“Hello, my friends from FourFourTwo magazine, congratulations on the anniversary, I’m sorry for my English, but good luck to you!”
And with that, Pele burst into a chuckle, then a beaming smile. It was 2019, when our magazine’s 25th anniversary celebration coincided with an unexpected offer.
“Historical meeting: Pele and Kylian Mbappé in Paris,” reads the email, accompanied by an invitation to FourFourTwo to attend. Months earlier, Mbappé had become the first teenager since Pele to score in a World Cup final – now the Brazilian great flew to Europe to meet him in front of the international media.
When asked by our editor if I felt like going, of course I said yes without hesitation. At that stage, the invitation to attend the event and watch a Q&A with Pele and Mbappé was led by UEFA drawing extraordinaire Pedro Pinto. We could pass on a question to Pedro, and it’s possible he’ll ask the two World Cup heroes during his chat.
But on the Eurostar to Paris just a few hours before the event, an even more unexpected offer came from the organizers – would I like to meet Pele himself and talk to him for a few minutes before the Q&A? Again, I said yes without hesitation – you don’t say no when you get an offer like that.
Soon we arrived at the luxurious Hotel Lutetia, a few hundred meters south of the River Seine, where media from all over Europe had gathered. I was asked to wait outside a set of double doors as journalists were regularly let in.
Soon it was my turn. As I walked through the doors, Pele was sitting in a comfortable armchair, smiling. Even then he wasn’t very mobile anymore – when he went to the grand ballroom for the Q&A later in the evening, we never saw him get up from a chair, leave or enter a room. Understandably, everything was kept private until he was seated and ready to talk to people.
But what he lacked in mobility he more than made up for in warmth and friendliness, greeting my arrival like a friendly uncle, clearly keen to make me feel comfortable in his presence.
As part of our 25th anniversary celebrations, FFT coincidentally was already planning to put it in that month’s magazine – our editor had found some unseen photos from the Brazilian’s career.
We were also in the process of compiling a list of the best players of the last 25 years – after learning that I would be able to meet Pele for a short period of time, I quickly agreed with my editor that if I had the time, I would You’d ask the legend his thoughts on the biggest stars of the past quarter century, then let him go over all the memories evoked by the unseen photos we had lined up for that month’s magazine. I had passed that information on to the organizers – before speaking to such a big star, it’s not uncommon to be asked what topics you plan to talk about.
However, an unfortunate confusion seemed to have set in – when I started asking my pre-arranged questions about the biggest stars of the last 25 years, asking him what he most admired about Lionel Messi, one of Pele’s advisers informed me that he couldn’t talk about individual players. Looking at my prearranged questions, mostly about individual players, I briefly wondered if I might have a problem.
Fortunately, not so – eager not to disappoint, Pele started answering my question about Messi. “I admire him for the way he makes decisions – he thinks very quickly and his vision is incredible,” he explained. “I spoke to some people from Argentina and said that the only problem with Messi is that he does not play for the Brazilian national team!”
When asked later if there were any England players he had admired over the past 25 years, he was again eager to help, rather than shy away from the question. “I admire a lot of England players – sometimes I prefer not to name any, because it’s not fair to the others, but okay, give me five names of England players, and I’ll choose two for you!” he said.
I quickly offered him David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Paul Gascoigne, hoping I hadn’t overlooked anyone. “Very difficult!” He smiled. “I say Beckham and Rooney!”
He also spoke about Mbappé. “He has a Latin playing style, unpredictable, a bit Brazilian. It’s a pity he didn’t play for Santos, but there’s still time!”
When I showed him the unseen photos of his career on my laptop, two in particular caught his attention – he saw one of himself with a guitar, he was quick to tell us that not only did he play guitar during his younger years, but even sometimes composed his own music.
Another, of him playing as a goalkeeper in training, put on a big smile. “That was during training at the 1962 World Cup – in those days substitutes weren’t allowed, so if the goalkeeper got injured he played outfield and an outfield player went in goal,” he explained. “I would be the goalkeeper, and I was a good goalkeeper! In two or three games during my career I went in goal and I was lucky – in one of those games Brazil won 1-0!”
Finally, before my time was up, I gave him a copy of our magazine from 2010, when he was our cover star, after he kindly gave an in-depth interview about his career, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
I asked if there was any chance he would record a short video message to mark our magazine’s 25th anniversary. Some may not have wanted it, but he did it with pleasure, without hesitation, and ended the message with the beaming smile I had seen during my brief conversation with him.
He must have done thousands of interviews in his lifetime, and no one would have blamed him if he got tired of it all long before age 78, as in 2019. But he didn’t give that impression at all. .
Pele understood that most journalists were meeting him for the first time, and meeting him was a big deal for each of them. He wanted to send them away happy, as he enjoyed the experience of talking to him. I imagine he treated every football fan he met the same way.
Soon after, Pele sat down with Mbappe for the Q&A with Pedro Pinto, and it was clear that we were witnessing the historic meeting of two greats of the game. “I keep touching him to make sure he’s real!” joked Mbappé, as his proud family sat in the front row.
After Mbappé’s exploits at the 2022 World Cup, as he tied Pele’s 12 career goals at the tournament, surely on track to beat Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 in a day, it’s even clearer how historic that encounter in Paris was .
Unfortunately there will be no reunion. Pele was taken to the hospital just hours after that 2019 event, the strains of the trip from South America and a busy evening perhaps starting to get the better of her. He recovered, but health problems rarely seemed far away over the next three years.
Pele’s death was announced on Thursday, at the age of 82. Not only has the world of football lost one of the absolute greatest players to ever play the game, but also a man who was its unofficial ambassador for more than half a century.
He did it with enthusiasm and always with a smile. Everyone who met Pele, even for the shortest period of time, had enriched their lives, with memories to cherish forever. I was just one of them. Thousands of others will say the same.
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