Football

Balls Remembers - When Pele Played At Dalymount Park

Balls Remembers - When Pele Played At Dalymount Park

While Ireland spent the first half of the twentieth century furiously banning artists, by the 1970s we were beginning to merely treat them with the national temperament: wry and suspicious begrudgery.

On February 26, 1972, Pele - or Edson Arantes do Nascimento as began almost all extant reports - played at Dalymount Park, lining out for Santos against a Drumcondra/Bohemians select XI. While there was excitement at his arrival, and 27,500 fans paid to see him, fevered anticipation was not general all over Ireland.

See the Connaught Tribune, for example, which previewed the event by casting doubt over the quality of Irish opposition using the uniquely dismissive vernacular of the Gael. "Drums/Bohs have decided to go it alone and field their combined XI. Whether or not such an outfit will be an attraction even if it has no function but to keep the ball kicked out to Pele is the big question mark over the enterprise".

After a 3-2 win for Santos in which Pele didn't score, the same paper used the event as an instrument of contempt toward the GAA's decision to charge £5 for a Hogan Stand ticket to the All-Ireland finals. Beneath the sub-heading "Quare Fun", the paper wrote:

Well, after watching Pele "suckerizing" 30,000 gullible Soccer fans who had chipped in £2 per head for the privilege of watching him go through the motions at Dalymunt, sure wouldn't £5 per head be cheap for all-action minutes of an All-Ireland final?

Obsession with money and price threaded throughout the coverage of Pele's Dublin appearance. This is unsurprising to those of you aware of Joe Frazier's disastrous singing tour of Ireland the year previous, which was largely rejected by an Irish public unwilling to spend £1.50 to see the man who had just recently shook the world.

In February '72, Santos had been trotting around Europe, playing friendly games to raise funds. Pele was in the travelling squad, along with Brazil captain Carlos Alberto and midfielder Clodoaldo, who were at either end of that goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final.

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It was while they were on this tour that Royden Prole, a director at Drumcondra, seized upon the idea to invite Pele and Santos to Dublin. Prole flew to England to agree a deal with Santos, ahead of the latter's friendly with Sheffield Wednesday. At the last minute, the Brazilian club upped the asking price of their guarantee from £5,000 to £7,200 and expected Bohs/Drums to pay all travel and hotel expenses too. Santos had their own expenses: they guaranteed Pele £1,100 for every appearance he made in Europe.

After some dallying on the Irish side, they agreed to pay the guarantee along with all costs associated with staying in the Gresham Hotel, meaning the guarantee hit £10,000. Prole was tight-lipped about the size of the fee at the time, with most newspapers concluding that the fee was more than £6,000.

Intriguingly, Drums/Bohs faced down a last-minute challenge for the game from....the FAI. The Association, whose president at the time happened to be Sam Prole, father of Drums' Royden. Apparently, the elder Prole had nothing to do with the FAI's last-gasp pitch for the game, and their offer ultimately foundered on the fee: the FAI offered a thousand fewer pounds than Drums/Bohs.

The FAI had proposed that a League of Ireland XI would face Santos, although there was some doubt as to whether the clubs would release players, given that the game would have come at the expense of Drumcondra and Bohemians. While the clubs never had to reckon with that outcome, it's a microcosm of the conflict between League and Association that has beset Irish football for decades.

While Bohs/Drums had to pay a pretty exorbitant fee, that week offered encouragement that they would make a profit. 54,000 people turned up at Villa Park to watch Santos, a then-record crowd for the ground. Pele, however, was unimpressive: he played with a heavily-bandaged knee and missed an open-goal from a few yards out.

With power outages affecting Birmingham at the time, Villa were forced to invest £5,000 in a backup generator to ensure the floodlights stayed on. According to newspaper reports at the time, the second half was delayed as Pele complained that his goalkeeper, Cejas, was forced to play at a darker end of the ground. Eventually, three pylons at the opposite end of the field were turned off to ostensibly level the playing field.

