The expression gol de placa (a goal worthy of a commemorative plaque) has become a much-used part of Brazil’s footballing vocabulary over the years. So much so, in fact, that it seems to have been around forever. Yet, like many other facets of the Brazilian game, it owes its existence to the feats of A Seleção legend Pele.
This particular addition can be traced back to 5 March 1961, when Santos met Fluminense at the Maracana in a Rio-Sao Paulo championship clash. With 40 minutes of the first half played, the Santos side that would go on to become South American and world champions in 1962 and 1963 were already leading 1-0 thanks to a goal from their iconic No10 Pele.
Moments later, Peixe goalkeeper Laercio pulled off a save to prevent Flu levelling the encounter, and what happened subsequently was described thus in the following day’s edition of O Globo newspaper: “The loose ball fell to Dalmo, who laid it off to Pele on the edge of his own box. He controlled the ball and, like a powerful piece of machinery, he clicked into first gear, then second, and really took off once he hit third, crossing the length of the pitch leaving opponents in his wake.
“Having broken into the opposing area, Pele eluded Pinheiro, who had been right on his heels, and shook off the desperate attentions of Jair Marinho. Now one-on-one with Castilho, Pele fired the ball beyond the goalkeeper, whose full-length dive proved in vain. In their excitement, some of those present felt the goal should have counted double. Indeed, so spectacular was the strike that it drew a standing ovation lasting nearly two full minutes from all the spectators present, even those sporting Fluminense colours, in a phenomenon previously unseen at the Maracana. All the while, Pele was being mobbed by his jubilant team-mates.”
Placa do gol adorns Maracana
Fortunate enough to witness the original gol de placa first-hand was Joelmir Beting, currently one of Brazil’s most-respected financial journalists, who at the time was working for O Esporte newspaper as a writer. Struck by the beauty of Pele’s work of art against Flu, Beting suggested his bosses at the paper have a bronze plaque put up at the Maracana, to forever commemorate the wondrous strike. The idea was approved, with Pele himself visiting Rio de Janeiro a few days later to officially unveil a plaque that today still reads: “On this pitch on 5/3/1961, Pele scored the finest goal in the history of the Maracana.”
Beting would later quip that “I might never have scored a gol de placa myself, but I did make a placa do gol (plaque about the goal)”, and, despite the hundreds of strikes scored in the intervening 50 years at Brazil’s largest stadium, few would dare disagree that Pele’s remains top of the pile. Left-sided forward Pepe, who claims his 405 goals for Santos make him the club’s leading “human” scorer - “Pele doesn’t count," he said, "as he’s from another planet” - was on the field that day against Fluminense.
“Yes, it was the best goal I’ve ever seen at that stadium,” Pepe told FIFA.com. “He set off at an incredible speed. Castilho, who was a fantastic keeper, could barely see the ball fly past him. All we could do was watch open-mouthed as Pele drove forward. It was something we ended up doing often, in fact. But the worst thing is that the guy scored so many goals, so many of which were beautiful, that it wasn’t even the best I saw him score. That came at the [Estadio da] Rua Javari.”
Wowing the Rua Javari
The goal Pepe refers to is the one O Rei himself rates as the most spectacular of all the 1,296 he hit over the course of his stellar career. It was 2 August 1959, and Santos were 2-0 up with just nine minutes remaining of a Paulista championship clash with Juventus. “I’d already scored two goals, but the opposing fans still wouldn’t get off my back. I looked up at the stands and made a gesture saying ‘just wait a bit’,” said Pele.
“I controlled a cross sent in from the right, by Dorval I think, and lifted the ball over the heads of three players in a row, without letting the ball touch the floor, before nodding it into the net. The boos suddenly turned into cheers,” added O Rei, who also used his iconic celebration of leaping into the air with a raised fist for the first time that day.
That goal at the Rua Javari did not receive its own plaque at the time but, since 2006, the humble stadium in Sao Paulo’s Mooca neighbourhood has been adorned with a bust of Pele in tribute to that flash of inspiration. Intriguingly, the fact that neither of these stunning strikes was captured on video has helped add lustre to their legend, while the goal at the Maracana will be remembered for as long as the expression gol de placa is used. And in the words of his former team-mate Pepe: “If a plaque was put up for every incredible goal Pele scored, you’d struggle to find a stadium on the planet without one.”