Meeting Pelé

Meeting Pelé

Paris, June 1998.

Eddie Jordan had been booked by MasterCard to make a personal appearance during the build up to the start of the football World Cup. The Opening Ceremony would take place at the Stade de France in Paris the following day, after which Brazil would play Scotland. It was a privilege to attend and, for the record, Brazil won 2-1.

We had secured MasterCard’s sponsorship of Jordan Grand Prix a year earlier, salvaging the payment giant’s presence in F1 following the embarrassing demise of the MasterCard Lola team.

The personal appearance involved Eddie speaking to a large group of banking and payments industry executives in a conference hall. My role was to ensure that he was on time and delivered a speech which met MasterCard’s brief.

On arrival we were shown to the green room, complete with comfortable chairs and refreshments, the holding area for anyone due to present at the event. After the usual introductions and last-minute checks Eddie was led out of the room to take to the stage. I used that moment to pop to the gents.

Upon returning, the green room had emptied, the MasterCard staff and agency personnel having gone to join the event. Standing at the refreshments counter, with his back to me, a man was pouring himself a drink. He wheeled around as I entered, smiled and said hello. At 5ft8ins in height he may not have been tall, but here was a giant.

It was one of those moments when your brain does a backflip, struggles to compute and starts an internal commentary. Is this for real?

Pelé, winner of three World Cups, Brazilian superstar, global icon and sporting ambassador for MasterCard was asking me if I’d like a drink?

For someone born in the ’60’s and who, as an eight year old, watched Pelé join his impossibly talented team mates Jairzinho, Rivellino and Carlos Alberto in winning the 1970 World Cup, this felt like ‘a moment’. That Brazilian team played football with a mesmerising degree of fluidity, artistry and brilliance. I remember them, as though yesterday, with their bright yellow shirts and blue shorts. Although that’s a memory gained from watching replays.

In 1970 we watched everything in black and white.

If Pelé was not actually scoring the goals, he was assisting others in doing so, lobbing over and dummying around goalkeepers, a 6-speed player competing against 4-speed rivals. It was Pelé whose header produced the ‘save of the century’ from England’s Gordon Banks. It would be replayed for years afterwards, a save which felt like a victory. English football’s Dunkirk.

Naturally Pelé received the Golden Ball as Player of the Tournament.

We shook hands and chatted. I don’t remember much about our conversation, but once he discovered that I worked in Formula 1 the conversation moved along easily. I remember him mentioning Ayrton Senna’s death, just four years earlier, as being a ‘tragedy for Brazil.’

Two things happened before we were joined by his manager and one of MasterCard’s agency staff.

The first was that he lifted a MasterCard pin badge, of the kind which he inevitably wore when making appearances for them, and secured it to my jacket lapel whilst we talked. The second was asking me if I would like an autograph?

He didn’t ask me in any way other than recognising, as perhaps only he could, that anyone meeting him would want an autograph but might be too polite to ask. A photo card was duly produced and he wrote ‘To Mark, Pele’.

We subsequently met again at the Brazilian Grand Prix, but on that occasion it was amidst a throng of security men, media and minders. No time to talk.

When speaking at conferences I am sometimes asked about the most famous or inspirational sports people and celebrities I have been fortunate enough to meet. The answer comes with a man whose four letter name is synonymous with footballing greatness, the most famous sporting icon of the 20th century.

Pelé.

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