Pelé v Spacemen

Scoring one thousand goals in a professional football career is well beyond the capacity of most forwards to even imagine, yet alone realise. It’s a milestone that has not been hit often, unsurprisingly, and to have the remotest chance of running up this sort of tally players need to squeeze in a lot of games and count goals from the most spurious of sources. Pelé certainly benefitted in his own quest for the thousand from being the ringmaster in the touring Santos circus, forever traversing the globe and playing low intensity, high-scoring friendlies. The questionable strength of some of the opposition notwithstanding, his goals had flowed from the start of his career at an incredible average of 77 each year.

When you score this prolifically and this consistently then the numbers quickly rack up and towards the end of 1969 Pelé was approaching the milésimo: his thousandth goal in all games for club and country. This was a landmark that had previously been achieved only by Franz Binder, Josef Bican and his Brazilian compatriot, Arthur Friedenreich. Pelé himself was never particularly interested in his own statistical achievements, but the Brazilian public at large maintained a fascination with the numbers behind his every kick of the ball. The countdown to the thousand duly became a huge national event, one that would capture the imagination of the Brazilian public like little else outside of a World Cup.

The countdown began in earnest during October of 1969 with the milésimo just a dozen away. On the 15th of the month, Santos played Portuguesa de Desportos and won 6-2 with Pelé scoring four times to take his total to 993. Over the next fortnight he added another couple against Coritiba, failed to score against Fluminense, managed one against Flamengo then endured another couple of goalless games – two blanks in succession was a rare occurrence for Pelé.

Santos travelled to the north east of the country in early November for their next sequence of matches, the usual mix of competitive fixtures and lucrative friendlies. On the 12th of November he scored twice against Santa Cruz in Recife and two days later added his 999th, a penalty, against a Paraiba State XI. This game threw up a rather bizarre twist. Santos comfortably led 3-0 and Pelé seemed well placed to add to his tally and score the one remaining goal he needed, yet midway through the second half the Santos keeper Aguinaldo was injured and replaced by…. Pelé!

This was not an unheard of move as occasionally during friendly matches Pelé would take over in-goal to conserve energy and entertain crowds with his surprisingly good keeping skills. It seemed an odd moment to choose to do it now though and the watching fans did not find it entertaining in the slightest. They had paid to see history being made and were quick to make their displeasure known when they realised that with Pelé standing 100 yards away from the sharp end of the pitch, it wasn’t going to happen that day.

The race to the thousand had caught the attention of football fans from far beyond Brazilian borders by this stage and all over the world people were waiting for match-by-match updates on his progress towards the finishing line. The Santos circus trundled on to Salvador and a fixture on the 16th of November against Bahia with expectation high that the 1000th goal would finally arrive. Locals prepared an elaborate party in anticipation with a special thanksgiving mass as its centrepiece. Whether it would give thanks to Pelé or to God was not specified.

By the time of the Bahia match, Pelé was having to share both headlines and public fascination with a set of individuals from a quite different walk of life. Two days earlier the Apollo 12 space mission had taken off from Kennedy Space Centre in the USA and would be only the second manned mission to make a moon landing. Brazil was as fascinated with the 60s space race as any other major nation, so much of its population had its ears glued to radios listening to mission updates – when not listening to commentaries of Pelé’s games of course.

A Brazilian journalist posed a half-serious question when he wondered which would happen first – Pelé hitting his 1000 goal landmark or astronauts Conrad, Gordon and Bean setting foot on the surface of the moon. It was a comment that happened to strike a chord with the public and the race became something of an unofficial contest to see who could create their own personal piece of history first.

There are all sorts of logistical and environmental issues that can affect a moon landing of course and the earliest a touchdown could realistically be achieved would be the 18th of November. Pelé had a two-day head start in Salvador and faced, to the best of our knowledge, considerably less atmospheric and technological impediments to achieving his own mission goal.

During the game itself Pelé had half a dozen chances but could take none of them. The best opportunity came late on when he dribbled through the home defence, rounded the keeper but shot against the bar – that his teammate Jair Bala scored from the rebound was probably scant consolation. Pelé was not enjoying the attention this challenge was bringing. Some years late he spoke about this game: “When I came on the field, I felt nervous. I had long wished the thousandth goal over and done with but never so much on this day. I had a sudden cold feeling that I was doomed to go for years without scoring another goal.”

His next opportunity came three days later as Santos travelled to the Maracana and an 80,000 crowd braved a tropical downpour for their game against Vasco da Gama. Not really getting into the benevolent spirit of the evening was the Vasco defender Rene who marshalled the man of the hour effectively for the first 30 minutes. Finally Pelé escaped his attentions and fired in a shot that Vasco’s Argentinian keeper Andrade tipped over the bar. Shortly after another Pelé shot hit the bar and as he challenged for the rebound with Rene, the Vasco defender accidentally put the ball in his own net.

It was shaping up to be another frustrating evening until finally, a Clodoaldo pass put Pelé clear and he was caught in the box by a sliding Fernando tackle. If truth be told it was a soft penalty award but no-one was churlish enough to question it. The Santos full-back Rildo showed a bizarre lack of sense of the occasion when he stepped forward to take the kick before being quickly shooed away by captain Carlos Alberto.

The Santos team stood at the half-way line to allow Pelé to compose himself and, after a lengthy pause, he struck the penalty low to the keeper’s left. Andrade dived the right way but couldn’t keep it out. Pelé chased the ball into the net and kissed it, fans invaded the pitch and 1000 balloons were released in celebration. Pelé’s shirt was ripped off and he was given a new one with the number 1000 on the back. He was substituted after a lengthy and emotional lap of honour.

The following day the Brazilian media was dominated by two successful stories of great human achievement that had taken place on November the 19th: Pelé had reached the milésimo and the Apollo 12 astronauts had successfully landed and walked on the moon. So which had happened first? Pelé’s penalty hit the back of the net around 6pm GMT; astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean landed their lunar module on the moon’s surface at 11.45am GMT – roughly 6 hours earlier. The Americans narrowly won a contest they didn’t even know they had entered.

See Pelé’s 1000th goal and other footage of the great man at Pelé On Film.

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