The lives of most football fans can be measured out in World Cups. My first was Italia '90, memorable for Pavarotti, Gazza's tears, and the genesis of England's penalty shoot-out woes. That year's instalment had everything required to hook a young boy on to the beautiful game, even if the level of artistry on show did not quite live up to that branding. As far as I was concerned, this was as good as it gets.
Yet as I grew to become a keen student of the world's most popular sport, I learnt of earlier tournaments that seemed to resonate with similar potency; that sum up what dewy-eyed pundits mean when they talk about "the beautiful game". Tournaments where we witnessed extraordinary feats of footballing derring-do, such as Holland's glorious failure in 1974; Maradona inspiring Argentina's 1986 triumph, and, familiar to us all, the swashbuckling victory of Bobby Moore's England side 20 years earlier.
One tournament has always stood head and shoulders above the others, though. In 1970, the eyes of the sporting world were drawn to Mexico, whence the spectacle of the World Cup was brought for the first time by colour television to millions of viewers in Europe and in the Americas. The events of that summer marked, arguably, the crowning moment in the wonderful history of football's greatest ever team.
That team was Brazil, resplendent in their bright yellow jerseys, and boasting some of the game's true luminaries: Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Gerson, Tostao and, the greatest of all, Pele. Their journey to the final in Mexico was breathlessly assured, and almost staggeringly comfortable – aside from narrow victory over reigning champions, England, in an encounter later compared to a chess match for its tactical fortitude, and described as the finest football game ever seen.
The final, against Italy, was one of those occasions that a generation of sports fans remember as if it were yesterday, and about which an improbable number have since claimed "I was there." Played in the harsh conditions of a Mexico City heatwave, the Brazilians served up a sublime display of attacking football, winning 4-1 and lifting the World Cup for a third time.
Just like Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's epic "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire four years later, Brazil's performance set a new benchmark for their sport, one that may never be surpassed.
Fast forward 35 years. In 2005, my employer, Gloria, a high-end publishing house, secured the rights to produce a giant-sized, limited-edition version of Pele's official autobiography. Each volume would be hand-signed by the man himself and contain autobiographical text, plus rarely seen images and newly commissioned journalism by eminent football writers.
The book would be marketed as a "sports collectable" for lovers of the game, to whom Pele still represents football's single most transcendent figure. With this in mind – and knowing that the 1970 tournament, and the final in particular, were seminal landmarks in Pele's career – we decided to dedicate one chapter to the games leading up to the final, and then another entirely to that climactic encounter, which we would bill as "The Match" (with a literary nod to Norman Mailer's brilliant account of Ali/ Foreman, The Fight).
Then we hit on a brainwave: what if we were to track down the surviving members of that Brazil team, get them to sign prints of an iconic image from 1970, then include the prints in a special edition of our book. Trawling through the online photo archives, we soon found the ideal shot: the Brazil and Italy teams lining up on the pitch before the final, taken at ground level, at a 45-degree angle. The Brazilians are in the foreground, with every player looking straight ahead, apart from Pele, who is glancing at the camera. It was simply perfect.
We swiftly reproduced 150 of these prints, and got our calculators out to decide how the project would work. We would include the images in a package containing a "Carnival" edition of our book, limited to 150 units, at a mark-up price of £4,000 (the standard "Samba" edition, limited to 2,350 units, would retail at £2,000). All that was left was to get the signatures.
So off we set in search of the autographs of 11 of the most famous men in sport, all of whom lived on the other side of the world. Pele's signature proved, by some distance, the easiest to obtain. He had already agreed to sign 2,500 signature sheets to be placed in the front-end of every book, and had no objection to adding his famous autograph to our additional 150 prints.
With signature number one in the bag, the hunt was on for the remaining nine players and their coach, Mario Zagallo, a man regarded as the grandfather of Brazilian football (Everaldo had died in a car crash in 1974). We had already forged links with numerous important contacts in Brazil including journalists, photographers, former players, and also sought the counsel of a Scottish-born journalist, Andrew Downie, based in Rio de Janeiro, who had previously interviewed several team members.
