In the late 1950s Santos, with Pelé in their ranks, realised they had a method of printing money by sending the squad out on the road. And, for the next decade, they sent them to every corner of the globe
Probably the most frequent complaint about modern football is that it is concerned only with money, that it is less a game more a method of earning cash, ripped from its Corinthian roots and unrecognisable from what it once was. Of course that is true, but to suggest that football hasn’t always been full of those who can spot a quick buck is nonsense of the first water. What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
In the mid-1950s Santos were a decent, if not especially big, side. They had one regional title to their name, won in 1935 in the days before the national Campeonato Brasileiro had been established, but a group of talented homegrown players helped them claim a pair of Paulista crowns in 1955 and 1956. So by the time Pelé made his first-team debut in 1957, they were already something of a force, but his genius helped push them further and further, to another ten state titles, six national championships and two Copa Libertadores, including the treble in 1961.
The problem was that Santos were a club of relatively modest means, with a small stadium that they had to abandon in favour of bigger grounds for more high-profile games, so making money was a problem. In order to keep and add to their star-studded squad, the club’s management attempted to raise funds through property deals, but when that failed they realised such a brilliant collection of players might do pretty well as a touring act, charging willing teams around the world for the privilege of playing their wondrous talents. So Santos hit the road.
“We were in demand,” wrote Pelé in his autobiography. “The suits were very keen to cash in.” And cash in they did, but at some points their schedule was absolutely preposterous. For example, between the end of May and beginning of July 1959, they played 22 matches in eight countries around Europe, including encounters with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Hamburg, Feyenoord and Sporting. “It was ridiculous,” wrote Pelé. “There was no time to relax; there was barely enough to travel from stadium to stadium.”
By 1962 the Santos circus reached England, and the obvious place to start was, of course, Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls were mid-table in the old First Division when Pelé and pals rocked up and there was, to say the least, a fair bit of excitement in the air. A crowd of 50,000 saw the Brazilians win 4-2, the brilliant forward Coutinho scoring a hat-trick and Pelé himself netting a penalty (he, incidentally, once described spot-kicks as a “cowardly” way to score and didn’t generally take them), a game described by the Times as “a physical challenge of the British against something of the mind”.
Pelé was, of course, the main attraction, this being probably the only way the English public could see him outside of grainy World Cup highlights every four years. Eric Todd in the Guardian wrote: “When one considers the number of superlatives that are squandered on some inside forwards in this country the futility of trying to find new ones to describe Pelé becomes all the more obvious.” The Times’s correspondent said trying to contain him was like trying to capture “a shaft of light in a matchbox. At one moment he looks as harmless as a sleeping cat. The next he has disappeared into open space with feline speed, sliding past man after man so that they are left in a maze looking for the ball”.
The tours continued, taking in all manner of locations around the globe, including the occasion when, so the story goes, civil war in Congo was put on hold so the people could watch Pelé in peace (“It is said that there really was a 48-hour ceasefire in the war, made just for us … I’m not sure that is completely true,” he wrote, spoiling the story slightly), but by 1969 they were back on English soil, this time to play Stoke City, the only club to stump up the supposed £12,000 appearance fee, a sum that came with it a guarantee Pelé would appear. He was again the star, scoring a goal that Michael Carey in the Guardian called “of quite outstanding individual brilliance”, weaving past three defenders before slotting past Gordon Banks, a year or so before their rather more famous encounter in Mexico. “The fame of the man was reflected at the final whistle,” wrote the great correspondent Geoffrey Green, “when his sturdy, almost squat frame disappeared under a wave of youthful spectators as they surged on to the pitch to engulf him in admiration.”
Three years later they returned, and were beaten for the first time on English soil, surprisingly enough by Third Division Aston Villa, who won 2-1 in a game delayed after the Santos goalkeeper Cejas refused to start the second half on the slightly flimsy basis that one of the floodlight pylons had gone out. Eventually the visitors were placated, but that perhaps displays the sort of weary attitude the Santos players had towards this incessant touring. There were no floodlights at all when they returned to Hillsborough, where a crowd of nearly 37,000 would see them beat the Owls 2-0, despite the game being played at 2.30pm on a Wednesday in February, energy restrictions brought about by the miners’ strike making illuminations and an evening kick-off impossible. The chance to see the greatest was obviously worth bunking off any previous responsibilities.
