Friday, 10 December 2010

Spending a few days with the most famous human being on the planet

The year was 1977. The place was London. The VIP was Edson Arantes do Nascimento (better known as Pelé), who was over in London to promote the British publication of his autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game 

I wish I had something scurrilous to pass on – but Pelé was a quiet, relaxed, charming, muscular little man, who seemed utterly and totally comfortable with himself (not surprising really, when you’ve convincingly proved yourself to be the best person in the world at what you do, as the maestro had done seven years earlier during the Mexico World Cup, where he was the undoubted star of the greatest football team I have ever seen). 

 Large man prepares to  attack football legend with cigarette
Of course, being a superstar, he was accompanied during his stay at the Savoy by an enormous retinue of minders, friends,  tarts and hangers-on – well, to be honest, he was actually  accompanied by exactly two people: his trainer and a courtly gentleman in his late fifties or early sixties, known as “The Professor”, who puffed at a pipe and nodded and smiled benignly from time to time (I never quite figured out what his role was, but it was something to do with football). 

There were no weird food requirements, no requests for dubious “entertainment”, no hissy fits – just graciousness, calmness and good humour, particularly towards myself and the PR firm I’d hired to lend our publicity operation a patina of professionalism. Even when we were stuck in a vast traffic jam in a Daimler as big as a whale on the way to Heathrow, and I had to explain it was highly unlikely they’d make their flight, the three of them just shrugged and smiled. (When we got there, of course, there was a small crowd of officials waiting for the Great Man – I got the distinct impression that the plane would still have been there if we’d been an hour late instead of just a few minutes.)

Pelé’s English wasn’t that great, so the conversation didn’t exactly flow. However, there was something about my height and girth which amused him: several times when he was standing next to me, he put an arm around me (well, half-way round) patted my stomach and burst out laughing, simultaneously shaking his head. (I remember a tubby little priest doing the same thing to me in the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo in Venice.) 

The only slightly awkward moment of the visit came during a large press conference we’d convened, when, after I’d introduced Pelé, and he’d said a few words about the book, I asked for questions from the assembled crowd of radio, TV and press reporters. As I pointed at someone or other (Ian Woolridge from the Mail, I seem to recall) a man standing at the back of the room suddenly boomed out, “Whatever happened to Eusebio?”

It was Bill Grundy (yes, the man who had recently conducted a notoriously shambolic and foul-mouthed live TV interview with the Sex Pistols), and he was, inevitably, as pissed a newt. (I can still picture him clearly, drink in hand, mac askew, weaving from side to side, eyes unfocussed.)

There was a pause as Pelé tried to figure out why the hell this apparition was asking him such a bizarrely irrelevant question.

“Usebio!” Grundy barked. “Wa‘appened tim? Eh?”

“I don’t know,” Pelé said. “Fine, I think.”

“Great player, Use..Eh...Bee...Oh!” Grundy boomed.

“Yes,” Pelé agreed, still nonplussed. “Ver’ good player.” 

“Ian Woolridge!” I shouted desperately, signaling a helper to get a microphone to him ASAP, as the crowd laughed and Grundy opened his maw to bellow another irrelevance.  

Woolridge started his question and, distracted, Grundy wandered off in the direction of the temporary bar at the side of the room. 

The only other moment of excitement came at the end of the presser when two presumably South American radio reporters practically shoved their mikes up Pelé’s nose at the same instant, and then began violently elbowing each other until I asked them to calm down, at which point they both started shouting at me in Spanish or Portuguese. Pelé just laughed – used to it, I guess.

As to the contention implicit in the title of this post, the only other contender for the top sporting celebrity spot at that time was Muhamad Ali – but no one in the vast prison that was China would have known the boxer from Adam, but they’d all have heard of Pelé.

As for non-sporting world celebs, I suppose the Pope might have come close to matching Pelé’s celebrity – but this was the year before the election of John Paul II, and, again, there was China to consider, (plus large swathes of the Muslim world.) Queen Elizabeth II might just about have been in with a shout, I suppose - but I doubt it. (We were able to discount the President of the United States, as that grinning twerp Jimmy Carter was the incumbent at the time.)

