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Opinion

The day I met Pele

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Roar Guru
10th April, 2020
5

Pele, or Edson Arantes do Nascimento as he is known to his family, is arguably the greatest football player of all time.

If not the greatest, then certainly the most well known. Like Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, never has a bigger sporting personality captured the world’s imagination quite like Pele did. From humble beginnings playing for Santos in Brazil to taking over New York with the Cosmos, Pele managed to squeeze in four World Cups, winning three.

As an 18-year-old schoolboy living in Bankstown in 1990, I certainly knew who Pele was and what he represented to world sport. I was walking through the local shopping centre when I noticed a throng of people in the Kmart outlet.

There was a sign at the door advertising an appearance by Pele to promote his new book. The book was actually a two-volume set of his life called, appropriately enough, The Pele Albums. A few years before the same publisher came out with a similar product in homage to Australia great sportsman, Sir Donald Bradman.

Pele

(Photo credit STAFF/AFP via Getty Images)

The sign stated the start and finish time of the book signing and the latter was fast approaching. I love collecting autographs and I certainly wanted to add Pele to the list. I had been a sports memorabilia collector for a few years and this was an opportunity I could not miss. I had to get into that line that stretched from the stage to out the door.

First things first. As an 18-year-old I wasn’t flush with the folding so I had to get to an ATM to see if I could afford the books. I can’t recall if I had the money or if I raided mum’s invalid pension that week. I think they were $35. Big money 30 years ago.

When I returned the police were closing off the line as the crowd was growing and Pele had a dinner to get too. I told the policewoman that I had been waiting for hours to see Pele and pleaded to stay in the line. The walloper took pity on my boyish looks and let me stay. The truth was I had been there for two minutes but I wasn’t letting this opportunity go.

Slowly the line snaked towards the raised platform Pele was on, signing away. People’s requests for signed balls and selfies (no mobiles then, but actually film cameras) fell on deaf ears as his minders were strict that only the books were to get signed. And only one volume of the two were to be scribbled on.

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Pele barely looked up as he signed with little interaction with the paying punter who had coughed up for the books. Time has erased how long it took for it to be my turn but as I looked at the crowd I knew how lucky I was to be here.

I had a U2 T-shirt and NY cap on, so in Bankstown 30 years ago I may have stood out. As I climbed up to meet Pele he stopped and spoke to me. Maybe it was because the TV cameras were on, as there was an eight-minute news story by SBS that night.

They had been shadowing him since he landed in the country. I noticed he loved the red light being on. He said he noticed my cap (he lived and played in New York) and said I’d waited almost two hours to see him. Who was I to tell him I’d snuck into the line and wasn’t there for longer than half an hour at best.

With that he stood up and we hugged. A man of contrasts in his simple white shirt but with a heavy gold watch and neck chain. I stammered out that this was the greatest moment of my life. To that point maybe it was. I’m sure he has heard that countless times before.

I’ve never said it before or since. I was taken in the moment that such an encounter demands. Such adulation must be second nature to a man who has been hero-worshipped since he was a young age and a master at the biggest sport in the world.

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True to form I only got one volume signed but I snuck one under the radar of the jackboots to stage left. I took off my NY cap and asked him to sign it. With that we were done and he was ushered away after another wave to the crown.

I’ve been to many signings over the years but that was the craziest. True and long-lasting stardom comes along rarely and sporting champions are far too often referred to as our modern-day heroes.

Only the great are referred to as a sporting deity and Pele wore that crown well.

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