New Delhi: “It’s an honour for me to celebrate the world’s greatest sport with the children of India,” these words from Pele seven years ago will ring forever in the ears of football fans in Delhi.
The legend footballer Pele passed away at the age of 82, his daughter confirmed on Instagram on Thursday night. The footballer gained immense fame in the world of football, and scored a record 1,281 goals throughout his career.
It was the first time in October 2015, Pele, considered by many as the greatest footballer of all time, set foot on Delhi and he simply won the hearts of football fans of the capital city, not by his dazzling skills on the field but as a true ambassador of the ‘beautiful game’.
His two-day visit of Delhi was the last time he interacted with Indian football fans and public at large. He was the chief guest at the boys U-17 final of Subroto Cup inter-school football tournament at the Ambedkar stadium here on October 17, 2015.
He had arrived in Delhi from Kolkata where he made his second visit after 1977. He returned to Delhi again in 2018 but for a close-door leadership summit of a media house.
Delhi is lucky in that sense, to be the only other city besides Kolkata — where the ‘Black Pearl’ played an exhibition match as part of the New York Cosmos team against Mohun Bagan in 1977 – to see the Brazilian legend in flesh and blood.
If the fans in Calcutta (as it was called back then) were mesmerized by glimpses of Pele’s skills, Delhi witnessed the iconic footballer as an ambassador of the sport who wanted to help a “very special country” to rise in the footballing world.
“You need to build the base. India is a very special country … the fans were fantastic. I hope my visit will inspire these champions of tomorrow,” he had said in a video message.
“Of course, it (football) has improved a lot, not only in India but in many countries.” Delhi repaid and took inspiration from the iconic Brazilian three-time World Cup winner. Last year, Football Delhi announced that October 23, his birthday, would be celebrated as ‘grassroots development day’.
“Pele is the global icon and he inspires millions of people across the world, including India. We have seen in Kolkata and in Delhi how the football fans venerated him,” said Shaji Prabhakaran, former Football Delhi president and current All India Football Federation Secretary General.
“His birthday is celebrated as grassroots development day in Delhi. Football Delhi took the decision last year when I was its president,” said Prabhakaran, who was fortunate to witness Pele from close quarters on both the occasions in 2015 and 2018.
Just a few days ahead of his 75th birthday, Pele sent the 20000-capacity Ambedkar stadium into frenzy as he made a round trip of the ground on an open top Indian Air Force jeep ahead of the Subroto Cup final on October 16.
He later gave away the trophies to the two teams with Chief of Air Staff Arup Raha in tow.
His reception at the Delhi airport on October 15 was not a grand affair as a little over 100 people turned up just after 8pm. Pele, who was restricted in movement due to three surgeries he had that year, including on his hip, stood up from the car and waved to the crowd with a wide smile.
It was though a different scenario at the Ambedkar stadium two days later as the enthusiastic crowd shouted ‘Pele Pele’ with many fans trying to come close to him and get autographs.
The players of the two opposing teams were the the most fortunate ones as Pele proceeded – though with difficulty — to the ground and shook their hands.
It was a painful sight as Pele, once a nightmare of his opponents with his dazzling runs and footwork on a football field, struggled to move around. Because of a hip surgery, he limped his way through a flight of stairs from the dais and entered the ground.
The indomitable spirit which brought him fame and made him one of the most recognizable faces on earth came to the fore. After the customary meeting with the two teams, Pele boarded the jeep especially kept for him and made a round trip of the Ambedkar Stadium.
That was what the crowd was waiting for as they had an experience of a life time. Chants of ‘Black Pearl’, ‘King Pele’ or simply ‘Pele, Pele’ filled the air.
Pele was 15 when he first played for his club Santos. He became a part of the Brazilian national team at 16, played and won the 1958 World Cup before turning 18.
Pele, who was voted Athlete of the Century by International Olympic Committee, said that India should focus on grassroots while also encouraging them to play outside the country.
“The important thing is to focus on grassroots. Indian players should go out and play in Europe, South America, etc. That will help them. Moreover, there should exchange programmes (with other countries),” Pele told the Subroto Cup organizers.
“I can arrange exchange programmes for young Indian players of the age of 15 or 16 in Rio de Janiero or somewhere in Brazil. I can help in doing this with Santos (his club of 25 years). I can do this.” Everyone who witnessed ‘the God of football’ on that October 16 evening in 2015 at Ambedkar Stadium will perhaps agree to what Dutch legend Johan Cruyff had once said: “Pele was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.” Not without reason the Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas once said: “I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that.”