When Pele took on the Socceroos

The athletic brilliance of Pelé routinely twisted defenders inside out, leaving them dazed and confused in the blink of an eye.

In 1972, Pelé – and his Brazilian club team, Santos – did it to an entire city.

The occasion was Pelé’s only visit to Australia as a player, when the then-Australian Soccer Federation (ASF) arranged for Brazilian superclub Santos FC to play an exhibition match against the Socceroos in Sydney.

The venue was the old Sydney Sports Ground and unsurprisingly, the joint was packed to the rafters. Even with the Wallabies playing France next door at the SCG at exactly the same time, a crowd of 32,750 grabbed their chance to see Pelé – the world’s greatest player – in the flesh.

“It was one of the most memorable privileges in life,” then-Socceroos coach Rale Rasic told the Herald and The Age.

Ray Baartz beats the great to the ball after the Brazilian star has eluded Ray Richards tackle.

Ray Baartz beats the great to the ball after the Brazilian star has eluded Ray Richards tackle.Credit:Fairfax Media

“Pelé, and all of that amazing team, what entertainment they gave us. Oh my God. We finished 2-all. Anything could happen in a game like but these magicians, led by him, they were just absolutely amazing.”

Twenty-one years later a Maradona “circus” would similarly sweep Sydney off her feet, but what the diminutive Argentinian did in a two-week stint, Pelé’s visit did in a matter of three hectic days.

Glory days: Pele celebrates Brazil's defeat of Italy in the 1970 World Cup.

Glory days: Pele celebrates Brazil’s defeat of Italy in the 1970 World Cup.

The Brazilian was, by 1972, universally regarded as the best footballer in history. Pelé’s feats in steering Brazil to World Cup victories in 1958, 1962 and 1970 were world-famous, but so too was the reputation of his club team, Santos FC.

Dubbed Os Santásticos, Santos won 25 titles between 1956 and 1974 – with Pelé scoring 618 goals in 634 games – and long before the days when world football was on TV or at a fan’s digital fingertips, seeing Pele play was a rare occurrence.

So Santos FC’s bosses had generated a small fortune taking the team around the globe for exhibitions and Australian football secured a deal to bring Pelé to Sydney in June, to end a series of friendlies also involving Wolverhampton and Dundee.

Pele signs an autograph after arriving in Sydney in June 1972.

Pele signs an autograph after arriving in Sydney in June 1972.Credit:Fairfax

Anxious Pelé would get injured before the Sydney game, ASF chiefs “apprehensively scanned wire service cables for news about Santos on their Asian tour in the last couple of weeks”, according to a Herald report at the time.

But after he touched down safely, the circus began. Flanked by his usual four bodyguards, a sharply suited Pelé did skills for the cameras in a cramped media room at Sydney Airport, before retiring with his team to the Rushcutters Bay motor inn.

Pele the world’s greatest Soccer player, had some lessons in boomerang throwing after training.

Pele the world’s greatest Soccer player, had some lessons in boomerang throwing after training.
Credit:Fairfax

Sent out to interview Pelé, Herald journalist Alan Speers’ report diplomatically recorded Pelé sleeping through their meeting time, having a fluent conversation in Italian with Treasurer Billy Snedden (who’d popped in for a visit) as he ate a dinner of steak and carrots, explaining how he got the name Pelé and deftly sidestepping questions about family and his wealth, estimated to be $55 million at the time – or an eye-popping $600m in today’s money.

“You never know, the Brazilian Government might be listening,” Pelé told Speers.

There was time for one training and a boomerang lesson but when game time rolled around on Saturday afternoon, however, there was something missing: Santos FC.

The crowd and Australia were in place but Santos had refused to leave their hotel until they were paid the $35,000 fee up front (about $407,000 in today’s money), in US dollars and in cash. The ASF scoured Sydney’s banks on Friday for every available greenback but only came up with $20,000.

