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Dublin: 19 °C Monday 25 May, 2020

'The Phibsboro Flop': When Pele came to Dublin and was ripped to shreds by the press

The football icon – who celebrated his 78th birthday earlier this week – experienced a forgettable time in Ireland in 1972.

IN 1978, PELE was in Nigeria. 

He was promoting Brazilian appliances and wasn’t supposed to play in an exhibition game that had been arranged to drum up publicity. 

But it was impossible. There was an expectation. Even in retirement, he remained public property. 

“I go to the game just as a watcher, but people start to shout. They say, ‘You must play.’” he told reporters afterwards. 

“‘But I am not prepared, I am retired,’ I say. They say there will be a riot if I don’t play, so I play.”

The narrative had followed him around for two decades. 

And, as a result, it was little surprise that he enjoyed himself so much in New York. He signed for the Cosmos in 1975 and threw himself into Manhattan’s intoxicating social scene. As the city tumbled towards bankruptcy and financial ruin, Studio 54 offered up the perfect tonic: disco and debauchery. Pele has always maintained he stayed clear of drink and drugs but that didn’t stop him from partaking in other things.  

“I had my weaknesses, particularly when it came to the opposite sex,” he wrote in Why Soccer Matters. 

“And you can believe there was no shortage of temptation in New York during the mid-70s, especially as the Cosmos’ fame began to blast off.”

One simple pleasure he gleaned from his time with the Cosmos was being centred. He was a celebrity, certainly, and still had his obligations. But it was nothing like what he’d experienced playing with Santos. 

Pele made his first-team debut for the Brazilian club in 1957 and became an international phenomenon after his World Cup performance the following year.

And, as his employers battled to stay successful and maintain a revenue stream, they quickly fastened onto the idea of world tours and with Pele as the main attraction. 

In 1959, there had already been a trip to Czechoslovakia in February before an incredible summer sojourn. It started in Belgium and finished in Austria. In between, there were stops in Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. In total, Santos played 19 games in 38 days.  

“The suits were very keen to cash in,”  Pele wrote later on. 

“It was ridiculous. There was no time to relax; there was barely enough to travel from stadium to stadium.”

And that was the pattern through the 1960s too, though not as exhausting. Italy was a regular trip but visits to other countries were more isolated. Still, it said much about how little Santos cared for the welfare of Pele, particularly when he’d effectively missed an entire World Cup tournament in 1966 because of the battering his body took.

Brazilian Soccer Pele, bottom row, second from right, with his Santos team-mates in 1969. Source: Peter Robinson

After Brazil’s 1970 success in Mexico, it was clear that Pele was inching closer to retirement. Santos were spooked and quickly arranged another European tour for 1972 to ensure another lucrative windfall.   

“The bird that laid the golden eggs was about to fly the coop, and they were really going to make him play, make him bank some money for the club,” Pele said in his autobiography.

He had already been to England quite a few times, dating back to 1961 and a friendly against Sheffield Wednesday. He’d even been there recently enough for games against Stoke (1969), West Ham (1970) and Chelsea (1971).

And in February 1972, Pele was back again after Santos lined up an exhibition against Aston Villa – then in the Third Division – and also a return to Hillsborough too. 

But, everything appeared incredibly half-hearted. The jaded group of Santos players had little interest and opponents seemed to care more about rubbing shoulders with a superstar than anything else. Sheffield Wednesday’s midfielder Tommy Craig later described his attempts to land Pele’s shirt at the full-time whistle.

“I told the referee to give me a signal when he was about to blow for time so I could stand beside the great man. When time up came I grabbed Pele round the waist until he had parted with the jersey.”

Soccer - Club Friendly - Aston Villa v Santos - Villa Park Pele on the ball against Aston Villa in 1972. Source: PA

Logistically, it was shambolic too. The game against Wednesday kicked off at 2.30 because a miner’s strike ensured the floodlights weren’t in use. Still, it was the perfect illustration of the Santos business model: 37,000 turned up to a matinee because of Pele.

The schedule meant the Brazilians had a few days off before facing Anderlecht in Belgium. And thanks to two enterprising Irishmen, the greatest player in the world briefly detoured to Dublin with his team-mates. 

At the time, Roydon Prole and Liam Rapple were the key men involved in the running of Drumcondra FC and Bohemians.

Between them, they crafted a plan: combine the two teams and offer Santos the chance to come to Dalymount Park for a historic, high-profile game.  

They had flown to Birmingham and intercepted Santos officials at Villa Park where they hammered out the details, including Pele’s £1,100 fee.

There was also interest from the FAI, who felt an exhibition would be good preparation for the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifiers against the Soviet Union and France later in the year. But, they were £1000 short on what Drums and Bohs were offering and Prole and Rapple got their deal over the line.

The money offered by the pair must have been considerable. Fulham had also approached Pele and dangled the idea of him playing as a guest in a friendly at Craven Cottage the following week. He rejected it because of the already-congested trip. But clearly, it was because Prole and Rapple had got there first and Pele had to follow team orders.

