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Down Memory Lane: Pele had the lot as brightest of stars

When someone special arrives on the sporting scene the impact can be immense. Instantly you realise a gem has been unearthed.

That happened in the Sweden 1958 World Cup Final as Edson Arantes do Nacimento, a 17-year-old from Tres Coracoes, north of Rio de Janeiro, swept aside Sweden 5-2 in the final. That boy, nicknamed Pele, was to become arguably the greatest footballer in history.

Overcome with emotion at the finish, he wept on the shoulders of goalkeeper Gilmar, for he couldn’t believe that he was a champion of the world. He had mesmerised the 49,737 fans at the Rasunda Stadium, he scored a hat-trick in the semi-final against France; again in the Final; his overall play was phenomenal, but a goal pinpointed for me a new king was crowned.

He chested a long ball from Nilton Santos, let it drop and as the Swedish defender Bengt Gustavsson approached, flicked it over his head, went round him and volleyed into the net. Pure nectar for the football purist.

Pele recently celebrated his 70th birthday and to commemorate the people of Brazil have dedicated a film in his honour. It is brilliant in concept and execution.

He was footballer of the century in 1986 and four years later came second to Muhammad Ali in the global Sportsman of the Century poll.

As a footballer he reigned supreme, a talent beyond compare with an enviable catalogue of capabilities — pace, technique, power. He embodied all the qualities and you could have watched Pele perform all day such was the hypnotic appeal of his artistry.

I was privileged as a journalist for the Belfast Telegraph to meet and interview him on a number of occasions after that illuminating day in Sweden more than 50 years ago.

He was accommodating in every way, quickly learning English and a master in the art of handling the media.

He apologised for the half hour wait while he finished a business meeting and then entertained my colleague David Meek (Manchester Evening News) and myself in the Presidential Suite of his hotel at Frankfurt during the 1974 World Cup.

While with the Cosmos, who drew huge crowds in New York, he became a close friend of George Best, whose genius he admired and who, in my book, shares equal billing.

Pele, in his autobiography revealed: “I bumped into George many times and we became great mates. He used to chide me: ‘What kind of king are you? You don’t drink, you don’t smoke.’ I always chirped back, I thought he wasn’t a European but must have some Latin blood in his veins.” A subtle reference to George’s famed womanising, but then Pele was not far behind.

Pele played for Brazil in four World Cups, winning it in 1958 and 1970; during the 1962 tournament he was injured in the second match and missed the remainder of the series. No medal was awarded, but in 2007 FIFA announced he would be given it retrospectively, becoming the only person to have three World Cup winners’ medals.

Countless tributes have been paid to Pele. From them all I have chosen that by fellow journalist Hugh McIlvanney, now recovering from major surgery:

“His relationship with the ball was different from that achieved by anybody else. There seemed to be scarcely anything he could not do with the ball but the mesmeric trickery invariably had a deadly motive!”

Happy 70th birthday Pele. May there be many more.

Belfast Telegraph