A $15,000 cheque to cover the rest was rejected, and after a standoff, eventually the balance in cash was withdraw from the gate takings and handed over. Thirty-eight minutes after listed kickoff, the game finally began.

The crowd cared not, and they enjoyed a brilliant spectacle. Pelé didn’t score but he laid on a goal for teammate Edu.

The cover of the program from the Australia v Santos FC, June 1972.

The cover of the program from the Australia v Santos FC, June 1972.

Reflecting on the game this week, goalkeeper Ray Corry told the Herald there were no overawed Australian players.

“They were the Harlem Globetrotters of football. I was keen to play, that was the thing. All the boys were, they wanted the challenge of playing against Santos and Pelé, and of course they had a lot of other great players as well,” Corry said.

“He was the greatest in the world at the time and if he was playing now, he’d probably still be the greatest in the world. Not many people in our country get to say they played against Pele.”

Reports of the time convey a sense of disappointment Pelé didn’t score his trademark “banana kick – that bends around the wall” but defender Ray Richards did such a good job marking Pelé, the Brazilian later listed “the mustachioed Australian” as one of the best who’d ever covered him. Pelé particularly appreciated Richards’ fair play, given he would usually get kicked and hacked most places he went.

Pele playing against Australia in Sydney in 1972.

Pele playing against Australia in Sydney in 1972.Credit:Antonin Cermak

The unexpected delay meant the game had to be finished under patchy floodlights but in a sign of respect for the Socceroos, Pelé played right until the final whistle. It was his “greatest compliment”, wrote Speers.

“He invariably makes it a rule to leave the field five minutes from the end to escape the clutches of his fans,” the Herald’s match report explained.

How the Herald covered Pele’s visit in 1972

How the Herald covered Pele’s visit in 1972Credit:Sydney Morning Herald archive

The same Socceroos team went on to famously play at the 1974 World Cup (and, in a sidenote, the return of the Socceroos wearing white socks in 2014 came after late Herald legend Mike Cockerill spied the above photo of Baartz in 2011 and launched a campaign to get them back).

Each Australian player was given a film reel of the game to keep. If someone bagged Pelé’s jersey, records are sketchy. There was certainly no repeat of the tactic used by Sheffield Wednesday’s Tommy Craig, who asked the referee to tell him when there was 10 minutes to go in a similar game in England, and then stuck like glue to Pelé on the field to ensure he’d be the one next to him at the end.

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Pelé visited Australia several times in retirement, and was always complimentary about the nation’s football. It was a sign of the legend’s good nature, given the Sydney trip was ultimately part of a punishing touring schedule demanded by Santos FC’s owners in his last years with the club.

After Pele debuted for the club aged 15 in 1956, Santos FC’s owners toured the team relentlessly around the globe.

“We were in demand,” Pelé wrote in his autobiography. “The suits were very keen to cash in.”

Fans flocked to see Pelé (who got 10 per cent cut of the fee) and folklore says a civil war in Nigeria was even stopped for two days so people could attend a game featuring Pelé. By the 1970s, when it became clear the star would leave Brazil when his contract ended in 1974, Santos FC ramped up the touring.

Pele’s trip to Sydney was a whirlwind.Credit:Fairfax Media

“The bird that laid the golden eggs was about to fly the coop,” Pelé wrote in his autobiography, “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.”

Rasic went to become friends with Pelé, and spent time with him in New York and Brazil. When he heard Pelé was seriously ill recently, the 87-year-old wore a Santos FC shirt for the entire week to honour him.

“A man of that calibre, to me, is like something from space. Not living on the earth,” Rasic said.

“He was idolised by the whole world, and he had no enemies. There were many reasons why he was regarded as the best in the world.

“It wasn’t only football. It was his personality. He respected everybody. He came from a poverty stricken background and he never forgot that.

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“Some people who have been poverty stricken, as soon as the money came into their hands, they did not know what is what unfortunately.

“But Pelé always was impeccable in everything he did. He was respectful for everyone, kind to everyone. He was a model person. A truly great man.”