On March 5th last, I had a piece on RTE Radio 1's Sunday Miscellany. Here's a slightly fuller version of the text I read then. You can listen to the original broadcast by following the link below.
Pelé, and the World’s Best Dad
On February 26th, 1972, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known to the footballing world – and far beyond it – as Pelé, came to Dalymount Park in Phibsboro. He lined out in an exhibition match for his club side Santos against a combined Bohemians-Drumcondra XI Selection. This was quite a media event, as the Brazilian legend was then widely regarded as the greatest footballer the world had ever seen. In many circles in the game, despite tough contemporary competition, he remains so. But what makes this occasion resonant for me is that, aged eleven, I was there, brought by my often unavailable father.
My Da worked long, unsociable hours as a bus conductor to keep us in the relatively frugal comforts his efforts had encouraged us – my mother and myself – to feel we were entitled, mainly through copious amounts of overtime. The Ma – often irritated by the last minute phone calls to inform her that he was doing a double day – complained that we never saw him, little realising that in his mind he was just keeping the show on the road. Providing for us was his way of showing his love. As he used to say, “I reared two gentlemen, and a lady” – these being my elder brother, my elder sister, and myself.
Pelé, from equally humble origins, through three marriages and several affairs, fathered seven children. Santos were a club of modest means and, realising they had a prize asset on their hands, began gruelling tours all over the world, arranging friendlies against any local team that would do a deal with them, in order to milk their cash cow. Santos rejected all transfer offers for their superstar, and the Brazilian government of the time even passed a bill declaring Pelé ‘a national treasure’, effectively blocking him from ever departing The Land of the Holy Cross for a more remunerative top-flight European side. Thus, his appearance with his teammates at Dalymount.
As an indentured workhorse with an exhausting schedule, Pelé did not have a lot of spare time for family life with his kids. A son by his first marriage, Edinho, was jailed for thirty-three years in 2014 for laundering money from drug trafficking, reduced to twelve years on appeal (although his famous father always maintained that this was a miscarriage of justice). For most of his life, Pelé never acknowledged his eldest daughter, Sandra Machado, even after her death in 2006, nor her two children, Octavio and Gabriel. She was born of an affair the star player had in 1964 with a housemaid, Anizia Machado. However, shortly before he died, he requested to meet his grandsons, and he recognised all seven children in his will. Another of his affairs, from 1981 to 1986, was with Brazilian TV host Xuxa Meneghel, twenty-three years his junior, whom he began dating when he was forty and she was seventeen.
My father did not go in for multiple marriages or, to the best of my knowledge, affairs – extramarital or otherwise. His staunch Roman Catholicism – which led to a growing distance between us during my teenage years – would have forbidden him from doing so. However Pelé, too, was a practicing Catholic, albeit evidently of the à la carte variety: he never let his religious beliefs stop him from getting around. He finally left Santos at the age of thirty-four, past his competitive prime, signing for the New York Cosmos, where he played from 1975 to 1977. In New York he enjoyed the high life, becoming a regular at Studio 54, and earning more during his three years with the Cosmos than he had in his entire career at Santos. My Dad, in contrast, didn’t get to kick back until he retired aged sixty-five, claiming the statutory old age pension, and a small annuity from C.I.E.
The Dalymount match itself was, according to contemporaneous newspaper reports, no great spectacle, with the Sunday Independent headline dubbing the star attraction ‘the Phibsboro flop.’ The lethargic performance was due, no doubt, to Pelé and Co.’s fatigue from constant touring. My eleven-year-old self remembers it rather differently. The fulltime score was 3-2 to Santos, but two incidents stand out in my memory. The first was when a Santos defender, facing his own goal, chose to head the ball against the post, before turning to clear the rebound away. This was true exhibition stuff, worthy of the Harlem Globetrotters. No player would be trying such a move in a match with anything at stake. The other was when a shot wide wound up in our area of the stand behind the goal, and a dozen hands stretched out to touch the ball that Pelé had touched. Mine was one of them.
My father did bring me other places when I was a child: to Tora, Tora, Tora, an epic war film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour; and on an annual busmen’s pilgrimage to Knock Shrine which he organised (that fervent Catholic devotion again!), where I was the only boy among a coachful of middle-aged men. My grandfatherly father was forty-six years old when I was born, causing a school friend to remark, “Your old man really is an old man”. However, when I challenged him much later – during my disaffected adolescence – about not seeing enough of him when I was growing up, his immediate response was, “Didn’t I bring you to see Pelé?”
Perhaps Pelé was and, arguably, remains the best footballer the world has ever seen, even if he was not always the World’s Best Dad. Maybe my father was the World’s Best Dad, despite his enforced absences, and even if there are millions of drinking mugs which proclaim this slogan for countless numbers of men. Like Pelé, my father worked hard and did his best. Within the boundaries of one’s allotted talents and the opportunities that present themselves, isn’t that all anyone can do, for their children?
Thanks Dad, for everything. Most of all, thanks for bringing me to see Pelé.