By Mike Woitalla
Life is good. On Saturday I had the offer of a free sandwich and a roundtable discussion with Pele.
I revered Pele when I was a kid. I would tune into ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” on Saturdays just to watch the opening montage. Because it included a short highlight of Pele scoring in the 1970 World Cup final before the "agony of defeat" guy fell off the ski ramp. This was in the early 1970s when that clip was a rare chance to see soccer on TV. Then I got to see him play in the old NASL.
Pele was one of the most important influences on the growth of soccer in the USA, thanks to Clive Toye luring him to play for the New York Cosmos.
So on Saturday morning I took the Metro to “centro” Rio de Janeiro to the Subway store on Gomes Freire Avenue and arrived 45 minutes early.
About 50 photographers, TV cameramen and reporters jockeyed for position in a 10- by 15-yard area. Latecomers would be stuck outside. Two reporters got into a heated argument after they bumped into each other trying to get in prime position in front of the rope that would separate us from O Rei – the King.
Besides the media, there were two families sitting at two separate tables. They would be the ones for whom Pele would make sandwiches. We spent the time complaining about how crowded and chaotic it was – how difficult it would be to ask questions and hear answers. And we pondered why the 73-year-old Pele would put himself through these kinds of publicity events. One reporter joked that he would ask Pele if he thought Lionel Messi would one day be making sandwiches.
And then he arrived. Escorted quickly past us and into the kitchen, where he apparently met with staff and former New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera.
(Photo courtesy of SUBWAY Restaurants)
Fifteen minutes later, Pele came to the counter and made sandwiches for two children, before meeting the reporters, who nearly knocked down the rope.
“Play nice or I’ll send you all outside!” he joked with his wonderful smile.
Pele had not yet commented on Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss to the Germans. That was, of course, the question of the day. How could that happen?
“We need to speak with God to figure out this shock,” he said. “It was a disaster. I played in four World Cups and watched 10 from the outside. Something like this has never happened to Brazil.”
Are Brazilian soccer’s problems short-term or long-term?
“You never know,” he said. “Maybe we can recover in the next game.”
(But Brazil didn’t, losing 3-0 to the Netherlands hours later.)
What did he think of the USA’s performance?
“The USA was good. Some people didn’t expect it. But remember, the USA did well in Korea,” he said referring the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal appearance. And he said he was proud, mentioning his relationship with the Cosmos.
Then someone shouted the question of whether Messi is better than he was.
Pele smiled big and said, “I have better hair! … He’s a fantastic player. I admire him. The same as I used to admire Diego Maradona and how I admired [Alfredo] Di Stefano. He is very good for football.”
Who will win the final?
“Since the before of the World Cup, I imagined Germany as one of the teams that could be in the final. Unfortunately, I said the Spanish too, but Spanish are out. The Germans are still there.”
Then Pele moved on for questions in Portuguese. I think we were hoping for something more. That somehow Pele would have an emphatic response to Brazil’s performance and that he would reveal the formula for how it can play the wonderful soccer it did when he wore its jersey.
There was no round table. No chance to ask him my questions. I wanted him to say something about youth soccer. Some advice for coaches and young players.
I left without my free sandwich. After so long in the cramped room, the claustrophobia was kicking in. So I walked down the street and found a corner bar. I ordered an empada – a pastry stuffed with vegetables.
I pulled out my iPhone, clicked on the picture I took of Pele, held it out to the stranger next to me, and said, “I was just with Pele.”