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The day Pelé signed for Cliftonville

By Staff Reporter

Young reporters are used to living on table scraps when it comes to stories and so it was that a crumb tossed my way turned into one of the highlights of my career: a meeting with the most famous man on the planet.
No one else wanted the story; it looked like a half-eaten Twinkie to the senior reporters, but that midtown Manhattan press conference was filet mignon with roasted potatoes and steamed asparagus to me because I knew the greatest soccer player ever was going to be there.
The event was promoting new soccer trading cards and American Airlines involvement in the 1994 World Cup about to be played in the U.S. for the first time.
The World Cup trophy itself, the most coveted in global sports, would be on display.
I even had a chance, when the trophy’s bodyguards were distracted – yes, the trophy had bodyguards – to get a photo with that most coveted prize in sports.
I figured it was as close as an Irishman would ever get to the thing.
The press conference was held at Tavern on the Green, one of New York City’s premier eateries where the glitterati drink $20 glasses of coke.
In total, Pelé scored 1281 goals in 1363 games, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
In 1999, he was voted Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and, perhaps more significantly, was tapped as the greatest soccer player in history by his fellow professionals.
After some waffling by a public relations man, Pelé entered the room. Why are your heroes always shorter in real life than you imagine?
Anyway, it sounded like God himself had sent us a plague of crickets, locusts and all the rest, such was the sound of the cameras clicking.
After a few minutes thanking the sponsor, Pelé invited some questions and my trembling hand went up.
“What do think of the chances for the Irish team in this World Cup,” I asked the only man who has three World Cup winning medals to his name.
“Yes, the Irish, I like them. They have a good team,” Pelé replied, ever the diplomat.
We really had no chance to win the World Cup but he wasn’t going to say it.
As the press conference ended, any sense of journalistic impartially evaporated as the assembled press corps mobbed the Brazilian legend, everyone it seemed holding out something for him to sign.
I had brought along my Cliftonville scarf for just this chance.
The oldest football team in Ireland, Cliftonville were perennial underdogs for decades.
Their home stadium, Solitiude is a testament to the support in the old days.
Then, in 1979, the team won the Irish Cup, the club’s first since 1909, so ushering in an era of renewed support and success for the North Belfast team.
Most recently, the Reds nailed a second consecutive league title for the first time since the team was founded in 1879.
“Is this your team?” asked Pelé as I asked him to sign the Red Army scarf.
“They sure are. The best team in Belfast,” I replied as he wove that iconic signature over the red shamrock.
It’s since been hermetically sealed in three airtight plastic bags. It has only came out once since that day.
As a World Cup columnist for the Irish Echo in 1994, I wrote about the scarf and how it would now be my official good luck charm which I would be wearing when Ireland played Italy at Giant’s Stadium.
Ireland, beyond most expectations, and due to a defensive master class by Paul McGrath and a wonder strike from Ray Houghton, won the game and the scarf officially retired with a 1-0 record.
If Cliftonville ever get into dire financial straits the scarf goes on Ebay. It’s doubtless the only Irish League scarf Pelé ever signed. Otherwise it stays in the bank, until 2018 at least.
That’s when Martin O’Neill will lead Ireland back to the World Cup in Russia.
Here’s hoping we get the Italians in the first game again.

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