When the news broke yesterday evening that Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known mononymously as Pelé, had passed away at the age of 82, the entire football and sporting world mourned the loss of a player almost universally recognised as the greatest ever to play the game; here in Tralee, one man had only fond memories of meeting the Brazilian great – on more than one occasion too mind you!
ames Finnegan, a well known and popular figure locally in Tralee and further afield, spoke to The Kerryman this week about his several meetings with the record three-time World Cup winner and on Friday morning after the news broke the previous night, James summed his Pelé memories up quite nicely and succinctly.
“I got to meet him a couple of times, I saw him play, I shook his hand, he autographed my shirt and I wrote about him – not bad all in all!” he laughed.
Of course, the backstory to the Tralee man’s many meetings with the late, great legend, are great yarns in themselves and which James revealed today, starting with the famous visit of Pelé and Santos to Craven Cottage in 1973 where they played Fulham, a match James was at with his late father.
“It wasn’t a glamorous fixture by any means but my father, he brought me to the game to see Pelé play and Edu and Carlos Alberto were playing too. It was such a fantastic game and I’ll never forget Pelé running into Fulham’s penalty area and was brought down by Peter Mellor who was the Fulham goalkeeper. To give you an idea of the humility of Pelé the man, he picked up Mellor and he shook his hand and then of course promptly scored against him!” he said, laughing.
Fast forward to Euro 1996 in England where James had flown over to watch some of the games when, thanks to some insider information, he got win that Pelé would signing autographs in a London shop.
“I got Pelé’s autograph then at Euro 1996. I went across for a few of the games and Pelé was involved in a signing at Harrods. They [Harrods] would never announce who was going to be the special guest so I took a chance and rang Harrods on the morning of the signing and the nice lady there said ‘yeah, I think it’s a Mr Peel who will be there later on’. I said to her’ sorry, you don’t meet Pelé by any chance do you?’ and of course, she meant that,” he said.
“I hit warp speed to get down there once I heard he’d be there and as I was flying through Harrods, I picked up a Euro 96 shirt for him to sign and you know, normally when you meet these people, time flies but I actually had about 10 minutes with him and he was just so generous with his time to me and to everyone. My only regret is that there was no mobile phones with nice cameras at the time,” he continued.
Finally, to 2009 when James did finally manage to get his photo (see above) with Pelé all these years later when the Brazilian came to Dublin and the FAI HQ for a charity event.
“At that time, I was in charge of all the soccer referees in the country hence why I was up at the FAI that day. That photo of me talking to Pelé, that was taken in 2009. He had come to Ireland as part of a fundraiser for Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin and on that visit, he came out to the FAI HQ in Abbotstown where his great rival Trapattoni was manager at the time and that’s the visit where I got to meet him again and get that special photo of us.”
When put to him that he and Pelé look to be having a great old chat, James laughed.
“To be honest, we were deep in conversation,” he laughed, adding “he wasn’t the greatest English speaker but then again, I’m not the greatest Portuguese speaker but we had the universal language of football though which is all you need,” he said.
“What struck me about him was, look I’m not the tallest guy in the world, but he was no taller than me. On TV, watching him, you’d always have thought of him as a giant, the way he could leap like a salmon into the air to head the ball but I was just astounded to see we were the same height,” James continued.
“I’ve had the privilege of seeing him play and I’ve met him a few times too before and he was just a lovely, lovely man and a very humble person too. I’m just one of many millions who are today saddened to hear the news.” he finished.