'Hello, my friends from FourFourTwo!' What meeting Pele was really like

Pele
FourFourTwo interviewing Pele in 2019 (Image credit: Future)

"Hello, my friends from FourFourTwo magazine, congratulations for the anniversary, I'm sorry for my English, but good luck to you!"

And with that, Pele broke out into a chuckle, then a beaming smile. It was 2019, when our magazine's 25th anniversary celebrations had coincided with an unexpected offer.

"Historic encounter: Pele and Kylian Mbappe in Paris," said the email, accompanied by an invitation for FourFourTwo to attend. Months earlier, Mbappe had become the first teenager since Pele to score in a World Cup final - now, the Brazilian great was flying to Europe to meet him in front of the world's media.

Asked by our editor if I'd like to go, obviously I said yes without hesitation. At that stage, the invitation was to attend the event and watch a Q&A with Pele and Mbappe, led by UEFA drawmaster extraordinaire Pedro Pinto. We could pass one question to Pedro, and there may be a possibility that he'd pose it to the two World Cup heroes during his chat.

On the Eurostar over to Paris though, just a couple of hours before the event, came an even more unexpected offer from the organisers - would I like to meet Pele myself, and spend a few minutes talking to him before the Q&A? Again, I said yes without hesitation - you don't say no when you receive an offer like that.

Soon, we arrived at the plush Hotel Lutetia, a few hundred yards south of the River Seine, where media from around Europe had gathered. I was asked to wait outside a set of double doors, as journalists were ushered in at regular intervals.

Quickly, it was my turn. As I walked through the doors, there was Pele, sitting in a comfortable armchair, smiling. Even back then, he wasn't very mobile any more - when he headed to the main ballroom for the Q&A later in the evening, we never saw him get up from a chair, leave or enter a room. Understandably, everything was kept private, until he was sat and ready to speak to people.

But what he lacked in mobility he more than made up for in warmth and friendliness, greeting my arrival like a kindly uncle, clearly keen to make me feel at ease in his presence.

As part of our 25th anniversary celebrations, FFT was coincidentally already planning to feature him in that month's magazine - our editor had sourced some unseen photos from the Brazilian's career.

Pele

(Image credit: Future)

We were also putting together a list of the greatest players of the past 25 years - after learning that I'd be able to meet Pele for a brief period, I'd quickly agreed with my editor that, if I had time, I'd ask the legend for his opinions on the biggest stars of the past quarter of a century, then get him to talk through any memories triggered by the unseen photos we had lined up for that month's magazine. I'd passed that information on to the organisers - before speaking to such a huge star, it's not uncommon to be asked which subjects you're planning to talk about.

There seemed to have been an unfortunate mix-up, though - when I began to ask my pre-agreed questions about the biggest stars of the past 25 years, and asked him what he admired most about Lionel Messi, one of Pele's advisers informed me that he could not speak about individual players. Looking at my pre-agreed questions, mostly about individual players, I briefly wondered if I might have a bit of a problem.

Thankfully, not so - eager not to disappoint, Pele began answering my question about Messi. "I admire him because of the way he makes decisions - he thinks very quickly and his vision is unbelievable," he explained. "I spoke with some people from Argentina, and said that the only problem with Messi is that he doesn’t play for the Brazilian national team!"

Asked later if there were any English players he'd admired over the past 25 years, again he was keen to help, rather than swerve the question. "I admire a lot of English players – sometimes I prefer if I don’t name one, because it’s not fair on the others, but OK, give me five names of English players, and I’ll pick two for you!" he said.

Quickly, I offered him David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Paul Gascoigne, hoping I'd not missed anyone obvious. "Very difficult!" he smiled. "I'll say Beckham and Rooney!"

He spoke about Mbappe, too. "He has a Latin style of play, unpredictable, a bit Brazilian - it's a shame he didn't play for Santos, but there's still time!"

When I showed him the unseen photos from his career on my laptop, two caught his eye in particular - spotting one of himself carrying a guitar, he quickly informed us that not only did he play the guitar during his younger days, but he even composed his own music sometimes.

Another, of him playing as a goalkeeper in training, drew a big smile. "That was in training at the 1962 World Cup - at that time, substitutes weren't allowed, so if the goalkeeper got an injury, he'd play outfield and an outfield player would go in goal," he explained. "I'd be the goalkeeper, and I was a good goalkeeper! In two or three matches during my career, I went in goal and I was lucky - in one of those games, Brazil won 1-0!"

Finally, before my time was up, I gave him a copy of our magazine from 2010, when he was our cover star, having kindly done an in-depth interview about his career, to mark his 70th birthday.

Pele

"Hello my friends from FourFourTwo magazine, congratulations for the anniversary, I'm sorry for my English, but good luck to you!" (Image credit: Future)

I asked if there was any chance that he might be willing to record a brief video message to mark our magazine's 25th anniversary. Some might not have wanted to, but he did it happily, without hesitation, finishing the message with the beaming smile I'd seen throughout my brief chat with him.

He must have done thousands of interviews during his life, and no one would have blamed him if he'd become tired of it all long before the age of 78, as he was in 2019. But he didn't give that impression at all.

Pele understood that most journalists were meeting him for the first time, and that meeting him was a big deal for every single one of them. He wanted to send them away happy, having enjoyed the experience of speaking to him. I'd imagine he treated every single football fan he met in that same way.

Shortly afterwards, Pele sat opposite Mbappe for the Q&A with Pedro Pinto, and it was clear that we were witnessing the historic meeting of two greats of the game. “I keep touching him to make sure he’s real!” Mbappe joked, as his proud family sat in the front row.

After Mbappe's exploits at the 2022 World Cup, when he drew level with Pele's 12 career goals at the tournament, surely on course to overhaul Miroslav Klose's record of 16 one day, it's even clearer just how historic that Paris meeting was.

Sadly, there will be no reunion. Pele was taken into hospital just hours after that 2019 event, the exertions of the travel from South America and a busy evening perhaps getting the better of him. He recovered, but health problems rarely seemed far away over the ensuing three years.

On Thursday, Pele's death was announced, at the age of 82. The football world has not just lost one of the absolute finest players ever to play the game, but a man who became its unofficial ambassador for more than half a century.

He did it with enthusiasm, and always with a smile. Anyone who met Pele, even for the briefest of periods, had their life enriched, with memories to cherish forever. I was just one of them. Thousands of others will say the same.

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