Facing Pelé: what it was like by those who played against him | Pelé


1958

Few people had heard of Pelé before this tournament in Sweden. By the end – when he had scored twice in the final at the age of just 17 – he had become a household name. The great Swedish winger Kurt Hamrin recalls a “rare talent” who was humble and kind.

Sweden’s Kurt Hamrin shoots past Brazil’s Nilton Santos during the 1958 World Cup Final.
Sweden’s Kurt Hamrin shoots past Brazil’s Nilton Santos during the 1958 World Cup Final. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

“In 1958 he was unknown to us Swedes. At the start of the tournament he was injured and didn’t play until the last match of the group stage. I first heard of him a few days before the final, apparently Brazil had a 17-year-old left wing that scored four goals in three games. But I’ll be honest, we were more worried about other players like Vavá and Garrincha.

We learned that we should have been worried. Pelé made two goals, including one amazing volley shot. I was impressed that he lacked the flaws in his game, even though he was so young. However, he was not the best in the finals, it was Didi and Garrincha, but you could see he had a rare talent.

When we met a few times later in his career, he was the best in the world. I particularly remember a friendly in Stockholm against Brazil before the World Cup in England in 1966. Then he did something I had never seen before. Directly from the kick off he shot from the centre circle when our goalie stood far out. The goalkeeper barely made it back and tipped the ball over the bar, but the audience applauded and laughed at the bold attempt.

He was incredibly humble. The win against us meant Brazil’s first World championship gold medal ever, and to show their appreciation to the Swedish audience in the stands, and to show respect towards us as opponents, they took a giant Swedish flag and ran lap of honour with the entire squad. Also, I know that when he did not play the first matches he sat in the stands in a small Swedish town among the common people. You don’t often see today’s stars do that.”

1962

Injury in the second group game against Czechoslavakia ended Pelé’s World Cup early, leaving just a tantalizing snippet of what could’ve been. Brazil still went on to win the tournament but Guillermo Sepúlveda, Mexico’s defender in the opening group match against the Seleção, recalls facing the “devil”.

“Pelé was like no one else. He was a devil! The best of all time for me. He had a lot of personality, he headed well, had a good touch on the ball and, above all, he was a good teammate. He was a fantastic player but also very humble. You don’t always get that combination. He never complained about his teammates, he always encouraged them. I played a number of times against him. He was always a gentleman. Apart from being a great football player, he was also very educated. That’s why it’s worth remembering him.

When we played Brazil in 1962 they were the reigning world champions and we lost the game 2-0. We knew we would have a tough game and so it proved. Mário Zagallo and Pelé scored the goals. We held out until the 56th minute but then Zagallo scored and it was an uphill battle just getting the ball after that. Pelé – who else – scored the second goal, which killed the game. I am honoured to have shared a pitch with Pelé.”

1970

Tarcisio Burgnich is regarded as one of the greatest Italian defenders of all-time, a key player in Helenio Herrera’s great Internazionale side. Capped 66 times, he played in three World Cup finals including the 4-1 defeat to Brazil in 1970 where he famously said about Pelé’s headed goal against him: “I told myself before the game: ‘He’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else’ – but I was wrong.”

Italy’s Tarcisio Burgnich acrobatically attempts to clear the ball away from Brazil’s Pele during the 1970 World Cup final.
Italy’s Tarcisio Burgnich acrobatically attempts to clear the ball away from Brazil’s Pele during the 1970 World Cup final. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“Who could forget 1970? That match was truly very odd since we never had a good balance: we felt overwhelmed, we could still feel the effects of the Germany match [Italy won the semi-final, later dubbed The Game of the Century, 4-3 after extra-time] on our energy level. We understood that the morning before the final. I remember when the coach [Ferruccio Valcareggi] asked me: “How do you feel?” My answer was: “I don’t have my legs”.

There were different ways to try to take Pelé out of the game, we studied all of them. You had to be very careful to every detail, every move, every step. But there was some confusion regarding the way we were marking him. The difficulty was, when he moved back to the midfield, it was [Mario] Bertini who was supposed to mark him. When he was playing up-front it was up to me. But Pelé was smart: the minute I arrived, he would flee to the midfield to get the ball. This caused our plan to be thrown off.

I played against Pelé a few times, in New York. What I could do with my hands, he did with his feet. He was a universe contained in just one player: he had the pace, the headers, then his feet … either right or left, he always found a way to be lethal.

For me Pelé was the greatest. I would describe him as a great man, on top of being an extraordinary athlete and footballer. I also want to point something out: despite being known everywhere, he has never been [pilloried] because of gossip or things of that nature. A true example. Pelé didn’t have something more than others … Pelé had everything. The ability of a champion, perfect body, professionalism. On top of extraordinary class that he had in great quantity, enough that he could have sold it.”

Interviews by Mattias Åsén, Tom Marshall and Fabrizio Romano



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