Downie had phone numbers for most of them, and was confident he could contact the rest with relative ease. We instructed him to sound out each player, offering them a substantial (in Brazilian terms) $1,000 for what amounted to half-an-hour's work signing the sheets. We decided that it would be prudent to insist that every player receive the same fee.
A few days later, we had received three affirmatives – the rest, we hoped, would follow. The next step was to decide how physically to get the prints signed. We had already learnt that the entire team would be coming to Europe the following summer as Fifa guests of honour at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and thought it might be feasible to pin them all down for a couple of hours.
Then news came through that one player, Jairzinho, was playing hardball. "I know my market value," he told our mediator. He wanted an eye-watering $10,000 for his autographs. Even worse, he appeared to be uninterested in negotiation, and had twice hung up the phone on our man. Since we had already begun marketing the project and pre-orders were trickling in, it now seemed foolish to hope things would fall into place at Germany 2006. There seemed no choice but to head for Brazil, start getting as many signatures as possible, then tackle Jairzinho and any other dissenters on a piecemeal basis.
The boss approached me and asked if I would be confident making the trip. Gloria publishing's in-house team was small, and given the potential value of the prints, he needed to send someone he trusted. That was what he told me, at least. My emotions were mixed: on one hand, this was a once-in-a-lifetime, sit-the-grandchildren-on-your-knee opportunity; on the other, I knew that on the other side of the Atlantic lay a great deal of uncertainty, and many opportunities to mess things up.
So I said yes.
The Brazilian reputation for conviviality is legendary, but as my plane descended into Galeao International Airport, Rio de Janeiro, I was still surprised to be greeted by a hail of fireworks going off across the city.
Disappointingly, the pyrotechnics were not in honour of my arrival. In fact, they had been intended to celebrate Brazil's progress to the semi-finals of the World Cup, being played out thousands of miles away in Frankfurt. But their opponents France hadn't read the script, and at almost the same moment that my plane screeched to a halt, so had Brazil's hopes of lifting the trophy for a sixth time. A fellow passenger helpfully explained that the release of fireworks was the standard Brazilian reflex to a national tragedy, as well as a mark of jubilation. Another commented, less helpfully, that this was only to disguise the gunshots.
Either way, as a "gringo" it was hardly the ideal time to be in town. I just hoped Carlos Alberto Torres, captain of the 1970 team and a famous face across Brazil, would still be in a mood to see me. Our journalist friend Andrew had fixed it for me to visit Carlos Alberto's home in Barra, on the outskirts of the city, the next day.
In a taxi the following evening, my companion, Patricia, a local girl who I knew from a previous visit to the continent, explained why Barra had become home to most of the successful retired footballers in Rio. Lined with condominiums, gated communities and duplex developments, what it lacks in public space it makes up for in safety. It also offers a degree of anonymity that is impossible among the tourist hordes and pulsating mayhem of the more-famous Ipanema and Copacabana neighbourhoods.
Carlos Alberto's flash pad boasted a security barrier and 24-hour warden at the entrance. It took 20 minutes of small talk in his opulent living room before I summoned the courage to ask if he would mind awfully washing his hands before signing the prints. It was supper time and the aroma of Brazilian home-cooking wafted through from the kitchen. I got the feeling he had expected my stay to be brief.
"I need to sign how many? Oof, I'll sleep like a baby tonight!"
Whilst signing, Carlos Alberto talked about the ills of modern football. Just a day after Brazil's World Cup exit the post-mortem had already begun. He was convinced that the inflated wages received by today's players had killed their passion for the game. It became a common theme among the ex-players I would meet.
Next stop was the urban chaos of Sao Paulo to meet Felix, Brazil's goalkeeper of 1970. If someone were to draw a prototype of a World Cup-winner, it's unlikely he would be used as a template: short, stocky and with a posture so hunched it would send a chiropractor's heart into palpitations, I could scarcely believe that he served as the last line of defence in the greatest team in history.
In the foyer of a downtown hotel, I unveiled the prints. There was also the small matter of his fee to sort out, with unchanged travellers' cheques burning a hole in my pocket. As he put pen to paper, I headed out to the bank.
