Friday, August 10, 2012. The London Olympics is two days away from ending in a nightmarish pop culture crescendo, and I’m sat in the Sabotage Times offices when Matt, my gaffer, asks if me and Zac would like to meet Pelé the following day.
Me? Honestly? I couldn’t give a shite. I knew I was going out that night and the prospect of schlepping up to London from Kent, on a train full of people in plastic Union Jack bowler hats drinking tins of gin and reading The Telegraph, wasn’t how I had planned to spend my Saturday. But Zac? Ten years old, football daft, and fully aware of Pelé after watching all of the Football’s Greatest series? He would definitely want to go, so I agreed.
Despite the fact that every other journalist or documentary maker or author that I knew and had come into contact with him had no positive words, and aware that at least half of his 1000 plus goals had been scored with rolled-up socks, in the shower, or against Swedish 7th Division teams, I was still fairly chipper when I turned onto Carnaby Street the next day. Even the hangover that was hammering behind my eyes like a pipe-hitting woodpecker and the outré display of Britishness that would normally make me puke couldn’t take the shine off seeing Zac genuinely excited about meeting the fifth greatest player of all time. Do not @ me.
At that point, he had only good memories of the now defunct Soccer Scene. Earlier that summer, we’d spent an hour there having his name and number embroidered on a pair of black and yellow Nike Magista before going for pizza and ice cream in Soho. Those memories were soon to be shat on.
In a way, we were lucky that my choice of career afforded us a VIP meeting with Pelé. And when I say VIP, all I mean is that we didn’t have to queue up outside. So after buying two beautiful blue Brazil away shirts, one for Zac and one for his best mate—I am not a bed-wetter, we hopped up the stairs to wait for the three-time World Cup winner.
And didn’t we wait. 15, 20, 30 minutes and finally an hour passed as we stood in a room full of legit and knock-off replica shirts with five other VIPs. All, I should add, were of an age and were travelling solo. They actually wanted to be there. Then it came through on a walkie-talkie—yes, they were treating this like a state visit—that Pelé was stuck in London traffic. On one of London’s busiest Saturdays of the last fifty years. Almost like they should’ve allowed for it.
Finally, it happened. After hobbling up the stairs in some Cuban heels and a powder blue suit that had both flyaway lapels and flared trousers, Pelé walked past us. Zac, wide-eyed and clutching this Brazil shirt, smiled at Pelé. Me, less wide-eyed because of the hangover but still admittedly a little bit impressed, gave him a nod. He looked at us both quizzically and walked to take up his position behind a trestle table. Yes, a fucking trestle table, like a village fete.
We were third in the queue. The fella on the walkie-talkie spent an age talking to Pelé in hushed tones about something and then walked over to address the queue. I say address the queue, he was really talking directly to us, but he knew he was about to do a very bad thing and was probably steeling himself. “Sorry guys,” he started, “but Pelé won’t be signing any shirts today.”
Let that sink in for a minute. We’d been stood there for an hour after shelling out £80 on a brace of replica shirts. Zac has spent those 60 minutes doing what kids do and asking when he was coming and getting me to tell him more facts about Pelé’s career and genuinely GETTING REALLY FUCKING EXCITED BECAUSE HE IS 10-YEARS-OLD AND THAT’S WHAT KIDS DO.
I, naturally, wanted to explode, but in the interests of not having to call my missus from Charing Cross Police Station, I just put my hand on Zac’s shoulder as looked up at me with a very upset face. “It’s okay, mate,” I said. “We’ll get a picture of you and him and put it up on your wall.” He hadn’t had chance to digest that things would be okay when the tosser with the walkie-talkie dropped the hammer blow. Pelé wouldn’t be allowing photographs today, but they did have some lovely postcards that he would sign, and would we like to make our way to the table now as there were a lot of people queuing outside.
Still, to this day, I don’t know how I didn’t combust. Zac looked at me again with an even more upset face—a full teary-eyed lip quiver that could go south at any minute—but my parental responsibilities overcame my desire to kick fuck out of a man who scored a hat-trick in a World Cup semifinal, so I led him over to the table and stood behind him, giving Pelé a stare that made my head hurt even more. You’d think, after the double disappointment, that Pelé would at least feign interest, or ask him if he played football, or something. But no, he just picked up the postcard, featuring an airbrushed version of his face that made him look like he’d been to the same clinic as Shane Warne, signed his name, and ushered us off. What. A. Cunt.
Stomping out of the store to go and locate some ice cream to make up for the situation, I saw that at least a few hundred people were waiting outside. So I walked down the length of the queue and told every person there that it was a waste of fucking time, that Pelé had upset a child and they had more chance of him raising a Viagra-free erection than they did of getting a photo or signed shirt. Okay, so I didn’t say the last bit; there were kids about. But he remains a shithouse, and that is just one of a thousand reasons why Maradona is on the cover of this magazine and Pelé never will be.