So much praise has been heaped upon Pelé, arguably the greatest footballer who ever lived, since his death last week Thursday at 82 from cancer, that it would be a stiff challenge to find any unused superlatives to describe the king of soccer. It seems nothing can be written or said about the great Brazilian than what has already been written and said.
The only player to win three World Cups and score a world record 1,281 goals in 1,363 appearances during a 21-year giant of a career, Pelé, and along with him heavyweight boxing champion Mohamed Ali, were not only the two most famous athletes in history but probably the two most famous people on the planet.
In the conversation about the world’s greatest player, only Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned alongside Pelé. It is not the other way round, insist purists and long-time observers of the sport.
But what might not be universally known is that Pelé visited Egypt on several occasions and played in the country more than once for both his country and club.
The particulars of the national team games in the 1960s are not heavily documented. In three friendly games in April and May in 1960, Brazil beat Egypt 5-0, 3-1 and 3-0. In 1963, Brazil edged Egypt 1-0.
The match that lives in memory and on film, though, was Egypt’s Ahly vs the Pelé-led club of Santos.
The site was Cairo Stadium and the encounter was an exhibition match played on 18 February 1973.
Called by pioneer TV football broadcaster Mohamed Latif, Pelé and his travelling show bedazzled the 120,000 fans in the stadium and a nationwide TV audience.
Ahly were not the best team in Egypt those days but they were the most popular. They needed every cheer they could get for they were playing against a hugely talented team spearheaded by the world’s most prolific goal scorer.
The first half ended in a scoreless tie but Santos were in control most of the time. Pelé had one of his famed headers saved and let another header pass over his head for a teammate in back of him who was in a better position to score.
The Santos floodgates opened wide in the second half. Left back Edu opened the scoring with a gravity-defying direct kick. Pelé scored the second and third goals, the first with his right foot after a neat feint from the edge of the box, and the other with his left, a few yards closer, after eluding two markers.
He would go on to score a hat trick with a simple header.
Two more Pelé attempts at goal, a breathtaking scissor kick that grazed the crossbar and a low shot parried by the keeper, rounded out the showpiece event.
A wicked drive by Ali Abu Greisha, Egypt’s own No 10 and one of the guest players Ahly enlisted from other Egyptian clubs for the match, was tipped over the bar by a flying goalkeeper but long after the game was put out of reach.
Though Santos won 5-0 and two of the goals were scored by the incomparable Pelé, it was the first goal by Edu which could not be believed. The ball was sitting sharply to the left of goal, seven metres outside the penalty box. When Edu connected, the ball at first appeared it would sail into the stands. But it defied gravity as well as logic, dropping when it should have continued onwards, taking the wickedest of curves before — would you believe it? — it sort of slowed down, even braked, then resumed velocity before landing squarely in the uppermost left of goal. Goalkeeper Essam Abdel-Moneim, now a renowned sports columnist and TV football analyst, could only watch askance.
What made the goal all the more stunning was how it was shot — with the outside of the left foot when a straightforward cross with a direct left or right foot would have been the more conventional.
Edu’s goal was truly spectacular, on a par with that of Roberto Carlos’ unbelievable dead ball swerve from 35 metres in 1997 against France which left goalkeeper Fabian Barthez stranded.
On that visit to Egypt, Pelé found time to involve himself in a reported dalliance with Egyptian actress Zubaida Tharwat, known for her piercing green eyes. Tharwat revealed in a 2005 TV interview that Pelé fell in love with her “at first sight” and was “chasing her by phone across continents” asking to marry her.
There are no records of Pelé backing up the claim by Tharwat who died in 2016.
On his visits to Egypt Pelé did not always play football. One such stop in 2014 was for a soda campaign.
But it was his mesmerizing, fast and elegant style of play that the world, including Egyptians, will always remember him for. It was what revolutionised the sport.
Santos had come to Egypt with several stars, including Edu and Clodoaldo; both had played in the 1970 Brazilian World Cup-winning team. But Egyptians did not know anybody on Santos that day save for that man wearing that famous bright yellow jersey with No 10 stamped on it.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly