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When Pelé’s Santos came to Devon

Do not adjust your screens. You read that right. Brazil’s all-time top scorer Pelé once played against Devon side Plymouth Argyle in a friendly for his native Santos.

On a cool spring night he and a few of his 1970 Brazil World Cup winning teammates ventured to Britain’s Ocean City.

Pelé’s name is renowned across the globe as one of the greatest ever. Shooting to international stardom at the 1958 World Cup, he played professionally in Brazil for two decades. He would win three World Cups and score over six hundred professional goals.

So, playing for Santos against Plymouth Argyle in a friendly in March 1973 might not have been the height of his career. However it was certainly a memorable one for all involved, players and fans alike. A once in a lifetime event, brushing shoulders with genius.

The story is remarkable not only in it’s novelty, but also in its’ outcome.  

Santos’ Superstars

At Santos Pelé was very much in the limelight. He helped ‘The People’s Team’ storm the Brazilian League, with five league titles in a row from 1961 to 1965. He won the Copa Libertadores in 1962 and 1963 and the 1962 Intercontinental Cup by beating Eusebio’s Benfica 5-2. The great man would incidentally score a hat-trick in that final.

Suffice to say, Pelé was already a global superstar before making the journey down to Devon in March ’73. A serial winner, not just with Santos and on the international stage but in terms of individual honours as well. 

Middling Pilgrims

Under the stewardship of Ellis Stuttard (in his second stint in the dugout at Home Park) and his successor, the late Tony Waiters, Argyle were having a very inconsistent campaign in the 1972/73 Third Division. By the Santos friendly in March they had already sacked Stuttard but were still experiencing turbulence in the league. 14 wins, 14 losses and 7 draws in the league campaign was hardly headline form.

One of the Argyle’s most consistent and versatile players that season was eventual Player of the Year award-winning Neil Hague. Hague would win the Player of the Year award scoring twelve for the Pilgrims from central defence in all competitions.

According to a piece about the Yorkshireman on the ‘Greens on Screen’ website: “He immediately made his mark in the centre of defence but was also a goal threat, especially at set-pieces.”

Despite not getting his name on the scoresheet in the Santos friendly, he was key component in the infamous win. He helped keep Pelé and co. at bay, making a real name for himself in the heart of defence. It was another incidence of impressing the Green Army in an otherwise run of the mill season. 

Pre-Match Pressure

While the set-up and match itself might have been like a fairytale, those behind the scenes at Argyle had to fight hard to ensure the fans got the game they did. Tempestuous Santos officials tried their utmost to derail proceedings, with the game being close to cancellation.

Santos representatives wanted their share of the gate proceeds in hard currency before they took to the field. This had been the case for another friendly against Fulham. However, after scrutinising the sell-out match returns, they demanded £2,500 more than the signed contracts provided.

“I was with our directors 15 minutes before kick-off when we were called down and they said, ‘We are not going to play unless you give us another £2,500,’” Graham Little, the Plymouth club secretary at the time, told the Daily Mail back in 2013.

“We agreed a set figure of £2,500 with them, but when they came down they saw this huge crowd of 40,000-odd and realised they should have signed the same contract they did with Fulham.”

“Well, we had no choice — there would have been a riot if we cancelled … [After the game] I had the money, £50 notes in cellophane packets and the chairman started telling the man from Santos: ‘This is crooked, we will report you. You will never play in this country again.’ He shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Plenty more countries.’”

Plymouth Argyle 3-2 Santos

Picture the scene. Wednesday 14th March 1973 at Home Park, Plymouth. An average day for many. For those donning the Green and White of Argyle however, this was to be a historic day.

The Pilgrims, of the third division, went into the game as overwhelming underdogs. The occasion was greater than the result. Or so they thought. 

Thanks to grainy video highlights and a match report in Harley Lawer’s book Argyle Classics, we can explore the narrative of the game. 

“With the match finally under way Mike Dowling needed just three minutes to lift the roof off the Santos net with a blistering drive. Derek Rickard promptly made it two with a deft header which Santos claimed was offside.

Their goalkeeper raced half the length of the pitch to argue with a linesman. When Claudio later fumbled the ball Jimmy Hinch accepted an easy chance to make it three.

“Argyle players were taking it all much too seriously for the temperamental Brazilians who were so upset that they threatened to call it all off again if the referee wasn’t replaced at half-time. Pelé, the ambassador, put his diplomatic skills to work to restore calm in the dressing room corridors. He then returned to the pitch to express the mesmerising talents the fans were still waiting to see. His close-control dribbling, passing and shooting sparked a Santos revival. But his only goal was from the penalty spot. Edu swerved through to seize a second goal.

“At the final whistle hundreds of youngsters swarmed on to the ground. The prize of Pelé’s shirt went to Johnny Hore but he and the rest of the team had been warned that this special souvenir was booked for pride of place in the boardroom.

Definitely a memorable night for Green Army fans that day. A match that has most certainly gone down in the annuals of history, as Plymouth Argyle beat Pelé’s Santos.

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