The debate rages: is Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi the greatest soccer player of all-time?
Their talent and achievements are undeniable. But Pelé — Edson Arantes do Nascimento — ranks far above them in my books.
One of the greatest athletes of all-time died Dec. 29 at age 82. Not only was he Brazil’s greatest soccer export, a member of three World Cup champion squads, but he played an instrumental role in opening Canadian and American eyes to the beautiful game in the 1970s during three seasons with the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos.
A man of average height from humble beginnings who was a magician with the ball. He dazzled Vancouverites on several occasions and inspired many of us to play the game and imagine we were wearing his number 10.
I had the thrill of meeting Pelé when I was a child (my father was on the Whitecaps’ radio team at CJOR), and then as a young reporter when he appeared as a MasterCard spokesman at a convention in Vancouver.
I dropped everything while covering the Beijing 2008 Olympics to attend his photo op outside the Forbidden City.
I wasn’t the only one disappointed Pelé didn’t light the cauldron at the Rio 2016 opening ceremony in legendary Maracana. He was reportedly in ill health.
But his footprints were already in the stadium. Along with the ball he used to score his 1,000th goal. Artifacts in the museum that is the shrine to Brazil’s “futebol” triumphs that I first visited during the 2007 Pan American Games.
Pelé’s visits to Vancouver:
July 30, 1971: Pelé led Brazil’s Santos to a 3-1 win in a friendly against Hannover 96 of West Germany at Empire Stadium. The 22,193 fans saw Pelé score the 1,086th goal of his career, a 22-yard free kick in the second half.
July 7, 1972: Santos blanked the B.C. Premier League All-Stars 5-0 at Empire Stadium before 16,304 fans. Pelé played 82 minutes and didn’t score with his two shots on target, which was a moral victory for besieged goalkeeper Greg Weber.
May 27 and 28, 1975: Two-day visit to B.C. included an appearance at the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame’s seventh annual induction banquet. Multisport athlete Reg Clarkson headed the list of inductees overshadowed by famous guests Pelé and sports writer George Plimpton, who were presented with Montreal 1976 Olympic coin sets. Reporters wanted to know about the $7 million offer from the New York Cosmos. The Big Apple was the star’s next stop, the next night, where the Whitecaps registered a road win.
July 7, 1975: The Cosmos with star signing Pelé came to Vancouver for a friendly match against the Whitecaps at Empire Stadium. Reserved seats were sold out, but general admission was $4.50 at the gate. (Worth $23.02 in 2022 dollars). Owner Herb Capozzi offered free tickets to the match for anyone buying tickets to all four of the remaining regular season games. The visitors were 2-1 victors in front of 26,495, then a local soccer attendance record. Israeli Mordecai Spiegler scored both New York goals. Sergio Zanatta had Vancouver’s.
Sept. 10, 1976: The Cosmos came for another friendly, this time against Canada’s national team as it prepared for World Cup qualifying. Brian Budd’s goal stood as the winner of the 3-1 match, but goalkeeper Tony Chursky was the star who made two saves off Pelé scoring chances. Giorgio Chinaglia’s penalty kick goal spoiled Chursky’s shutout bid late in the match.
June 30, 1977: In a league match, the Whitecaps upped their game against Pelé, Chinaglia and German star Franz Beckenbauer. Two other players with P surnames stole the show: Derek Possee and Buzz Parsons scored twice each in the 5-3 win before 30,277 fans, a record for a Canadian club match at the time. Almost as awesome as the Whitecaps’ unlikely victory was the soccer-caused traffic jam on the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows bridge.
Sept. 8, 1979: Almost two years after Pelé’s dramatic retirement match at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, he was back on the pitch. This time in a dapper white leisure suit to perform the ceremonial kickoff before Soccer Bowl. Said ABC’s Jim McKay: “The man who, in many ways, put the sport of soccer on its way in the United States.”
Pelé passed the ball to Whitecaps’ captain John Craven. A good omen, indeed. Vancouver edged the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-1 for their only North American Soccer League title.
May 3, 1992: Then a FIFA goodwill ambassador, Pelé came to Swangard Stadium in Burnaby for the opening of the CONCACAF under-20 world championship qualifying tournament. Host Canada beat Guadeloupe 4-2 before 2,110 fans.
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