Screen Shot 2018-10-26 at 15.46.16 Source: Drumcondra FC

Inevitably, there was a spark once everything was confirmed, though the game – set for a Saturday afternoon kick-off – was set to completely overshadow a League of Ireland fixture between Shamrock Rovers and Waterford at Glenmalure Park the following day. The latter would finish the season as champions but still suffered the ignominy of asking if they were entitled to any compensation should the exhibition at Dalymount lead to a paltry attendance.

Bohs supplied eight players to the combined XI while Drums were represented by goalkeeper Gary Scothorn, Frank McArdle and Tommy Hammill and the side were managed by Sean Thomas. 

The skipper was legendary Gypsies’ midfielder Johnny Fullam and he was also tasked with keeping a close eye on Santos’ key player.

“One is the same as the other,” he joked to reporters the day before the game, who questioned him about marking such an iconic player.

Screen Shot 2018-10-26 at 15.46.42 Source: Drumcondra FC

For Santos, they were without one big name in World Cup-winning captain Carlos Alberto but still boasted a superb goalkeeper in the Argentine Agustin Cejas and the gifted attacker Edu.

But, despite the array of talent, the entire event was lacklustre.     

About 30,000 watched on as Fullam stuck to his task with gusto and ensured Pele had a frustrating afternoon. Santos took the lead early on when Edu found the net. But Hammill equalised with a header shortly after before the same player was taken down in the area moments later and Fullam stepped up to convert from the spot and put the Dublin side in front. 

The guests did mount a comeback and substitute Alcindo struck twice late on to ensure Santos avoided embarrassment. 

But the game was underwhelming and lacked any razzmatazz despite the five goals. Pele was largely anonymous and the press didn’t hold back.

“What a dismal disappointment for the Dalymount fans,” ran one report, under the headline ‘The Phibsboro Flop’. 

“Playing with a lethargic lack of energy, the Brazilians turned in a dreary brand of football punctuated not too frequently by flashes of brilliance.”

The RTE cameras were there to document proceedings for a show called Sports Final and their art-house style footage of Pele – slowed down and with a Henry Mancini-inspired soundtrack – framed him as a balletic performer. But the portrayal was at odds with his actual performance.

His most impressive display of footwork came at full-time when he sprinted off the pitch so quickly that he even took the gardaí – there to offer him some security from the masses – by surprise.

Later, in the dressing-room, there was an extraordinary postscript. Taoiseach Jack Lynch, accompanied by his wife Máirín, visited both teams and asked Pele to autograph his match programme.

“I watched you on television in the World Cup in Sweden when I was in Paris on diplomatic business in 1958,” he told him.

But when an aide mentioned the Taoiseach’s own sporting prowess, the Santos players gathered around Lynch and asked for his autograph.  

Meanwhile, there were conflicting opinions on Pele’s overall contribution to the event.

“I really thought that this was one of his off-days,” Fullam said.  

All of the signs of the great master were there alright. But things just did not go right for him. I imagine they are great when they get that bit of room but as far as possible we tried not to give them any and in this I think we succeeded very well.”

But Prole was more complimentary and suggested Pele still exuded greatness in the small, innocuous things he did. 

“I think Pele was an object lesson to any young lad, even playing at half speed, by the way he uses the ball.”

Financially, the entire enterprise wasn’t successful enough for Prole and Drums were still£6,000 in debt later that year. So, after 20 years of running the club’s affairs, he sold his ownership to Home Farm later in 1972. 

Meanwhile, Pele was still being whored around the world. 

He was back in England the following year as Santos squeezed every last drop out of their most-prized asset. 

“In an 18-month period we toured South America, the Caribbean, North America, Europe, Asia and Australia … Never in my life have I had my time so filled with airports, hotels and different countries,” he wrote afterwards.

Somewhere in there, he appeared in his 1000th game for the club. Such a remarkable moment didn’t take place at an iconic venue like the Maracana or the Azteca. Instead, because of the Santos commercial strategy, it occurred in Surinam as the club faced Transvaal in a friendly.   

American Soccer - NASL - New York Cosmos v Toronto Metros-Croatia Pele salutes his adoring fans in New York as he prepares to make his NASL debut in 1975. Source: Peter Robinson

And then the entire mess was over. For a while. 

Understandably, he treated New York as a playground. He could relax and enjoy himself and who could blame him? The pressure was off. In his first season, the Cosmos failed to even make the play-offs. But he was still the biggest name in town. In terms of the team and a seismic moment, one can easily argue that it wasn’t the arrival of Pele but Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia that was the real game changer. 

But, it wasn’t just about what happened on the field. Pele was grateful to New York for giving him a lifeline. His final game – on 1 October 1977 – was turned into a TV event and, expectedly, there was lots of glitz and plenty of hyperbole.  

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to be here with you in this – the greatest moment of my life,” he said. 

An exaggeration, certainly, but he seemed genuinely affected by the reception and adoration. As he spoke, tears rolled down his cheeks.

And then it all started up again.

Pele Inc.

Which still shows no signs of slowing down 40 years later.  

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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