When Pele and Brazil’s Santos FC invaded Nigeria

In the great eras of the 60s and 70s and even far beyond, the Santos Football Club of Brazil wielded a formidable presence in world soccer.

The reason, of course, could not be far-fetched. This is because for one thing, it was the club to which the very king of soccer himself belonged. In this respect, one refers to no other than that celebrated veteran of world soccer, Senor Edson Arantes do Nascimento, otherwise  known as Pele or better still, King Pele.

Of course, his prodigious soccer feats are such common household properties, which are too well known as to warrant any elaborate recount. And for another, the keeper of that famous team, Gylmar Ramous, was not without universal acclaim as the number two greatest goalkeeper in the whole world. These are apart from other star-studded components of the team, which included Vava and Didi and Lima, a veteran of four World Cup editions, who were held in great awe and esteem by soccer fans in Brazil, almost as they did to Pele.


In what way did this relate to the Nigerian context? Fact was that the Green Eagles, the glorious Nigerian soccer ambassadors, had just done the nation proud at the Mexico Olympics through their memorable performances against Brazil, which they held to a 2-2 draw and Hungary, among other global super powers.

The impressive exploits of this distinguished Nigerian squad was of such magnitude which had kindled in the teeming mass of Nigerian soccer buffs, a renewed wave of zeal and fanatical enthusiasm for the round leather game.

It was therefore in keeping with the need to sustain and indeed accelerate this mounting ferment of soccer enthusiasm, that the apex football authority in the country, the NFA, muted the brain wave of sharpening the soaring Eagles against Brazil’s Santos of global fame and repute.

But as encouraging as the general public interest might seem, the reality was clear, that it doesn’t take a trifle to entice a team of world class stars like Santos of Brazil led by world number one footballer also from Brazil, the globally acclaimed home of soccer.

Fact of the bargain, as emphatically spelt, was that Santos charged $30,000, which was then about £10,700, for each match. Each of the eleven players would get $2,000, but in addition, Pele, who travelled with his own manager, received extra $5,000 per match.

Eventually, the deal was sealed at last and the general mass of soccer buffs could not just wait for the unfolding of the D-day proper for the match described even by the Daily Times itself as the match of the century.

At actually every quarter, the talk of the town was no other than this much coveted match of the century. They simply could not wait in anticipation of the reality that at last, they would behold the much talked about Pele, the celebrated soccer idol, in real flesh and blood. At beer palours, houses, offices, every gathering and actually everywhere, soccer zealots could simply not wait. As D-Day almost taxied to a zero point, the Daily Times, reflecting the anxious mood of the public, wrote on January 25, 1969:

“Tomorrow, a major milestone will be reached, as we play host to one of the greatest sides in the world (Santos) from a country ranked among the very best in world soccer (Brazil) and starring the indisputable world’s number one footballer (Edson Arantes do Nascimento), best known as Pele.

“Already, the Brazilians have been treating other parts of Africa with their super artistry and already, our NFA X1, to face them at the Lagos City Stadium, Onikan, tomorrow, have been training hard and looked in top form at last night’s final training.

“At long last- and most likely for the last time as an active player – the legendary Pele and his famous colleagues will perform in flesh, on Nigerian soil.

“With our young pushful and intelligent  bunch of stars – goal keepers Rigogo and Fregene, defenders Sam Opone, Tony Igwe, Clement Obojememe, together with Sam Garba, Peter Anieke, Muyiwa Oshode, Ganiyu Salami in attack, the Brazilians will surely get a hard match tomorrow. Can Nigeria shock them?”

This indeed was a billion dollar question that had dominated the already tense terrain  of public discourse. But just as you begin to think that the pendulum of victory might as well swing in favour of the Green Eagles based on their impressive exploits at the recently concluded Mexico Olympics, this salutary fit of optimism almost gave way to a tremulous fit of doubt. This was because the moment Pele and his team landed at Ikeja Airport, the electrifying aura of the renowned soccer maestro held the airport vicinity  and the people around irresistibly captive.