The scene on my return nearly fast-tracked me to a cardiac arrest: littered across the foyer were my precious prints. Hotel guests had been drawn over by the presence of a legend and a number had taken a keen interest in them. Like a teacher restoring order in an unruly classroom, I hurriedly collected up the treasured documents and ushered away our well-meaning but wholly unwelcome audience.
With calm restored, Felix completed his duties, and after posing for photos with him and the prints, he asked if I could email the pictures to his daughter. The normality of the request was striking. Perhaps this was the truth of greatness: the closer that you get to it, the more ordinary it becomes.
Next stop: Santos. For any true Pele devotee, this town, where he spent his entire 18-year Brazilian career, should represent an experience of religious significance. My own trip to the picturesque seaside resort, one hour's drive from Sao Paulo, had a more prosaic importance: I was due to meet Clodoaldo, the elegant defender, at his beachside home. As my taxi made its way towards the seafront, I noticed a sign to the Santos stadium and asked my driver if we could stop. Then I strolled around its battered walls with the same earnest fascination usually reserved for ancient Greek ruins.
Back in the taxi, we were soon pulling up outside Clodoaldo's home, where he was milling around in his front garden. He is a striking looking man with movie-star qualities – an ageing Antonio Banderas sprung to mind – and is as graceful today as he was on the pitch. He took the prints inside, but without an explicit invitation to join him, so I waited by the front gate until he'd finished.
In Sao Paulo the following day, I received news of Rivelino, owner of perhaps the most famous moustache in football. He wanted to meet me before signing, to hear about the project and understand exactly what he was getting involved in. He suggested I come to his bar later that evening for a chat.
Sitting in the corner of the boozer in Sao Paulo's Boa Vista district, Rivelino cut a godfather-like figure. A steady stream of patrons approached his table, to whisper something in his ear, or sometimes just to shake his hand or kiss the top of his head. He was stand-offish at first and wanted to know why we needed him for a book on Pele. I explained our wish to create a special collector's item to commemorate that wonderful team, and he began to warm up. He said he'd be happy to sign at a later date, but would first speak to some of his former team-mates to ensure everything was in order.
With business, dealt with, the table was suddenly flowing with regional delights. Rivelino encouraged me to sample the local beverages and I felt a glow of satisfaction at my surroundings – food and drink in ample supply, live music in the corner and a living legend for company.
His English was adequate and we chatted about football, Pele and even, briefly, women. With a raised eyebrow, he asked if I'd met any girls in Brazil so far. I neatly diverted the conversation to football and asked him which English players he liked.
"Rooney, he's the man!", he enthused. "I wish we had some players like him in Brazil. He has talent, but also he has passion!" I'm sure with a little more time we would have got on to existential crises, but after a couple of hours I decided to make my excuses and leave. He had been a fine host, but with unfinished business between us, my instinct was to quit while ahead.
As our taxi rolled through the sidestreets of Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro's more sedate neighbour across the Guanabara Bay, I reflected on my trip so far. Despite all the problems I had anticipated, everything had mostly gone to plan. But all that was about to change, thanks to Gerson de Oliveira Nunes, the former midfielder who now runs Projeto Gerson, a charity providing school facilities for 600 underprivileged children, founded after the death of his daughter some years ago.
After a quick tour of the premises, Gerson shared with us his forthright view that Pele had for too long milked the success of 1970 for his own financial gain, with the rest of the team left to pick up the scraps. He wanted no part of our project, and suddenly we had a problem. Stumped for ideas, I called our publisher, who made a brilliant suggestion that we hoped would tug at Gerson's heartstrings and compensate his negative opinion of Pele: how about if we published a small, illustrated book on his charity?
His eyes instantly lit up. Bizarrely, having refused point blank just minutes earlier, he agreed to sign the next day on the proviso that a contract was drafted by early morning, incorporating the book pledge. I exchanged further frantic calls with the boss back home – where it was already 2am – and he promised to have the contract emailed by the morning. Job done.
The following morning, good vibes took a hit with news that Mario Zagallo, the head coach in 1970, was so depressed about Brazil's World Cup exit that he wanted some time alone. He would sign, we were told, just not yet. To compound things, more bad news arrived of my drinking buddy, Rivelino, who was holding out for more money. For us it was important that everyone received the same fee – and it stuck in the throat that a man who'd done particularly well since his playing days, running a popular soccer school, would choose not to respect this.
