Brazil Diary: Meeting Pele

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.”

4 comments about "Brazil Diary: Meeting Pele ".
  1. Richard Broad, July 13, 2014 at 6:39 p.m.

    True greatness transcends mere talent. Those who are special treat others in a special way. No more need be said about Pele.

  2. James Madison, July 13, 2014 at 8:24 p.m.

    1. One of my most treasured possessions is a no. 2 ball that Pele signed at the dinner in Las Vegas after the draw for te 1994 Cup. The balls had been table favors. Pele's patience in carefully signing a ball for each of the long line of guests who submitted one to him was wonderful to experience. It exemplified the man.

    2. Do you have any idea of how a set of the demo tapes he made for Coca Cola in the early 1970s might be unearthed?

  3. Santiago 1314, July 14, 2014 at 5:57 a.m.

    James, I might have those...Give me a Couple days to Dig around...More on the 3 Times I meet Pele, Later...

  4. Santiago 1314, July 14, 2014 at 6:27 p.m.

    Pele is one of the Most Wonderful, Genuine Persons you could ever meet……The First time we met, He was doing a Promo Event at a US National Team Game…In the Morning, He made an Appearance at a School, There were, of Course Hundreds of Kids and Pro Players there…He was so Gracious and Unpretentious, and he Let EVERYONE MOB him and Take Pictures and he Signed COUNTLESS Autographs…After about 2 hours he was Still Smiling and Patting Kids on the Head…But the best part was seeing the Look in the Eyes of Pro Players (some Big Timers) Who instantly became 12 years Old Again…The Smiles on their Faces, the Spring in their Step and the Awe on their Lips was JUST LIKE THE KIDS…Each One of them Awkwardly Nudging in, to get a Picture with the GREATEST of ALL TIME…That is the Effect that Pele has on People…Later that day, I was Tasked with Coordinating a Two Hour Autograph Event before the Game…People had Bought a Slot to Get Pictures and Autographs with Pele…I had to get some High School Kids and Help Run these Groups through the Line…After THREE hours, we had made it through the Last Group…Hot and Tired, Pele’s Handlers where trying to Wisk him Away…The High School kids I had Brought, had not gotten to Meet or Great Pele…When I Pointed this out to Pele, He Broke back through the Handlers, to Sit down with the Players and Take Pictures and Sign Autographs for each of them……Next time was another National Team event, this time a Presser…He remembered me from those 5 hours and the Fact that, as Gringo as I look, My Castilian Spanish is Excellent…Again to see Media and National Team Players Completely Spellbound and in Awe was something to behold…Must have been a couple years later, and I am hanging out in with the Familia in Madrid and I see in The Marca, that Pele is going to be at So and So Hotel to do some Promotion for Puma…I put on one of my US Soccer Polos and went on down to the Hotel…Nobody at the Hotel had any Clue He was coming…He walked into the Lobby and there was NO ONE to Greet Him!?!?!?…We just stood there Looking at each other….NO one else in the Lobby but us!!!…He recognized me and was Dumb Founded…And then he remembered my Spanish Background and we just stood there talking for about 20/30 minutes…People walked by us with the Most Quizzical Look on their face… “Esto es Pele, No?” “No, No Puede Ser” “Si, Si es El y El Otro es Cruijff, No?” (and the other Guy is Cruyff??)(I get mistaken for Cruijff Quite a bit, But that’s a Story for another time)…Anyway, I digress…Finally somebody from Puma showed up and Whisked him off to Wherever he was supposed to be…Seeing him in the Subway World Cup Commercials, it is hard to say that he has Aged a Day…But, Some 30 years ago, he already looked like a man of 70…I Imagined the Punishment he took every game…Glad to see that he is Still With Us… A Truly Great Man, A True Ambassador of LOVE…AND He is THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME>>>

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