Green Barmy: Gordon Sparks on Plymouth Argyle's big date with Pelé and Santos in 1973
A REUNION takes place next week of the Plymouth Argyle players who had the chance to pit their wits against some of the world's greatest players.
On March 14, 1973, Santos of Brazil visited Plymouth as part of a European tour.
Although it was a showpiece occasion, events were clouded by off-field events which only became public knowledge after the game was played.
There was no doubt who the main attraction was that night – Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the great Pelé.
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The Santos team arrived on the day of the game at North Road railway station where they were besieged by members of the public eager to obtain autographs, photographs, or just a close-up glimpse of the famous Brazilians.
The crush continued to a coach at the entrance to the station, where policemen did their best to hold back the eager throng as the players struggled to board the vehicle.
Santos took great advantage of having Pelé in their ranks, and regularly toured with one thing in mind – cashing in on his fame.
Indeed, only a year previously, Santos visited these shores when they were beaten 2-1 by Aston Villa.
With Argyle supporters more used to seeing the comparatively mundane action provided by Third Division football, they flocked in their thousands to Home Park.
In addition to Pelé, three other players in the Santos team were part of the famous Brazil side that lifted the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
Captain Carlos Alberto, like Pelé, played in each game of that tournament, with both scoring in the 4-1 defeat of Italy in the final.
And Pelé had recently celebrated scoring his 1,000th goal.
Nicely set up for all photographers, the milestone goal was a penalty against Vasco de Gama.
The official attendance at Home Park was recorded at 37,639. Many believed it was nearer to 40,000.
But there was one notable absentee on the night.
Argyle manager Tony Waiters had more pressing business in hand. He doubled up his duties at Home Park with those of coaching the England youth team, who were playing that same evening at Highbury, former home of Arsenal.
Kick-off time arrived, and passed.
There was no dissent, though, from the spectators as it was assumed the delay was caused by people still queuing to gain entry through the turnstiles.
But behind the scenes, a major issue had reared its head.
Club officials from Santos, on seeing the size of the attendance, decided to increase the previously-agreed appearance fee.
Chairman Robert Daniel was summoned to the dressing rooms, where players, having already been through their warm-up routine, were ordered to sit and wait.
The conundrum facing Daniel was either to pay the extra £2,500 being demanded, or be faced with the prospect of Santos not appearing and risking a major public disturbance.
He knew he had no choice.
Reluctantly, Daniel backed down, and the players eventually emerged from the tunnel, Argyle in green and black striped shirts and Santos in all white.
If Santos thought they were to have an easy night against their less illustrious opponents, they were given a shock with they fell behind to a goal from a Cornishman.
Mike Dowling, known for regularly shooting with immense power from long distances, was given the freedom to run forward and let fly with one of his trademark efforts from 25 yards to send the fans into disbelief after just three minutes.
But there was better to come.
Left-back Colin Sullivan sent over a cross for Derek Rickard, who evaded his marker and met the ball to plant a flying header on target that put Argyle two up.
Before half-time, the lead was increased further when goalkeeper Claudio failed to hold on to a high cross, only for striker Jimmy Hinch to pounce and make it three.
At half-time, a couple of schoolboys cheekily ran on to the pitch to make a bee-line for Pelé. The great man duly obliged with autographs before the youngsters were escorted back to the terraces.
Arguments again materialised during the interval, this time over Plymouth-based referee Charles Nicholls.
Santos players wanted him replaced, but it was Pelé who acted as peacemaker and order was restored.
Rarely can there have been a scenario where home supporters were willing an individual from the opposing side to score.
But Argyle fans wanted to witness a magical touch from Pelé.
They weren't to be denied.
Neil Hague tripped Brecha as he burst into the penalty area and the crowd knew what was coming when a spot-kick was awarded.
Spectators at the Barn Park End had a close up view as the number 10 stroked the ball past substitute goalkeeper Milija Aleksic.
The way in which Pelé rushed to retrieve the ball from the back of the net showed Santos were taking the game seriously.
The arrears were reduced by Edu who, in a flowing move, played an exquisite one-two with Pelé, and carved his way through the home defence to score.
But despite all the Brazilian tricks, flicks, and moments of footballing magic, Argyle held on to beat one of the greatest collections of players ever to provide opposition at Home Park.
A post-match reception and dinner had been arranged at the Holiday Inn where local dignitaries mingled with players and officials from both clubs.
Following the meal, the club officials went to a private room where the money, in cash, was handed over in an envelope.
Graham Little, club secretary, informed the Santos hierarchy that he would contact the relevant football authorities and ensure they never played in England again.
The response he received from the head of the Santos travelling party was one of complete nonchalance.
'Plenty more countries' was the reply.
With members of the media attending the social evening, Daniel called an impromptu midnight Press conference to reveal the full extent of the drama that, to that time, was known only by those within the club.
On learning of the events of the evening, UEFA ordered Santos to return the money to Argyle.
But for the thousands that saw the world's greatest player grace the Home Park turf, the memories of that evening are priceless.
Argyle: Jim Furnell (Milija Aleksic), Dave Provan, Colin Sullivan, John Hore, Bobby Saxton, Neil Hague, Mike Dowling, Derek Rickard, Jimmy Hinch (Steve Davey), Les Latcham, Alan Welsh
Santos: Claudio, Alberto, Murias, Hermes, Leo, Marcal, Jair, Brecha (Pitico), Pitico (Vincente), Alcindo, Pelé, Edu