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When Pele landed at Dublin airport, however, reports made no reference to such petulance. Instead, the overriding impression was of just how dreary he was. The Irish Independent wrote a mini-profile of the great man after his first day on Irish soil, which carried quotes as prosaic as could be: "I don't like to lose a game. It always makes me a little sad". To fill the gaps, the paper wrote of their impressions of the Brazilian superstar:

He looks very sombre in general, until he smiles and the long black eyes lighten and he gives a soft, enjoying chuckle. Then it goes and he is serious again - he has exquisite manners and a quick sense of humour, but you couldn't really call him gay. He is fond of food but not potatoes. Tallish and wiry, he doesn't look like the type ever to fatten up...but he's taking no chances all the same.

Pele was subject to some curious characterisations in the Irish press: "the affable Latin" and "the coffee-coloured star" those that jar today.

Pele was mobbed by autograph-hunters upon landing, with "even the traditional calm of air hostesses was ruffled as they too joined in the hunt for autographs". For those not fortunate enough to get the autograph, the Evening Herald reproduced it on the day of the game.

As expected, there was lots of focus on Pele's fee for the game, with the Irish Press claiming the game was "surely the costliest ever staged in this country" while comparing Pele to Sinatra.

He can't sing, he can't dance and he can't act. Yet he's paid more for a public appearance than Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and some say, Elvis Presley.

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(It should be pointed out that the declaiming of his acting ability came in an era before Escape to Victory).

That said, Pele's arrival did offer a lens through which to refract a couple of other big Irish stories of the week. While Pele was in Dublin, Michael Sugrue announced that he had applied for a licence to promote a Muhammad Ali fight in Dublin, with the tenor of many of the articles in response to this reading, "After Pele at Dalymount, why not Ali at Leopardstown or Landsdowne Road?"

Elsewhere, Paddy Mulligan was set to line out for Chelsea against Stoke City in the League Cup final at Wembley. The Sunday Independent preview, gloriously, read "Paddy will be paid more than Pele".

Paddy Mulligan will be paid more than Pele for playing 90 minutes of football next Saturday. His fee for just stepping out at Wembley against Stoke City is £1500.

Fans were guaranteed that Pele would play the full 90 minutes (Carlos Alberto missed out, however), with the Irish side consisting of eight players from Bohs and three from Drumcondra. It wasn't the first tine the Drums players met Pele: they met him at an Amsterdam Airport on the way to a European Fairs Cup tie two years earlier.

Ultimately, 27,500 people packed into Dalymount to watch Santos edge a 3-2 win. The consensus on Pele's performance sprung from that uniquely Irish disposition of being fairly happy to have been disappointed.

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Here's how the Examiner called it...

Once settled into an easy gait, this most famous of footballers seemed loathe to stir himself out of it. This was hardly vintage Pele. This was a disappointment, but no greater a disappointment than were Santos. They seldom moved at anything more than half-pace.

...and the Sunday Independent: 

What a dismal disappointment for the Dalymount fans! Santos played with a lethargic lack of urgency, and turned in a dreary brand of football punctuated not too frequently by flashes of brilliance".

Pele shot into the dressing room before full-time to avoid the masses spilling onto the pitch at the end, with referee John Carpenter reflecting that he "didn't blame him.

Taoiseach Jack Lynch turned up in the dressing room afterward, and had Pele sign his match programme while waxing lyrical of his experience watching Pele at the 1958 World Cup while he was in Paris on "diplomatic business".

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The Herald perhaps flattered Lynch, writing that "when the Brazilian party were informed of the Taoiseach's own sporting prowess he was besieged for his autograph by the Brazilians".

Pele didn't exactly register a mark for his verbosity while in Ireland; his ruminations on the game extending no further than "I enjoyed it. It was a good game. I hope the crowd were pleased".

If that bromide is recognisable, so are the parting clichés dredged up by Santos manager Mauro Ramos Oliveira.

The Irish team surprised me completely. They were extremely well-organised and disciplined through the field. At the start we thought that the game would be easy, but they made it increasingly harder as the game went on. We would like to come back to your pleasant, hospitable country and reward your fine sporting public with a better display.

Carlos Sexton, who had the job of promoting Santos' European ties, was slightly more effusive:

[Bohs/Drums were] well worth a draw. We would like to come again next year for your football is good and your gorgeous girls are charming.

There is footage of the match available on the RTE Archives

See Also: Balls Remembers - Joe Frazier's Ill-Fated Singing Tour Of Ireland

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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