Following the sad passing of football’s original global superstar, we revisit the memorable occasion over 50 years ago when Pele took on Chelsea…
Regarded by many as the greatest player in history, Pele died at the age of 82 in Sao Paulo on Thursday. He is credited with scoring a record 1,281 goals during a 21-year career, and helped Brazil win the FIFA World Cup on three separate occasions, the only player to achieve such a feat.
As tributes pour in from around the world, many in football and beyond will be reflecting on their own personal memories of Pele, whether meeting the great man in person or simply marvelling at his incredible talent from afar. Chelsea were fortunate enough to face the samba superstar at the height of his powers.
The date was 2 February 1971, the setting was the Jamaican capital Kingston and the occasion was the Torneio Triangular Kingston, a mid-season tournament featuring Chelsea, the Jamaican national team and Santos.
The Brazilian club with which Pele spent the majority of his club career and netted the bulk of his countless goals were also in town as part of their Latin American and Caribbean tour, while the Blues were surprised but delighted to be invited to participate.
‘The trip has come out of the blue,’ said Brian Mears, chairman at the time. ‘The Cavaliers Club of Jamaica said they wanted to stage a match between two of the world’s leading clubs, and we are honoured that they should have come to us.’
Chelsea were the FA Cup holders, our first triumph in the old competition having been secured with victory over Leeds United 10 months earlier, and halfway to European glory in the Cup Winners’ Cup. With Dave Sexton in charge, the team featured plenty of familiar faces including Peter Bonetti, Ron Harris and David Webb, with the trip sandwiched in between league matches against West Brom and Newcastle.
Remarkably, for once Pele didn’t score but the friendly was settled by a single goal from his team-mate Douglas, sparking wild celebrations that saw many of the 33,000 enthusiastic spectators in attendance rush onto the field of play, local police forced to intervene and the game prematurely ended a few minutes before the 90-minute mark.
The match had drawn the biggest soccer crowd ever in Jamaica at the time, many coming to see the magical Pele just months after he had lifted the World Cup for a record third time.
That was not the only Chelsea match Pele attended, though. The Blues had to wait 27 years to get our hands on the FA Cup trophy once again and the Brazilian superstar was in attendance as we beat Middlesbrough 2-0 at Wembley in May 1997.
Frank Sinclair, who played as one of Ruud Gullit’s centre-backs that afternoon, had the honour of meeting Pele amid the celebrations at a Mayfair hotel that evening and later reflected on it topping an incredible day.
Later that year, Pele was back in London to be made an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) at Buckingham Palace. Following the investiture, he made the short trip to Stamford Bridge for a football community scheme, where he was mobbed by well-wishers.
The Brazilian returned to the Bridge over a decade later as a spectator for a Premier League match between the Blues and Charlton Athletic in January 2006 (pictured above). He might have actually played in SW6 in the late 1970s as plans were made for Santos to be hosted in a testimonial match for Bonetti, although the event never went ahead.
It meant Pele never graced the field at one of London's iconic old football grounds, though his legacy in the capital, the rest of the country and the world is not in doubt.
Rest in peace, Pele.
-All Premier League clubs will pay tribute to Pele at this weekend's matches with a minute's applause prior to kick-off, while players and match officials will wear black armbands.