Brian Viner: Sign of the times when Pele preached love and Ali gave a performance to remember

In my modest sportswriting career I have accumulated a few autographed bits and pieces, mainly to give to my children. It is one of the privileges of the job, though I confess I felt a bit of a heel, having asked Alan Shearer at the end of our interview to autograph a football for my son Joe, then to give him some gentle ribbing in the piece I subsequently wrote, for saying scarcely anything worth reporting. Still, I got over it.

Between them, my sons have the football signed by Shearer, a rugby ball signed by Martin Johnson, cricket balls signed by Shane Warne and Monty Panesar, and bats signed by Sir Garfield Sobers, Brian Lara and Freddie Flintoff. Their autograph books are full, too. Sugar Ray Leonard called them both "my li'l champ", which they enjoyed. My daughter has done less well out of my sporting connections, although on the trip to Los Angeles to interview Leonard I did wind up sharing a limousine with the former S Club 7 star Rachel Stevens. Eleanor, who would have been underwhelmed with Sugar Ray's autograph, was chuffed to bits with Rachel's.

I enjoy bringing autographs home for my kids because it reminds me of my late father doing the same for me. He used to go to sporting dinners at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, and got me John Conteh, Terry Biddlecombe and Peter O'Sullevan, who kept company in my autograph book with the man who'd played Widow Twanky in an amateur production of Aladdin I'd greatly enjoyed. The same kind of eclecticism prevails in my own children's autograph books. Joe has Wayne Rooney on the opposite page from Minnie Mouse.

Anyway, all this is by way of an introduction to what I really wanted to write about this week, which is my own childlike delight to be given a book autographed by one of the two or three most famous sportsmen on earth, a man whose name I managed to work into the title of my own memoir about growing up in the 1970s as a sports nut. Apart from the fact that his name appears on the cover of both my book and his, Pele and I don't have much in common. But we do share a publisher, Simon & Schuster, and when they published his autobiography in May last year I was invited to its launch at the Brazilian embassy in London. Regrettably, I couldn't go, but my editor, the estimable Andrew Gordon, got the great man to inscribe a copy for me. It says "Brian, good luck, Pele" and is one of my most treasured possessions.

On Monday it will be 30 years since Pele, three weeks before his 37th birthday, played his final game as a professional footballer. He played a half each for Santos and New York Cosmos, the only two clubs for which he'd ever signed contracts, in front of 75,000 people at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Needless to say he scored, although only for Cosmos, who won 2-1. It was the 1,283rd and last goal of a 1,367-game career, a scoring record that nobody else has come remotely close to matching.

Afterwards, tears coursing down his cheeks, Pele made a speech from the middle of the pitch, which ended with the words "Love! Love! Love!" In his book he records that a Brazilian singer called Caetano Veloso later wrote a song inspired by that moment. Apparently, the chorus goes "Pele said 'Love! Love! Love!'", which I'm sure sounds better in Portuguese. Whatever, he adds that, "of all the songs written about me I think that one touches me the most". How extraordinary for a sportsman, any sportsman, to be able to trawl through "all" the songs written about him to find the most poignant.

Anyway, that evening there was a party at the Plaza in Manhattan, attended by Carlos Alberto, Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer and Muhammad Ali, among other sporting glitterati. Henry Kissinger wormed his way in as well. Never mind the Michael Douglas-Catherine Zeta Jones wedding reception years later at the venue, there's only one party at the Plaza to which I wish I'd inveigled tickets.

It was the social highlight of a remarkable few days in the sporting calendar. On the Thursday – 30 years ago today – Ali fought and narrowly beat Earnie Shavers at Madison Square Garden, an occasion my colleague James Lawton has described to me more than once as the most memorable in all his years as a sports writer. On the Saturday, Pele's final match took place. And on the Sunday, James Hunt won the United States Grand Prix for the second year in succession at Watkins Glen in New York State, holding off a charging Mario Andretti. It was the final race of the Formula One season, and confirmed fourth-placed Niki Lauda as world champion, the culmination of his astounding comeback following the horrific injuries he'd suffered at the Nürburgring the year before. At all three of these remarkable events was James Lawton, with his notebook. I must get him to autograph it for me.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

Who I Like This Week...

Mark Ramprakash, who averaged over 100 in first-class cricket this year, becoming the first player in history to average more than 100 in consecutive English seasons. He continues to confound the ageing process by scaling new heights, and even an old foe of his, Justin Langer, told me recently that in his opinion England would have had a less torrid Ashes campaign last winter had someone been imaginative enough to send for "Ramps" once Marcus Trescothick had left the tour. Others say that he has had enough chances for England; I disagree. The guiding principle of international sport should be this: never look a form horse in the mouth.

And Who I Don't

The FIA president, Max Mosley, an urbane man of great charm, who has blotted his copybook twice in recent weeks. He shouldn't have tried to squeeze some personal kudos out of a lamentable situation by saying that, had it been down to him alone, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso would have been booted out of the drivers' championship this year. Nor does he get any points for calling Sir Jackie Stewart, as he did this week, a "figure of fun" and "a certified halfwit".

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