Pele’s Greek Odyssey

Word has just crept through from Brazil that the great, the very great, Pele has taken the long, lonely walk down the tunnel. In my mind’s eye I see him now, waving to the crowd, that wonderful big smile stretched across his face, turning to show the green number 10 on the back of that famous yellow jersey.

I wave back, return the smile and remember with warmth and affection the few minutes I spent in his company one May day in northern Greece 17 years ago.

Let’s rewind to 1970, my first World Cup. Actually, technically, not my first World Cup. That would have been 1966 but as I was only three at the time, my memories of England’s finest hour are sketchy to say the least. In 1970, I was seven. I had been out to buy the England team’s ‘Back Home’ (my first single) and I had an almost complete Soccer Stars album for the World Cup.

I knew the England team and quite a few of the Brazilians — they were my favourite Subbuteo team. There was Jairzinho, Rivellino and Toastao – or Toaster as we schoolboys obviously called him. Oh, and the goalkeeper as well, because Felix was my brother’s name. Still is. But Pele was King.

I recall the day when holders England – how odd it is to write that – played Brazil in the opening match in their group. As a football match it was breathless, remembered more for Gordon Banks’ miracle save from Pele’s header than for Jairzinho’s winner. From a personal point of view, it was another kind of miracle: it was in colour.

My parents were more than happy with the old black and white set at home but my friends Chris and Katie Long lived in a house near Turner’s Hill with a colour box. My parents had taken themselves off to Spain for a week and left me with the Longs. It was sensational, the images coming through in oversaturated colour, the yellow/blue of the Brazilian kit shimmering in the Mexican sun, David Coleman’s precise, deliberate commentary syphoned through a nasal spray.

England broke my heart by losing to West Germany in the quarter-finals while Pele went on to win his third World Cup as Brazil dismantled Italy 4-1 in the final. And he would forever be one of my sporting heroes.

Fast forward 35 years to May 12, 2005.

I was living in Athens at the time and, among my several jobs, I was the sports stringer for Reuters news agency as well as hosting a daily show on Athens International Radio. So it was with two hats that I accepted an invitation to fly up to Xanthi for the day where the great Pele was opening the new stadium and a training centre.

To this day, I have no idea how Skoda Xanthi, a mid-table team in the Greek Alpha Ethniki, which later morphed into today’s Super League, persuaded the greatest footballer of all time to fly to Western Thrace and be their PR guy. But they did.

It was a busy day. A chartered flight from Athens packed with journalists, including the BBC’s Richard Galpin, flew to north-eastern Greece. We were bussed to the smart new stadium where speeches were made after which we had a press conference at the training centre which really was very impressive. This was all standard stuff. Reuters wasn’t terribly interested in a new training centre but I tossed in an asinine question about who he thought was shaping up best for the 2006 World Cup.

I forget his exact answer but undoubtedly it was diplomatic, delivered with a smile and gave me a line to send through to the desk to justify my trip north.

Press conference over, we were all invited to eat: the Greek hospitality kicking in. Pele was up at the top table, I was somewhere at the other side of the room at the end of a long table facing him. The wine, needless to say, was flowing which may have given me courage.

I am not an autograph hunter by nature but, when I noticed that no one was actually talking to the great man, decided that this was one of those moments not to be missed. Picking up the book I had in my bag and feeling for the pen in my pocket, I stood up and marched round the room.

Before I knew it, I was at his elbow. He smiled at me. I smiled back and apologised for bothering him.

“Not a problem,” he said. “It’s nice to see you. You asked a question didn’t you? Are you from England? I like your team. Steven Gerrard is a great player. You have many good players, Beckham, Rooney, Owen. I like Owen very much…”

He was away. I nodded, grunted, ummed and aaahed with each name but he just fired on. He wanted to talk football, apparently with anyone. It was very infectious. Finally he came to a halt and I took my chance, and asked him if he would mind signing a book for me.

“Of course. Give it to me. Oh, I have never read this book. Is it good? Maybe I should read it. What is your name?”

And with a flourish, a swivel, a shake of the hips and a sharp burst of speed, he spread his dedication across the page.

I thanked him and left him in peace. And as he leaves us in peace, I look again at that page and that book – perhaps the only edition of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ to be signed by Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

I wonder if Pele ever got around to reading it.

@Barney Spender 2022