SA links go back a long way

TRIBUTE | Pele, the player who stopped the world

Motaung, Sono rubbed shoulders with Brazilian hero

Brazilian professional footballer Pele pictured in the grounds of a Surrey hotel the day before the Brazil national team's International Friendly match against England, 7th May 1963.
Brazilian professional footballer Pele pictured in the grounds of a Surrey hotel the day before the Brazil national team's International Friendly match against England, 7th May 1963.
Image: Larry Ellis

On December 26, we took a flight from JHB to Frankfurt, then to Sao Paolo, Brazil, to start our summer holidays. 

Two days later, a cab driver transported us from Sao Paolo International Airport to Congonhas Domestic Airport to catch a flight to Rio de Janeiro. As he couldn't speak English, I had a conversation with him in Portuguese. 

We talked about the World Cup since 1958 and Pele's role therein. When I asked him where Pele lived, he said his house was somewhere in Sao Paolo. Coincidentally, we had already planned to spend a full day in Sao Paolo on our way back to Frankfurt. I was aware, though, that Pele had been in hospital since the Qatar World Cup. The cab driver said Sao Paolo is the largest city in Brazil, followed by Rio de Janeiro which is our base here. 

On December 29, we did a tour of Rio with another cab driver who spoke Portuguese, Spanish and English. He had Rio FM on, as we wanted to listen to Brazilian samba sounds. The radio announced the news of Pele's death just when we got back into the car at the suburb of Lapa, where we had just walked on a famous street, known as the Selarin Stairs. It is a street decorated with tiles and ceramics with names of different countries.

Joao, the cab driver, was suddenly in a sombre mood. I cheered him up by talking about Garrincha, Mario Zagallo and other senior players of the Brazilian squad, alongside whom Pele played as the youngest at 17 in 1958, when Brazil won the World Cup for the first time.

Actually, in his autobiography, Pele recalls that the Brazilian public blamed black players in the squad for Brazil's failure to win the World Cup when they hosted it in 1950.

For the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the coach, Vicente Feola, included Pele who had been injured during warm-up games prior to flying to Sweden.  

Detractors made snide remarks at the coach for sacrificing established players for an injured teenager. 

The coach gave him more time to recover by not fielding him in the first two group games against Austria and England, which Brazil won and drew respectively. 

When the Brazilian squad trooped on to the field for the third group game against the USSR, the European crowd saw a black player. Pele said some of them must have thought he was a team mascot! They beat the USSR 2-0.

Once Pele started playing, he showed Europe everything we know in SA: Shibobo, show me your number, heel extension, chip over the head etc. He scored a solitary goal in the quarterfinal against Wales, taking Brazil to the semis. Brazil went on to beat France 5-2, with Pele netting three goals.

His contribution led to Brazil lifting the cup, after thrashing hosts Sweden by five goals to two. Pele scored two goals in the match and assisted in others. 

I told Joao that Pele had several brushes with SA at different levels. His Brazilian team, Santos, visited the USA in 1968 to play Atlanta Chiefs. Santos beat Atlanta Chiefs 6-2. Despite their victory, Pele enquired from reporters about the Atlanta Chiefs' striker who wore jersey number 24.  He was told he was Kaizer Motaung from South Africa. Pele remarked about the unique manner in which Motaung hit the ball. He described Motaung's vision as fantastic. 

"He sees things from miles away, which is a good help for any front-runner, " said Pele. Coincidentally, the two had taken a photograph together before kick-off.

Another SA great, younger than Motaung, the legendary Jomo Sono, played with Pele in the American Major Soccer League, when Pele was with New York Cosmos.

As Sono described Pele then: "He is my mentor, role model, friend and team mate."

They did great things together with their team throughout 1977.

Pele was also the guest of honour when SA hosted Afcon in 1996 and came to SA for the 2010 World Cup.

I referred to Zagallo earlier on. They were a striking pair with Pele in 1958, 1962 and 1966, when they won the World Cup but not in 1966.

When Brazil won it again in 1970, Pele was the striker and Zagallo was the coach. That made Zagallo the first person to win the World Cup both as player and coach. 

With Pele's death, Zagallo, 91, is the last surviving player from the 1958 crew that won the World Cup.  Zagallo came to SA in April 1996 as the coach of the Brazilian squad that was preparing for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. They beat Bafana Bafana 3-2 at FNB Stadium. 

Prior to their departure for SA, Pele warned Zagallo to be careful of Bafana Bafana as he had seen them winning Afcon earlier in the year. 

Zagallo also came to SA in October 1997, coaching the squad that went on to the World Cup in France in 1998. Brazil beat Bafana Bafana 2-0 at Ellis Park.

On Pele's death, Zagallo says: "Pele was my friend of so many victories, titles and shared stories. He leaves an eternal, unforgettable legacy: The person who stopped the world several times." 

I am certain that Zagallo will feature in some of the commemoration services that will be held in Pele's honour throughout Brazil.

On December 31, we visited the famous Maracana Stadium that was built for the 1950 World Cup. In front of the stadium, there is an imposing statue of Heldorado Bellini who captained the sides that won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962. His departed soul will remain eternally grateful to Pele for a great contribution to Brazilian soccer. 

May the football soul of Edson Arantes "Pele" do Nascimento Rest in Peace.

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