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When Pelé came to Florence (but didn’t get to play)

As the legendary Brazilian player celebrates his 80th birthday, we take a look at his links to Fiorentina.

Happy Birthday Pelé
Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images

Today Edson Arantes do Nascimento celebrates his 80th birthday. Of course we all know him better as the living football legend that is, Pelé.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with Fiorentina? To be honest, not a lot. But to get away from all the controversy over Beppe Iachini, our below par performances, and the constant threat of the Covid pandemic on football, I thought I’d take a nostalgic trip back to simpler times..

The year was 1958. Pelé was still only 17, and Brazil were preparing for that years World Cup, which would be held in Sweden. With Brazil set to kick off their first game at the finals on June 8th, part of their pre-tournament preparation would take place in Italy. Here they would challenge two Serie A clubs, at the San Siro in Milan they took on Inter, but before this, they would go up against Fiorentina at what we now call the Stadio Artemio Franchi.

This trip would be the first time Pelé had ever left Brazil, and his first time on a plane. By the time the World Cup was over, the whole world would know about the teenager, but for now, while well known in Brazil, their rivals in Sweden were more concerned about some of his team mates, such as Garrincha, Didi and Vavá. Pelé had been playing with his club, Santos, from the age of 15, and made his debut for the national side at 16, scoring his first ever goal in the Brazil jersey in that same match.

Unfortunately, by the time the Brazilians boarded that plane bound for Europe ( a few hours stop over in Lisbon, before making their way to Rome) Pelé had picked up a knee injury a few days previously in their final warm up game in Brazil, a 5-0 win over club side Corinthians. This would mean missing out not only on the two warm up games in Italy but more importantly also the first two group games at the World Cup itself. Still, he was in that Brazilian squad which made it’s way to Florence, and stayed at the Hotel Universo in the city centre.

The crowd that made their way to the stadium on May 29th, 1958, were treated to a parade of the Calcio Storico players in their traditional costumes, wearing the blue, red, white and green of the four districts of Florence. They were here for the main attraction though, a team that had been described in the local newspapers as the Harlem Globetrotters of football. Although they had disappointed at the previous World Cup in Switzerland four years earlier, going out to Hungary in the Quarter Finals, this team was expected to do much better. Having appeared at every World Cup finals and having never won the coveted trophy, they did go to Sweden as favourites to finally do the job.

Fiorentina at that time were of course one of the top teams in Italy. They had just finished as Serie A runners-up to Juventus in the season just concluded. The last game of that 1957/58 season had in fact been played here in Florence just four days previously, with a resounding 6-1 win for the Viola over Padova. Most of the team that played here against Brazil had won Fiorentina’s first ever Scudetto just two years before and one year ago had arrived in the final of the European Cup. That Padova team that they had just annihilated were without one of their star players, a player that not only would go on to play in the final of the upcoming World Cup, but would also enter into the record books with Fiorentina. Kurt Hamrin, the Swede would join the Viola for the following season, and would remain in Florence for 9 years, scoring 150 Serie A goals. This record would stand for over 30 years, only overtaken by another legend, Gabriel Batistuta.

The Fiorentina team that lined out on this Thursday evening to face Brazil was the following: Giuliano Sarti, Ardico Magnini, Enzo Robotti, Giuseppe Chiappella, Sergio Cervato, Amando Segato, Julinho, Francisco Lojacono, Giuseppe Virgili, Miguel Montuori, Claudio Bizzarri.

There was of course a Brazilian in that Fiorentina team, Julinho. He would soon return home to Brazil having played his last season with the Viola, after three years at the club, helping them to that historic first ever Serie A title. He wouldn’t however be joining his fellow Brazilians when they moved on to Sweden for the World Cup. The Brazilian manager Vicente Feola had decided that his squad would only contain those playing their club football at home in Brazil. He was however prepared to make an exception for the Fiorentina star, but Julinho decided to refuse the gesture, not wanting to take the place of a player who deserved to go to the finals.

As it turns out, Fiorentina would not have any of their players appearing in Sweden, as Italy had failed to qualify, losing a vital qualification game in Belfast against Northern Ireland. That Italian team contained the Fiorentina captain Segato, as well as their Argentinian born striker Montuori.

This was the Brazil side that appeared in Florence: Gilmar, De Sordi, Nilton Santos, Dino Sani, Bellini, Orlando, Garrincha, Didi, Mazzola, Dida, Pepe.

The referee would be an Italian, Mario Maurelli, who had just taken charge of his last ever Serie A game the previous Sunday, at Bologna where the home team had beaten Inter Milan 1-0. Brazil would make two substitutions in the second half here, but Italy would keep the same formation for the full match, despite fielding the exact same eleven that had played that last game of the season just four days prior to this test.

Maybe it was that tiredness, or maybe it was the fact that Fiorentina were up against the strongest national side in the world, but in the end Brazil ran out 4-0 winners. Those goals were scored by Garrincha, Pepe and two from a certain Mazola. In Brazil he was known as Mazola but in Italy he would go by his own name José Altafini. After the World Cup he would join AC Milan, and become one of their, and Serie A’s greatest players. He later had spells with Napoli and Juventus. In the next World Cup in 1962 he would in fact represent Italy, again due to the fact that Brazil only wanted players plying their trade at home.

Brazil’s final goal in this game, scored by Garrincha was quite a famous one and actually angered his team mates. After rounding our defenders, he then dribbled past Sarti in the goal and instead of putting it away, he seemed to wait for a chasing Robotti so he could round him again before tapping the ball home. Some say this action cost him his place in the Brazil team for the opening two games of the World Cup, with his coaches unhappy at his showmanship, others blame that on his problems with alcohol.

After this game, Brazil would move on to Milan, where they would also put 4 goals without reply against Inter three days later. Pelé would miss this game too as well as the first two group games of the World Cup. When he did finally appear though, he took the competition by storm. He scored the only goal in the Quarter Final clash with a Wales side that sorely missed their Juventus forward John Charles who had been injured in the previous game. In the Semi Final, Pele scored a hat-trick as Brazil saw off France 5-2. The final with the host nation Sweden ended with the same score line, and Pele grabbed another two goals, taking his shortened tournament total to six.

The rest as they say, is history. Pelé would go on to be one of, if not the greatest players the world will ever see. He helped Brazil win another two World Cups, representing his country 92 times and scoring 77 goals.

There is one final link between the great player and Fiorentina, and yes I’ll admit to it being a slightly tenuous one. He did end his playing career, not at Santos in Brazil, but at the New York Cosmos, a team that is sadly no longer at the top of the football tree in the US. The owner of that once great club, is of course, none other than our very own Rocco Commisso!