No, I reckon our burly little Brazilian guest was the clear winner. How wonderful that he turned out to be such a good advert for the human race.


  1. Your blog made me seek out my copy of Pele's book and look at a tape of the 1970 Mexico World Cup and it was fascinating. For what they are worth [I don't pretend to be knowledgeable about football] here are some brief observations about the book:
    Pele was a member of the last generation of footballers who managed to produce masters who were at the same time courteous, charming and modest. Gerson and Tostao for Brazil and our own Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Gordon Banks. Oliver Messi is the only modern virtuoso who springs to mind.
    The book contains no mention of babes, booze, gambling addiction and recreational drugs. The autobiography of Tony Adams, the former Arsenal and England player, is really all about his drinking problems and football gets a walk-on part.
    The great strikers in the past all seemed to conform to a physical type - short, slim torsos and massive legs. Uwe Seeler and Gerd Muller of Germany, for example. Yes, and Maradonna although he has filled out a bit. Our last World Cup "strikers", Emile Heskey and Crouch...[see page 94].
    The most fascinating part of the book is the section on the 1966 World Cup. Stanley Rouse, the FIFA President, apparantly instructed the referees to let the more "virile" side of the European game develop against South American teams [in order to avoid a repeat of Brazil's victory in Chile in 1962]. The result was that Pele was mercilessly kicked in the group stages by Zhechev [Bulgaria] and kicked out of the competition by Morais [Portugal] - both games were refereed by Englishmen who did not raise a finger to protect the great man. Argentina were not having any of that, got their retaliation in first and were duly vilified by the man from "Thunderbirds" as animals.
    [Note: what's with FIFA Presidents? Rouse was succeeded by Havelange and Blatter. None of that trio ever played football at any level, they seem to reign for ever and the last two have allegedly been involved in all sorts of financial skullduggery.]
    A great blog that took me down memory lane and reminded me of what true talent is all about.
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 - 06:46 PM

  2. Well, SDG, it's a funny game of two halves. Me, well I took comfort from the fact that no one in any team, in any sport, at any time in history has looked less like an athlete than Gerson. Conversely, after that I realised that being fit, having two functioning feet, not smoking 5 fags at half time or having to walk around the pitch out of breath did not make you a football genius.

    Scott, a really good post, like yours ages ago about the Harold Robbins tour. The picture makes me regret not taking the risk to start up my planned student magazine "College and First Beard".
    Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - 05:38 AM

  3. SDG – yes, Brazil’s treatment in 1966 was an utter disgrace. I remember Goal! World Cup, the official FIFA film of the tournament showed the full extent of the brutality. Not sure I can be arsed to feel any sympathy for the Argentinians, who were a filthy team at that time. I also seem to remember that matches between English and non-Brazilian South American clubs at the time tended to be real horror-shows (in particular, I recall an attempt by one defender to remove Bobby Charlton’s knee-cap without an anaesthetic).
    Why FIFA’s geriatric tyrants have been allowed to rule for so long is a genuine mystery: disgusting wretches. Yes, Platini is a bit of an oily creep, and no friend of England, but he was a fabulous footballer, and should take over from the present FIFA incumbent. Same goes for Beckenbauer. (Well, them or Ian Wright, of course, with that fine gentleman Wayne Rooney waiting in the wings.)
    Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 03:32 PM

  4. Ex-KCS – Gerson was indeed a hero to a whole generation of armchair sports enthusiasts: as another 40-a-day man for several decades, he always gave me the feeling that, should I ever feel like it, a career as a top-flight international sports star was always a distinct possibility.
    Yes, the first beard. I grew mine because I suddenly developed acne at the age of 23! Unfortunately, for the first few years, as my brother (who could always grow a luxuriant beard between dawn and dusk) never tired of pointing out, it looked like it had been stuck on by a trainee make-up artist. It was not only my first beard – it was my last. I have never shaved it off, and after 35 years, it’s beginning to look quite real!
    Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 03:40 PM