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60 years ago today, Pele scored his first Brazil goal and began a career that would change football


60 years ago today, Pele scored his first Brazil goal and began a career that would change football

60 years ago today, Pele scored his first Brazil goal and began a career that would change football


On a day like this in 1957 came the first of many. There are no videos, only an oral history and a sporting legend that grew from that split-second onwards

Jack Lang 

The Independent Football

Nowadays, with customary sporting understatement, they call it the Superclássico das Américas, but in the early years it went by the more prosaic Copa Roca, after a politician. Not that there has often been much diplomacy about football matches between Brazil and Argentina match.

It has always been a stop-start series, interrupted variously by Copas América, wars, and, between 1976 and 2011, a bizarre lack of enthusiasm among those who make such things happen. Yet what it has lacked in regularity it has often made up for with a knack for history-making.

It was in that competition, 60 years ago today, that Brazil’s greatest ever player first introduced himself on the global stage.

The Maracanã, that great glistening spaceship hovering in Rio’s northern sprawl, reverberated to the rhythm of over 80,000 souls that Sunday afternoon. This was Argentina’s first visit to the stadium and Brazil, who had won the previous edition of the Copa 12 years earlier, were hoping to make it an afternoon to forget. But the hosts got off to a poor start, falling behind to a strike by River Plate legend Ángel Labruna, 38 years young and still deadly.

At half-time, Seleção coach Sylvio Pirillo looked to his bench in search of inspiration. Moacir was told to warm up and take the place of Mazzola. But it was Pirillo’s second change that would commit his name to the annals of Brazilian football: off came Emmanuele Del Vecchio; on ran a 16-year-old kid with wide eyes and thighs like barrels.

It was both the start of a beautiful story and the culmination of a unlikely series of events. For while he had made his senior debut some ten months earlier, Pelé was still feeling his way into the Santos first team and far from the club talisman he would later become. In fact, it had been his performances in another team’s shirt that had convinced Pirillo that he was worthy of a spot in the Brazil squad.

His shop-window moment had come in the Torneio Internacional do Morumbi, a one-off competition arranged by São Paulo Futebol Clube to mark the construction of – and raise money for – their new stadium. It was an international affair: Lazio and Sevilla joined the organisers and Corinthians in one group, with Dinamo Zagreb, Belenenses and Flamengo in the other.

That left one spot. In a move that seems bizarre by today’s standards, Vasco da Gama and Santos teamed up to field a combined XI, with the Rio club’s famous kit to be worn in games at the Maracanã and Santos white to be used at the Pacaembu in São Paulo.

In truth, the team was far more Santos than Vasco. The majority of the latter’s players were on tour in Europe, the two notable exceptions being Paulinho and Bellini, who had stayed back in order to play for Brazil. But a functional XI was formed in time for the opening fixture against Belenenses, with Pelé making the cut in attack.

It must have been a surreal moment for the teenager, who had grown up following Vasco (“Always the team of my heart,” as he has reiterated on various occasions since), but there were few signs of wistfulness about his first performance in the Cruzmaltino shirt. He slammed home a left-footed volley to open the scoring and added two more as the pick-and-mixers cruised to a 6-1 win.

The tournament would eventually disintegrate in a dust cloud of disorganisation, but not before Pelé added three more goals to his tally. He notched in draws against Zagreb and Flamengo – an especially sweet feeling given his allegiances, no doubt – at the Maracanã, then added another against São Paulo.

Pele in action for Brazil (Getty)

Not that the Brazil coach needed any more convincing after watching the Belenenses game. “I had the opportunity to play at the Maracanã and at that time Pirillo was picking players for the Seleção,” Pelé recalled. “He saw me and said, ‘Hey, let’s give this little bunny rabbit a go!'”

He may as well have been an alien for all the Argentina players knew about him when he ran out for the second half of the Copa Roca game 18 days later. “Honestly, I wasn’t aware of him at the time,” admitted Amadeo Carrizo, the goalkeeper for the Albiceleste that day. “We weren’t paying special attention to him because the whole Brazil side was so strong. They had Zito, Bellini, Mazzola… he was just a kid.”

But the kid, untroubled by nerves, forced his opponents sit up and take notice. With 76 minutes on the clock, the ball broke to him inside the box. A split second later, it was nestling in the back of the net. Pelé, aged just 16, had scored his first Brazil goal.

Argentina would briefly spoil the party, smuggling a winner through Miguel Juárez. But it would prove a temporary reprieve: three days later, at the Pacaembu, Brazil won 2-0 to seal a 3-2 aggregate victory. Pelé scored in that game, too. He would score in rather a lot of games in the decades that followed.

The images of Pelé’s golden years are by now scorched into football’s shared retina, but no video exists of the strike that opened the floodgates. Carrizo’s testimony (“He didn’t do anything too elaborate. The ball just fell to him in the area and he showed opportunism to finish it off”) allows us to conjure a rough picture, but this chapter of history will forever retain a fuzzy mystique.

The same, you could argue, is true of Pelé, even 60 years removed from his first game and first goal for Brazil.

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