Those present were treated to the vaguely comic sight of the Wednesday midfielder Tommy Craig following Pelé around for the last 10 minutes of the game so that he could get his shirt on the final 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,” Craig told the Daily Record a few years ago. “When time up came I grabbed Pelé round the waist until he had parted with the jersey.” After that game the great man (Pelé, not Craig – sorry Tommy) was also offered a neat £1,500 to represent Fulham in a friendly to celebrate the opening of a new stand at Craven Cottage the following week, but declined on the basis he would be required by Santos to face Anderlecht in Brussels, a match opportunistically squeezed into their already crowded schedule.
Other sides would play Santos overseas (notably West Ham in New York and Newcastle in Hong Kong), but their and Pelé’s final playing appearance came in 1973, when they arrived for a pair of games against Fulham and Plymouth Argyle, which is where the financial demands of the Santos hierarchy would become more crude. At Craven Cottage, Santos had agreed to split the gate receipts with the hosts, but there was a disagreement over the number of paying punters, the Brazilians accusing Fulham of fiddling the crowd figures. With this row fresh in the memory, a few days later they travelled to Plymouth where they had been promised a flat fee of £2,500, but when they saw the crowd of around 40,000 crammed into Home Park they realised they could be missing out.
“I was with our directors 15 minutes before kick-off when we were called down and they said, ‘We are not going to play unless you give us another £2,500,’” Graham Little, the Plymouth club secretary at the time, told the Daily Mail. “Well, we had no choice — there would have been a riot if we cancelled … [After the game] I had the money, £50 notes in cellophane packets and the chairman started telling the man from Santos: ‘This is crooked, we will report you. You will never play in this country again.’ He shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Plenty more countries.’”
Plymouth won the game 3-2, during which Pelé struck up an understanding with John Hore, the man supposed to be marking him, that he should go easy on the tough tackling. “He had been kicked and chased his whole life and he just wanted a game of football,” said Hore. “At the end of the game he came up to me. We didn’t really understand each other, but he wanted to change shirts. I was glowing. I think it was because I didn’t kick him. People say I could sell it, but why would I? It’s worth more than money. I sometimes wonder what he did with my shirt. I’d sign it if he likes.” Footage from the game shows the crowd swarming onto the pitch at the final whistle, the Plymouth players having to help usher them to the safety of the dressing room, after which they headed to a post-game reception where Pelé toasted the assembled with what appears to be a goblet of some sort. Only the best for O Rei.
Of course all of this provided nice stories and solid little earners for the English clubs, but Pelé and his colleagues were basically being flogged silly by the Santos hierarchy, particularly when it became clear that he was going to leave when his contract expired in 1974. “The bird that laid the golden eggs was about to fly the coop,” wrote Pelé, “and they were really going to make him play, make him bank some money for the club … 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. I had already played my 1,000th game for Santos, against Transvaal in Paramaribo, Surinam, and it seemed they were determined to get a few more hundred out of me before I went.”
Hugh McIlvanney, writing in the Observer when Santos visited England in 1972, agreed:
Now more than ever the justification for these profit-making excursions by Santos is the name of Pelé – his name rather than his prowess, because he has no chance of displaying that adequately when he is being asked to play three or four games in as many countries in the same week. Pelé is now as much an icon and an industry as he is a footballer … These tours have no more relevance to Pelé’s reality as a great player than a jaunt round the American lecture circuit has to the work of a serious writer …
He smiled and joked with those of us who had met him in Rio, Mexico and elsewhere and even when he spoke of the the impossible pressures of the tour his expression was wry rather than bitter. ‘Too many planes, too much football,’ he said. ‘How can we play well?’”
“In 1973 we began another year of travelling,” a passage in Pelé’s autobiography wearily begins. “We played in the countries of the Persian Gulf. We played in Egypt and Sudan, in Africa and Europe, we performed in Germany, France, Belgium and England … my farewell on English soil was a sad one. The ‘footballing machine’ was losing its shine.”
Less is more, particularly with genius. They may well have made a pretty penny (“well over $20m,” according to Pelé), but Santos turned the greatest player in the world into a footballing busker, passing a hat to anyone who would chuck in a few coins. What has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun.