When Barcelona, Real Madrid & Man Utd tried to sign Pele
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United might have changed the course of football history had they gone through with attempted deals to sign Pele from Brazilian club Santos.
Pele was already a global superstar by the mid-1960s, winner of the previous two World Cups with Brazil. In his mid-twenties, he was also still young enough to have had a long career in Europe had the terms of proposed transfer been right and had he wanted to make it happen.
Pele had made his debut for Santos as early 1956 when he only 15. He became a prolific goalscorer at 16 and was a Brazil international before he had turned 17.
The 1958 World Cup, during which it was a coincidence he wore the number 10 shirt that he would soon become synonymous with, set him on the way to becoming football’s first global megastar.
With Santos soon going on to dominate Brazilian club football in the early 1960s, as well as winning back-to-back Copa Libertadores titles either side of Pele’s second World Cup triumph in 1962, that status and lasting legacy was cemented within only a few years.
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Enric Llaudet was the Barcelona president who tried to bring Pele to Catalonia in late 1965 and early 1966, a few months before he was due to play in his third World Cup.
Llaudet himself spoke about it in an interview with Marca at the end of 1966, revealing that ultimately the financial demands were too much to contend with.
“We entered into negotiations with the man who had an exclusive put option on Pele, the Italian Gerardo Sannella,” Llaudet explained.
“On November 14, 1965, the negotiations began and on February 23, 1966, our friend Sannella told us that signing Pele would cost $1m to transfer for Santos and $200,000 for [Pele]. It was very clear that Pele could not be bought and that Santos simply put him on the market at a prohibitive price.”
There was also the small matter of a ban on signing foreign players that existed in Spanish football from 1953 until 1973, an alleged response to a poor display at the 1950 World Cup. There were certain loopholes, however, and the fascist government notably encouraged a number of Hungarian players to settle in Spain – including Ferenc Puskas. Whether Pele might have been given fast-tracked Spanish citizenship to allow him to play given his stature is ultimately moot.
Barcelona were later stuck with another Brazilian, Machado Da Silva, in 1966 after missing out on Pele but couldn’t use him. The ban was still in force and Llaudet had supposedly acted prematurely on information that it might be lifted sooner than it eventually was.
With Real Madrid dominant in the fledgling European Cup in the latter half of the 1950s, they were a club in the market for Pele on more than one occasion.
The legend himself confirmed as much, once stating that he had multiple opportunities to pack his bags and head to Madrid but never did.
“There were many times when I was very close to signing with Real Madrid. It’s not a regret. I was at Santos and, at the time, they were a powerhouse.
”I was very, very happy at Santos, I had the best 20 years of my life there. I had plenty of other proposals and not just from Real Madrid, but I was okay where I was.”
Non-British players were a very rare sight in English football until the 1980s, while it wasn’t until the Premier League era that an international and cosmopolitan make-up was embraced. Even George Robledo, Newcastle’s Chilean international, had been raised in Yorkshire from the age of five.
But if any club had the desire and foresight to land an international superstar, it was Manchester United. Already with three Ballon d’Or winners in Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, they tried exactly that in 1968, the same year they became the first English club to win the European Cup.
Speaking about it in a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Pele revealed, “I even had a proposal from Manchester United. Yes…1968…their best team. I said no to every team who asked me.”
Pele was, of course, well known to English audiences. On top of his previous World Cup successes, he had played in England at the 1966 tournament, with the Brazil team based in Liverpool.
But United’s approach was kept quiet at the time, with even the players in the existing unaware of Sir Matt Busby’s ambitious intentions until Pele himself spoke about it decades later.
In the end, Pele remained a Santos player until 1974, by which time he was 34. But, having spent years turning down offers in Europe, he did eventually head elsewhere before retiring altogether – his international career had already finished in 1971.
Pele spent his final three years as a professional footballer with New York Cosmos in the glitzy but ultimately flawed and short-lived North American Soccer League, the same league that also attracted the likes of Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and others.