“For almost three years, Brazil did not have a forward who was good enough, but there is no doubt that the best striker in the world now is Romario,” he declared. (And, as we were soon to find out, the Barcelona man would justify that opinion in America, as Brazil confounded Pele’s worst expectations by going on to beat Italy in a penalty shoot-out in the 1994 final).
Pele described the previous World Cup — our beloved Italia ’90 — as “the worst I have seen and I have seen 10”.
“In Italy, there were not enough quality young players. Milla from the Cameroon was one of the best, and he was 38! I was asked by the Organising Committee to help pick the best player of the tournament and it took us two days to find one. In the end we decided on Lothar Mattheus because he was the most consistent.”
In truth, for all the joy Italia ’90 brought this country, few football people would quibble with Pele’s gloomy analysis of the tournament as a whole, no more than any right-minded person would contest the rock-solid consensus that the 1970 World Cup in Mexico represented an enduring high-water mark in the international game.
That was the tournament which marked Pele’s apotheosis, showcasing him in such exhilarating form that, when he was not inspiring the players around him in what was a stellar Brazil side, he seemed to be on a personal mission to score the greatest goal the world had ever seen.
Repeatedly, he dazzled and dazed with his audacity and ambition, whether lobbing the Czech goalkeeper from the halfway line or giving Uruguay’s net-minder whiplash with a
high-speed dummy. As it happened, by a matter of inches, neither of those outrageous efforts reaped the reward they deserved, paradoxically establishing yet another measure of Pele’s peerless talent: his greatest misses were almost as memorable as his greatest goals.
The man himself acknowledged the irony with a chuckle.
“I scored four goals in the World Cup in Mexico,” he reminded me, “and all anyone ever wants to talk about are the ones I missed.”
Talking to Pele about his greatest contemporaries, he cited Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Charlton as players he admired for the class and dignity with which they carried themselves both on and off the pitch. But when the subject came to himself, he lapsed into the third person, an unforgivable affectation coming from just about anyone other than, well, Pele.
“There have been a lot of musicians, but only one Beethoven,” he began.
“There have been a lot of artists, but only one Michelangelo. And there have been a lot of singers but only one Frank Sinatra. So in football, you have only one Pele. That is the reality.”
And then he leaned closer as if to draw me into his confidence.
“I must tell you one other thing,” he whispered. “I am also sure that there will never be another Pele. I am sure, because my Mama and my Papa ...” — and here he used his fingers to mime a scissors motion — “... they have closed the machine”.
At which point, the one and only Pele threw back his head — and his deep, booming laugh reverberated around the room.