President Bill Clinton and Pelé during a 1997 visit to Rio de Janeiro.
Many years ago, someone stopped me as I was walking in the main entrance of my apartment building in Washington, D.C. I had a football under my arm. “Hey, soccer man, wait a minute.” A Brazilian man, Salvador, introduced himself to me. He also lived in the building with his wife and baby son. He said that we needed to get together and play sometime. A few weeks later, the opportunity presented itself.
When I first met him, he mentioned that he played professionally in Brazil, but didn’t go into much detail. Kicking the ball around with him, it was obvious that his level far exceeded anything that I had ever witnessed. Amazing foot speed and ball control. I was mesmerized by him. After awhile, I started to ask a lot of questions. I learned where he first played, but had never heard of it. He named a few other clubs that were familiar to me. Then he showed me a Placar (a famous football publication in Brazil) magazine with his picture, along with a brief article. “By the way, I spent one year with Santos. You do know about Santos, Steve?” He smiled. And I was thinking, “The Santos FC of Pelé?”
My friend spent one year there with their Juniors. He trained daily with their senior team. Pelé was near the end of his Brazilian career, but my friend spent that year training with him, and also traveling with the team. But the difference was that he never made me feel like an inferior gringo, or flaunted what for most of us would be the first thing we would tell anybody. He didn’t even put a picture of himself and Pelé on the wall at his place. It was an incredible photo. Both were shirtless, and it must have been after a practice session or game. Pelé with his big smile, and an arm around a young 17 year old who looks like he can’t believe it is all for real. The back of the picture was signed by Pelé, and said, “To my colleague.” Perhaps there are some things that the rest of us can’t fully appreciate, or the memory was so important that he could not share it easily with others.
I asked Salvador to tell me about Pelé.
“He treated me very well. He was well-liked by everyone, and always helpful to his teammates. You never knew he was the best player in the world. He acted just like a regular guy. We used to call him James Bond because he liked to wear sunglasses, and women used to give him a lot of attention. He liked to play the guitar and to sing.”
He also mentioned that opposing teams would usually assign a lesser-talented player to harass Pelé. With the intent of getting the great one upset or thrown out of the game. But it was a bad strategy that rarely worked.
Salvador didn’t find the roads paved with gold in the USA, but nobody can ever take those memories away from him. He disappeared some years ago, and anytime I see Brazil play, I wonder where he is. And if he is still reflecting back on those wonderful days with Pelé.
“Steve, sometimes I wake up from a dream, and I am crying. I am dreaming that I am back playing with Pelé.”
I am very grateful that he told me about this wonderful experience. Obrigado, meu amigo.
The picture of Pelé and President Bill Clinton is courtesy of Wikipedia. “This work is in the public domain because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. This applies worldwide.”
This article was originally published on Futebol, The Brazilian Way of Life.
Steve Amoia is the author and editor of World Football Commentaries.