Indeed, if the man had thought that he could possibly devise a magic that  could make him escape from the airport  vicinity unnoticed immediately as he got there, then he was direly mistaken in the face of the several scores of sports enthusiasts who held him hostage as they beheld him in admiration, in a gesture which seemed to confirm that the great Pele they had often heard about, was after all no phantom, but real.

They included Brazilian settlers of Lagos origin, for whom Pele’s arrival brought back nostalgic memories of Brazil, the second home of their fore-fathers. Prominent among them were Mrs.  Romana da Conceicao, born 77 years ago in Baha, Brazil, who returned home to Nigeria as a 17-year old girl. At the airport, she held Pele as if they were next of kin.

Pele must have exacerbated the already tense atmosphere or even inspired jitters of fear into the pro-Eagles fanatics, when the Daily Times sports editor, the late Samuel Babatunde Oshuntolu popularly known as Esbee, asked him: “Don’t you dread injuries, considering that you are often the target of defenders?” Pele responded, “Oh no, there is only one thing I dread in football and that is the thought of defeat. Whenever I play, I play to win.”

As the Timesman persisted “Do you hope to beat the NFA X1 today?” Pele again fired back: “My friend, I have answered that question, I never play, but with the sole aim of winning.”

Teslim Balogun

Even the NFA itself was not wanting in its share of the drama as indicated in the Daily Times advert in which it “Invites the public to come and watch the NFA X1 Vs Santos Football Club of Brazil with Pele World King of Football.”

As if not yet done with, the harvests of grandiloquent description of the famed king pin of global soccer, the NFA in the advert signed by GKJ Amachree, the then chairman, NFA and Orok Oyo, the secretary, further beseeched the world to come and see a millionaire at work.

Millionaire at work? Yes. Being a millionaire was indeed a big thing in those days. A huge quantity it really was. No wonder that the gate fees of 10 shillings £2 and £3 for the popular, reserve and VIP seats respectively, was the highest ever charged in the annals of Nigerian sports history.

But spectators were never disappointed. Indeed if anything, what they witnessed on that day was salutarily more than a value for their money. That eventful Sunday, January 26, marked a befitting climax to the exciting drama of the pre-match days.

That day, a great match was played at the Lagos City Stadium. It shook the Nigerian soccer space – evoking the proverbial scenario of two elephants locked in a duel, in which, in this case, the grass of this historic stadium of antiquity, turned out the huge casualty.

The Daily Times itself captured the spectacular scenario, when the following day, Monday, January 27, it reported in a refreshingly artistic prose: “It lived up to expectation –the inter-continental soccer challenge, in which the Nigeria Football Association X1 came back brilliantly to hold Brazil’s  champion club, Santos, 2-2, at the Lagos City Stadium in Onikan, last night.

“This was an exciting highly technical feast of pace football, served to a capacity crowd of appreciative fans. And to complete the pleasure – this was a once in a lifetime duel, in which Senor Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the PELE, showed much of the all-round ability, which makes him the world’s number one footballer.”

“Paying the highest ever gate fee for this memorable match, fans from many parts of this country got fullest value.

“They watched the dribbling wizardry which had carried Santos to the top of the World Club Championship – the slick attack and the level headed defence.

“And above all, Pele scored –twice –and each goal, a gem in a separate class of its own.”

And in a gesture that seemed to show that the NFA selected side was no push over, Daily Times further reported: “But even the far travelled Santos’ trainer, Antonio Fernandez, acknowledged the fine form of this NFA X1 last night. Said he: ‘They are a fine team. You have a great team coming up. They run well and plan with intelligence.’”

The epic encounter started with a kick-off by Santos, shortly after the then military governor of Lagos State, Colonel Mobolaji Johnson, had met both teams.

