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Past Times

Pele in Dundee: The story behind THAT visit to Dens Park

Graeme Strachan
Pele shows off his skills at Dens Park in front of local schoolkids.
Pele shows off his skills at Dens Park in front of local schoolkids.

Pele weaved his magic and proved he was a king among men when he delivered a footballing masterclass in Dundee in 1989.

There were no airs and graces when he arrived at Dens Park despite his superstar status.

The date was June 9, 1989, and Pele – who has died aged 82 – was in the City of Discovery as part of his ambassador duties for Fifa ahead of the Under-16 World Cup.

At the home of Dundee FC, the Brazilian great conducted a private coaching session with pupils from Blairgowrie’s Hill Primary School, a prize they won in a competition organised by football’s governing body.

The three-time World Cup winner spoke to the pupils, alongside Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh, before showing off his legendary skills on the Dens pitch.

The Brazilian legend took time talking to the pupils from Hill Primary in Blairgowrie. Image: DC Thomson.
The Brazilian maestro signed autographs for everyone when he arrived at Dens Park in 1989. Image: DC Thomson.
Pele made sure nobody holding a scrap of paper was left out during his special visit. Image: DC Thomson.

Could anyone else do keepie-uppies in a pair of Cuban heels?

The man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento left everyone defenceless with his supreme courtesy, patience, warmth and dignity as he signed autographs and patiently posed for photographs.

He turned nobody down.

Pele talks to The Courier

And he said Tayside’s footballing public were in for a World Cup treat with the Dark Blues’ ground hosting Group C matches featuring Argentina, Nigeria, Canada and China.

“For the teams winning is important but supporters want to see good games with lots of goals and it would be nice to see them go home satisfied,” he told The Courier.

“The Nigerians are a good team while China could spring a surprise because, although they lack experience, they are a decent side.”

Pele and man-of-the-match Godwin Okpara on the pitch at Dens Park in 1989. Image: DC Thomson.

He returned to Dens Park three days later to watch the goalless draw between Argentina and Nigeria before presenting the man-of-the-match award at full-time.

‘Priceless moment’

Dundee journalist John Brown was covering the tournament and didn’t miss the chance to meet Pele, universally regarded as one of football’s greatest ever players.

John said: “After the game between Argentina and Nigeria, he came under the stand to meet the ball boys and ‘high-fived’ each one.

“I was standing behind the last boy and instinctively stuck up my hand.

“Pele looked me in the eye, smiled and slapped my hand.

“It was a priceless moment and something I’ll never forget.”

He also found time to sign memorabilia for Dundee’s former World Cup referee Bob Valentine, seven years after their first meeting at Spain 82.

Pele charmed everyone as he spent time at Dens Park signing autographs in 1989. Image: DC Thomson.
The 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cup outside Dens Park with Kristopher Johnston. Image: DC Thomson.

In 2020, Bob told us: “I was appointed to officiate at two games in the north, based in Oviedo.

“Pele was the Fifa ambassador for the matches in that region. My first match was Austria v Germany, played in Gijon.

“This was the match that became known as the ‘Disgrace in Gijon’ or ‘Great Gijon Swindle’.

“Both teams knew that, if the final score was 1-0 to Germany, then both teams would qualify for the next stage.

“Germany scored on the half-hour mark. After that, tackling became fairly scarce and the score remained the same. So both went through.”

After one of the most controversial games in World Cup history, the Brazilian signed the match ball for Bob.

And it’s fair to say the Dundonian didn’t expect to meet him again this close to home.

Welcomed by Pele at Dens

Bob, now 83, said: “I decided to go to see one of the [Under-16 World Cup] matches, which was being played at Dens Park.

“I walked into the boardroom and who greeted me but Pele.

“I had been given a plate and certificate by the Swedish FA [saluting the iconic image of a 17-year-old Pele celebrating Brazil’s World Cup triumph at Sweden 58].

“As we chatted, I said to him: ‘If I had known you were to be here, I would have brought my certificate to be signed’.

“He looked perplexed and asked: ‘What certificate?’

Late Dundee and Angus junior football legend George Hill with football legend Pele . Image: Supplied.
Bob Valentine with his Pele memorabilia. Image: DC Thomson.
The Pele signed certificate given to Bob by Swedish FA. Image: DC Thomson.

“I replied: ‘The certificate from the Swedish FA’.

“At this point, I said I would nip home (just seven minutes away) and bring it down.

“Never one to miss a chance, I asked him to sign my certificate, which he did.

“The certificate, duly signed, reads: ‘To Bob Valentine, all the best, and thanks. Pele’.”

Brazilian legend comes up against Jocky Scott

Pele made his debut with Santos in Brazil aged 15 and spent 18 years with the club before moving to the North American Soccer League (NASL) with New York Cosmos in 1975.

A whole legion of players from Scotland also crossed the Atlantic to join the NASL, including ex-Dees Charlie Cooke, Jimmy Gabriel and Jocky Scott.

Former Dark Blues striker Jocky enjoyed a successful spell with the Seattle Sounders and played in Pele’s final competitive match.

In 2017, he told us: “They [the Cosmos] were a team of world stars and, as well as Pele, they had Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, the Italian international.

“We had a couple of big names like Mike England and Jimmy Robertson but, for the most part, we were a team of free transfers and lower league players from England.

“But we had a good season and we were definitely unlucky in that final.

“The likes of Pele and Beckenbauer were past their best but they were still fantastic players to be up against.

Jocky Scott gets the better of Pele as Seattle Sounders take on New York Cosmos. Image: Shutterstock.

“Pele couldn’t run any more but, when they got the ball to him, he was something to see.

“His touch was perfect and for all he wasn’t the biggest, when he got the ball he was so strong he wasn’t going to part with it until he wanted to.”

Pele celebrates with his Brazil team-mates after winning the 1970 World Cup. Image: Shutterstock.

Cosmos went on to beat Scott’s underdogs 2-1 in the final.

The 74-year-old said: “I played against him and the Cosmos three times that season and, when they came to Seattle, I scored the only goal to win the game.

“When we went to New York they gave us five but just being on the same pitch as these people is a special memory.”

In August, Jocky spoke to our Dundee FC correspondent George Cran about facing the King of Football.

Asked about the picture that shows him sprinting away from Pele, he laughed: “I nutmegged him at that time, he was trying to get the ball back!”