When I was a very young schoolboy, I was once taken to Hampden Park in Glasgow. The football pretext was an evening Friendly between Brazil and Scotland. At the time, victory for England in the World Cup was still but a twinkle in Bobby Moore’s left bootlace. My attending adult was if memory serves – and it may not – my hometown doctor; I went to the same school and had the same teachers as his two youngest sons. We sat in the packed Stand. We had a terrific view.
The match itself was uneventful. I have deliberately not checked the details, not wanting to fudge my memory. However, I do believe that the outcome was a 1-1 draw, with someone called Servilho scoring for Brazil and (I think) Steve Chalmers for Scotland.
To our tale.
As the referee blew to open the second half, a wee urchin of a boy – aged maybe 12 – ran on to the pitch and made straight for the centre circle. Scottish people will know what I mean if I say he was totally “Oor Willie”. That shock of spiky, white, untutored hair and those terrible thick shorts made him pure gorbals to the local eye. One of the Scottish players clocked the invader and, along with the referee, motioned him to leave the pitch immediately.
But the wee boy knew his target and headed straight to Pelé. For it was he.
Pelé also shouted some words at the running boy. He seemed to be saying something like “You have to leave now, son, or you will get us all into trouble”. By this time – and only a few seconds had passed – two uniformed police officers had come onto the pitch in hot pursuit. The referee had blown his whistle and the match was suspended while the law was invited to go about its duty. Everyone expected the wee boy to, well and truly, have his collar felt so that the football could resume.
Suddenly, that wee boy reached Pelé, close enough to touch, and thrust out what was obviously an autograph book. To everyone’s shock, Pelé grabbed the book, held out an arm to the ref and quickly signed – and plainly urged his fan to leave forthwith.
To this day, I can still hear the thunderclap of applause that broke throughout the stadium. They must have heard it in Rio.
Glasgow rewarded the celebrity for this kindness to one of their own.
With his autograph secure, the wee boy ran back to the Stand and cheekily waved the book above his head at the still cheering/stomping/laughing crowds, his glory-moment finally interrupted by the arrival of the two police officers (both wheezing badly, as I recall). He was escorted out of sight. But his match was already won. The football on the pitch started over, as if nothing had happened.
What do I think about it now?
Well, I suppose I learned that fame fans ego , the kind of ego that can break rules and get away with it : not a power to be used too frequently. I guess I also concluded that the very best expressions of fame involve a heavy measure of humility, kindness to those who have come and spent money probably to see no-one else but you. Pelé’s actions that night would not be permitted now; just as well. But I remember that moment in Glasgow as one of the best of my fledging adult life, that little blast of superstardom ray.
In the years that followed, I rather imagined that I would run into Pelé one day, ready to remind him of that night, that match, that moment – and parade too my deep knowledge of Brazilian letters. But – how strange – our paths never crossed. That he never saw me play does not, however, seem to have inhibited his own football career or any other life-choice. To this day, I never hear the phrase “erectile dysfunction” without thinking of him. But beyond that, I know that when I am myself exceptionally famous on the global stage I will – thanks to him – know how to behave. Even in the bitter grim of that old Glasgow night, he was such a champ. RIP.