Nigeria immediately initiated a dash of menacing moves down the left wing of the opponent’s area, but sunny Ine was caught offside, as he was set to shoot.

Just very soon after, Nigeria again struck, as if ready, for the kill; as Sunny Ine again attempted  to connect a lob from the right wing, to waiting Kenneth Olayombo –as the mammoth spectators erupted in cheerful roars and applause.

But the trend soon changed as the Brazilian invaders took control, exhibiting the brilliance and mastery which have fetched their team a salutary niche of global reckoning.

With remarkable calm and confidence, skipper Lima initiated a casual move from the mid-field. The tempo dramatically became hotter, as Mandel Maria bursted down the right wing, outwitting three challengers in the process.

At this stage, the ball was now in the courtyard of Pele, who was positioned in the middle. And suddenly, the next moment saw Edu racing through the left flank towards the opponent’s goal area, but Tony Igwe, in the bid to leave nothing to chances, parried off the low shot which fetched Santos its first corner kick.

The immortal legend of world soccer began to prove his rating as the indisputable “master of ceremony” as he sent fans cheering wildly with neat passes, artistic and effective dribbling. One moment, he was operating in the middle and the next minute, he was cutting circles against desperate challengers on the right wing and all these, with amazing ease and unruffled grace.

In the eighth minute, the Nigerian selected made a daring move, when the right-half back, Willie Andrew, collected a throw from Rigogo, outsmarted Santos, outside left, Edu, to chip in a teaser which landed on Olayombo, but the world rated Gylmar brought his genius to bear, in saving the resultant point-blank volley from Olayombo to the amazement of the staggering crowd of spectators.

The Nigerian side, however, remained undeterred as they persisted in their offensive thrust against the Brazilian invaders. The decisive moment, however, came in the 12th minute, as Olayombo connected a header from Segun Olumodeji along the edge of Santos penalty area. Oshode wasted no time, as he flashed through like lightening outsmarting the centre-half, Joel, who made a frantic but futile bid to stop him. He raced off like a gazelle towards the left goal line, before slipping the ball into an empty net.

The perimetres of the stadium shook and quaked under the deafening roars of the overfilled  crowd of cheering spectators.

The jubilation reverberated even beyond the stadium perimeters as passers-by, even in the farther vicinity, hugged one another and motorists and the mass of public transporters, blarred the horns of their vehicles, passing the message across as they raced on in their journey.

Everywhere in the city, it was a replay of the same scenario, as the teeming number of those who were ear-glued to the radio in various places of residence erupted in a carnival of festivities and jubilations.

Meanwhile, Santos, unruffled and radiating an amazing sense of self confidence, immediately took control, as skipper Lima, a veteran of four World Cup encounters, galvanised the Brazilian attack with an offensive thrust, only to unleash a shot which disappointingly soared too high, some 30 yards from the net.

Then came the 21st minute and the great equaliser. Edu lifted to the middle, where Toninho chested up the ball and neatly nodded it backways to the waiting Pele. A left leg flashed and the next moment, an unstoppable shot was resting deep in the corner of the Nigerian net.

Goalkeeper Rigogo and a mass of defenders were simply caught flatfooted by this sudden action of the magic feet.

Thereafter, the game continued ding-dong, with both sides in equal control. Critical moments were the 26th and 31st minutes, when Ine and Baba Ali aimed hard shots at the Santos goal post, but goal keeper Gymlar stood firm.

Also in the 27th and 33rd minutes, Toninho and Pele came up with menacing sizzlers, but Lawal Rigogo proved equal to the task.

Three minutes to half-time, Santos snatched the lead –predictably through Pele, who, in a dazzling flash of lightening, mesmerised five defenders at a row with an uncanny manoeuvre as he dashed through the inside right, catching everybody unawares and unleashing a devastating left-footer, which almost tore through the net from 10 yards.

