“It was like two runners in a race. One tripped at the start but was now flying and had just pulled neck and neck with the leader – he had the momentum, his opponent was fading fast – when all of a sudden they let the latter finish the race in a Ferrari.”
That was how Alberto Spencer rued Pele, who was a sombre spectator when Penarol won 3-2 away to Santos to send the 1962 Copa Libertadores to a play-off, appearing in the decider on neutral territory. The Ecuadorian goal machine had bagged two in that aforementioned victory in Sao Paulo state, and the Uruguayan behemoths he represented had been expected to conquer Brazilian opposition once again to retain their South American crown in Buenos Aires. O Rei had, however, ripped them from the throne with a palatial two-goal performance just outside the Uruguayan border.
It was not a singular example of Pele’s indispensability to Santos. The stout- shouldered forward had produced remarkable individual exhibitions to inspire O Peixe to glory in the deciding legs of the previous two Taca Brasil finals and the 1962 Intercontinental Cup decider, where his hat-trick in Lisbon crushed Benfica.
Pele then hit a double as Santos began the defence of that world crown in Lombardy in October 1963. Unfortunately, however, that output proved fruitless as a magnificent AC Milan side, coached by esteemed Argentinian Luis Carniglia and comprising the likes of Cesare Maldini, Giovanni Trapattoni, Gianni Rivera, Amarildo and Jose Altafini, emerged 4-2 victors.
It left Santos requiring victory, by any margin, in the second leg to force a play-off. Anything less and the trophy would head to northern Italy. Yet Peixe prospects were stymied by the loss of Brazil internationals Zito and Calvet. They were seemingly shattered when Pele too succumbed to injury.
“When we heard the greatest player in the world was out, it was a big boost to morale,” recalled Altafini, a team-mate of Pele’s in Brazil’s triumphant 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™ campaign. “Santos had a lot of great players, but he was the one who made them all play.”
Santos centre-back Mauro said: “The press said we couldn’t win big finals without Pele. And given that he’d played so well in Milan and we’d still lost 4-2, some people had written off our chances of a comeback.”
Those chances went from improbable to impossible within 17 minutes at the Maracana. Altafini and Bruno Mora fired Milan into a 2-0 lead, and that’s how the sides went in at half-time.
Santos had just 45 minutes to score three times without reply. They required just 23 to net four, with two patented Pepe piledrivers, and goals from Almir Pernambuquinho and Lima, grabbing Lula’s charges a dramatic 4-2 win.
“I had learned I was going to be dropped, but just before kick-off Lula pulled me aside and told me I was back in the team and he expected big performance from me,” explained Pepe, who, now 78, kicked two goals into an unguarded Maracana net on Thursday, amid considerable media coverage, to mark the 50th anniversary of that match. “I was so determined to oblige. There was almost 150,000 inside the Maracana and the atmosphere something else.
“Even when we were 2-0 down at half-time, we never stopped believing we could win. As the rain started getting heavier and heavier, we played better and better. It was the happiest day of my life. My dad was watching at home on TV. It was his birthday. I gave him the most amazing present.”
Santos and Milan reconvened two days later, 50 years ago to this Saturday, at Brazilian football’s cathedral to settle the matter. And though the first 180 minutes of the tie had been awash with sublime skills and goals, the concluding 90 was characterised by stellar defending and crunching challenges in the midfield.
It was nevertheless decorated by one goal. Almir Pernambuquinho, only playing because of Pele’s absence, bamboozled Maldini to win a penalty on 31 minutes. Veteran left-back Dalmo, only responsible for taking spot-kicks because of Pele’s absence, dispatched it assuredly into the bottom corner.
Santos 1-0 Milan was how it finished. So, too, did the notion that the men from the Vila Belmiro couldn’t capture crowns without their king.