My life peaked a week last Tuesday. The lift door opened on the first floor of our hotel in Berlin and, as I got in, a man got out: Pele. I instantly realised he'd made what Alan Hansen would call a schoolboy error - he thought it was the lobby. I heard myself say "Pele! I think you're on the wrong floor, I think you want the lobby, don't you?" It sounded daft, addressing him as Pele, but Mr Pele would have sounded dafter and, while I did painstakingly learn how to say his full name when I was at school, I've forgotten it. Pele just smiled and nodded and got back in the lift. The doors closed.
So there we were, just Pele and I in a lift together for one whole floor - so much to talk about and so little time. I needed a conversation opener. What could I possibly say that he would be remotely interested in? Ordinarily nothing, but here in this marvellous World Cup world I've been living in for a month, all things are possible: Pele and I have a mutual friend. "Leonardo," I spluttered. "Leonardo. I'm working with Leonardo."
"Ah," said Pele in Pele's voice, "send him my best wishes." He patted me on the arm, smiled and walked away.
This was the first sighting by anyone on our team of the great man but since then there have been many encounters. Alan Hansen's been alone in the gym with him. Manish Bhasin's seen him coming out of the room opposite his, and we've all spotted him in the bar or restaurant at some time or other. But the clear winner of the BBC Pele-spotting competition is Ray Stubbs. He was sitting in the sauna having a good think about things when a movement the other side of the glass door brought him to. The great man was standing there in his tracksuit. Ray sprang up, jumped out and shook Pele enthusiastically by the hand. So next time you see film of Pele's genius just remind yourself that one day that man went on to see Ray Stubbs with no clothes on.
Over the last month I've been stunned into silence so many times I've often wondered if I'd be able to broadcast at all. I've been to thousands of matches but I've never experienced anything like Croatia v Brazil at the Olympic Stadium here in Berlin. Supersensory is the only way of describing it - the noise was prodigious; the colours were so vivid - the red and white checks of Croatia and the yellow of Brazil and, to borrow a Blairism, in that stadium the hand of history is always on your shoulder.
The thing about Berlin is that, set against the ghastly backcloth of its history, everything is remarkable. For example, I had my hair cut this week by a gay German Asian. Though he didn't speak a word of English, he did manage to convey his astonishment at the hairiness of my ears. But there we were, in a salon just off Unter Den Linden, a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, Hitler's bunker. What would Adolf have made of a gay German Asian snipping happily away there? I smiled at Khan and he smiled back.
Everyone has been smiling. "The trouble with Berliners," our fixer, Mikaela, said to me, "is that they are not very nice." Well, you could have fooled us. "Man, they're killing me with kindness," said Ian Wright one day. "I'm beginning to crave a bit of rudeness, just a little bit," said Lee Dixon. I knew what Lee meant: in the end you just can't compete with their kindness, you run out of ways of responding and so eventually you start to feel unworthy.
Last Sunday I got back to my room after breakfast and was somewhat irritated to find the woman still cleaning it. I slumped on the bed waiting for her to finish. Presently she appeared before me, anxiety to please written all over her face. In her right hand were the underpants I'd worn the day before. Bear in mind it was in these self-same underpants that I'd watched England in a penalty shoot-out, presented a live television programme and then sat up most of the night talking to Martin O'Neill. "Mr Chil-ez," she said, "what would you like me to do with these?"
The goodwill towards the English is amazing. An hour before the first group game against Paraguay I had Sky News on in my hotel room. Somewhat absurdly they had a countdown clock in the corner of the screen ticking down to kick-off, but I must admit I felt a frisson of nervous pleasure as it turned from 1.00 to 0.59.
On my way to the studio I stopped off at a mobile phone shop to buy some units. As the German bloke behind the counter handed me the card he said: "Just 40 minutes to go now for you. Good luck!"
I've had to watch most of the matches in our studio. Obviously I'd rather have been at the grounds, I think, but I'm not sure. It's a rare privilege to sit around watching football with the likes of Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen, Alan Shearer, Gordon Strachan, Martin O'Neill and Iain Dowie. Every football fan should get a chance to do this, to hear their insight, their angle on things. As Germany v Argentina headed towards penalties I swear Shearer was physically feeling their fear, their nerves. He was living it all over again.
And during England against Sweden I was truly agog. Michael Owen, to everyone's horror, had just been taken off on a stretcher. Within 10 minutes Shearer's mobile bleeped. It was a text from Owen. Now, journalistically, that's what I call being close to the story.
It's been fascinating to watch these players being fans. I know a lot of fans and quite a few players and managers, and I've yet to meet a fan who really understands what players go through. Equally, I've never met a player who knows what it really feels like to be a fan. But here, watching England games, they came close to understanding. At one point during the ghastly first 82 minutes of the Trinidad & Tobago match Gary Lineker turned to me and asked, "Is this really what it's like?"
"How do you mean?"
"Is this really what it feels like all the time to be a fan?"
I nodded and he shook his head: "I don't know how you get through it."
In Munich, on Wednesday night, Marcel Desailly was going through the mill, too. I watched the game, as you do, with two World Cup winners, Marcel and Brazil's Leonardo. We were sitting just behind the Portuguese bench and could hear every word their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, was saying. Leonardo gave me a running translation.
Here, thanks to our Anglo-Brazilian espionage work, is some insight into what the great man had to say: quite early, Meira tried a trick under pressure in his own penalty area, earning a hearty bollocking from Big Phil. "What's he saying?" I asked Leo.
"He's telling him to keep it easy, how you say?"
There was a quick row with Ronaldo, who in the first half was working the far wing from us. After about half an hour he came over and made some plaintive noises at his manager. "He's saying, 'Ýhere is no space over there, there are too many players, I need more space'," explained Leo, who couldn't quite hear what Big Phil had to say in return but suspected it was something along the lines of, "Get on with it.". However, it must have been, "OK, swap with Figo then", because a minute later Figo was huffing and puffing on the congested far wing while Ronaldo roamed more freely near us.
And in the second half, when Ronaldo was magnificent enough to have Marcel cooing with pleasure, Scolari said something to him which made Leo laugh. This turned out to be untranslatable but was a quaint form of endearment commonly used in the small town in South Brazil whence Scolari comes.
What, I thought, could top this? I decided that a touch of the ball would be nice. On 84 minutes, precisely, Ricardo hooked a goal-kick. It bounced once, about 20 feet away right in front of Scolari, and at that glorious moment I just knew it had my name on it. I rose like a salmon from my seat and nodded it neatly into the arms of one of the Portuguese subs. "My friend," said Marcel, "you are now famous all around the world."
One day, some day, I'll wash my forehead but it won't be any day soon.Reuse content