To be sure, it was a salutary tribute to the hard accurate shooting which had brought him  876 goals in 12 years of professional soccer. So fantastic was the brilliance of this epic goal, at which the crowd roared in stupefying wonderment, in a momentary fit of glowing tribute to this celebrated idol of global soccer.

If Pele’s marksmanship was proved in the first half, it was after the resumption that he truly showed why he had been the object of so much foul plays all over the world. Several times, he was faced by a sea of defenders. But several times, he suddenly burst out like greased lightning – apparently confident in his ability to outwit everything – and find the net.

Nigeria slid in the equaliser in the second half, as Ine, initially on the right wing of the opponent’s area, moved to reposition himself strategically  at the centre as Baba Ali held the ball on the run. Goalkeeper Gylmar, sensing danger, attempted a calculated on-rush in the frantic bid to outsmart him, but unfortunately, it turned out a leap too  fatal, as his anticipated calculation missed the mark, thereby paving a leeway for Baba Ali, who slipped in the ball past the world acclaimed goalkeeper.

Three minutes after, Pele, the marked object of opponent’s attack got injured, but returned to the field of play two minutes later, after first aid.

Thereafter, both sides made several attempts at goal, but Nigeria lost more chances of victory due to faulty finishing.

Sam Opone stood out as a true skipper in the home team’s courageous defence, which foiled many a menacing Santos’ effort from all sides.

The attack also shaped smarter and more enterprising than ever, with the irrepressible Muyiwa Oshode and Mohammed Lawal, the danger men.

And in-between, there was tireless right-half, Willie Andrews, who won the heart of the enthusiastic crowd. This was the little man assigned with a big task of policing Pele, the soccer legend. It was a task which he courageously executed with clinical finesse, even as he also often provided the vital link between attack and defence.

Also deserving of great commendation was goalkeeper Peter Fregene, who remained unbeaten and also particularly for his incredible brilliant saves in the 77th, 82nd and 86th  minutes – a feat which endeared him to the teeming mass of the spectators.

But for the celebrated Santos team coach, Antonio Fernandez: “I cannot say any of your boys were better than others. It will not be fair. You have 11 boys playing like one team. A good side of young players who can reach the top soon.”

In another instance, Fernandez added, “Your fans are so fair. They cheer good football from any side.”

Indeed, no one can better attest to this than Pele, who was cheered all through the match. And even as the match ended, he was literally mobbed by the teeming mass of the spectators, who hugged, patted, kissed and engaged him in rapturously warm handshakes and virtually refused to let go of him – as they held him in awe for his incredible super human prowess in the round leather game.

Until they zoomed out of the stadium, Pele remained the sole object of focus as crowds battled, at least, to have a glimpse of him and possibly touch and hold him.

And, of course, for a celebrated jewel of world soccer that he was; with a teeming mass of fanatical admirers all over the world-cutting across the diverse social strata, it was not surprising that the highly prestigious Island Club of Lagos, organised a big party in honour of the visiting Brazilian team – ostensibly because of the pervasive presence of Pele – who was literally idolised, even among the elites. Present at the party were prominent personalities, which included the then president of the club;  Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, secretary, Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas and the  social secretary, Mr. Paul Atilade. Flavius Akerele, who had a bit of Brazilian blood in his veins, prepared Brazilian dishes. Everywhere, it was honour, honour and honour for this iconic hero of global soccer. It was a moment the Brazilian soccer king pin would never forget in a jiffy.


NFA X1: Rigogo (second half Fregene) Augustine Ofuoku, Tony Igwe, Willie Andrews, Segun Olumodeji, Baba Ali, Lawal, Ine.

Santos: Gylmar, Ramos, Tarcao Joel (from 64th minute Nigreiros Marcal, Mani, skipper Lima, Toninho (from 82nd  minutes Douglas, Pele (from 86th minute Ama) Edu (from 87th minute, Abel).

Officials were Philip Gomah (refree) linesmen Shoyombo and Abubakar Omo Ikerodah.

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