Hercules Brito Ruas, by contrast, had no intention of holding us to ransom. The former defender, known as "Brito", had been calling our man on a daily basis, asking when he could sign. It seemed he needed the cash. With Zagallo stalling and Rivelino playing hard-ball, I headed to the Rio outskirts to meet Brito. A day later, Wilson da Silva Piazza, another defender from 1970, also signed.
With seven down, and four signatures still to get, and Zagallo remaining incommunicado, my boss decided I should come home for a rethink. Back in England, with no apparent alternative, he resolved to offer a higher fee to the dissenting players.
Our intermediary contacted Rivelino and Jairzinho, scorer of Brazil's winner against England in 1970, who was still demanding more money, and they both agreed to roughly double the amount the others had received. Meanwhile, Zagallo had emerged from his pit of despair and agreed to sign, for a comparatively nominal fee. (We reasoned that as coach he was not integral to the project; plus, he was already a wealthy man.)
A week later, with personal commitments preventing me from making a return trip, my colleague James headed back to Brazil and the three signings went without a hitch. But one outstanding issue still remained that would give our bold adventure a final, dramatic twist.
Of all the 1970 team, the most enigmatic and complex character undoubtedly belongs to Dr Eduardo Goncalves de Andrade, known since his youth as "Tostao", meaning "little coin".
His post-playing life has spanned two careers: one as a physician and the other, more recent one, as a noted and highly cerebral national football columnist in Brazil. He is singularly detached from the world of commerce and is extremely private, living in the low-key city of Belo Horizonte. We made the error of creating two openings to meet: through the usual intermediaries and through his former colleagues. Far from being persuaded, he walked away from the project, feeling badgered and refusing all contact with us.
Our publisher spent the weekend writing an eight-page letter to Tostao – I guessed the subtext of which was that we were dead without him. We enlisted José Werneck, the renowed sports commentator on the American cable television network ESPN, to call him a week later. After a friendly call, he refused to talk further on the issue and the answer looked again like an emphatic "no".
His resistance was clear. After years of facing an onslaught of 1970-team mania, he had no interest in being another cog in the sporting memorabilia world. We knew Tostao was logical, so we followed another tack: mathematics. What if we were to pro rata the profits attributable from the prints, work out the value of the Tostao share that we will generate and allocate in advance all of that share to charity?
We made yet another approach to the man in Belo Horizonte; we were now limited to sending formal letters, written first in English and translated into Portuguese (he'd made clear to Werneck: "no calls, no emails, no one appearing at my door again"). We waited two weeks: no response.
Finally, one Monday, we got one, by email from an "E Andrade" email address.
"OK, I will sign your photos. With the following terms: if you make contribution of all my fees (and the profits from my name) to five Brazilian charities, with a pre-agreed day and hour for me to sign, but after you have paid the money to them. Then come to my town. I can meet your emissary only to take the photos and not to talk to him, the pictures will be signed and returned to you. Tostao." Say what you like about Tostao, he was clearly a man who decided about things in his own time, and certainly on his own terms.
The charities turned out to be: Gerson's Instituto Canhotinha de Ouro, APAE de Sao Paulo (the Association of the Parents and Friends of the Handicapped), Fundacao Gol de Letra (created by the ex-Brazilian players Rai and Leonardo), Hospital Mario Pena in Tostao's home town (which treats cancer sufferers too poor to afford regular treatment) and Fundacao Cafu, created, of course, by Brazilian star Cafu, in São Paulo.
And so, once again I made the 16-hour journey back across the Atlantic to Sao Paulo, then straight on to an internal flight to Belo Horizonte. In a taxi, I told the driver my destination, but he looked perplexed. It seemed that Tostao's choice of abode was not a familiar one.
Eventually, map in hand, we began a dramatic ascent into the hills that surround Belo Horizonte. As we got higher, the impression of Tostao as a reclusive figure was confirmed. After negotiating various manned security barriers we reached his house. I knocked on the door, expecting a chamber maid or family member to answer; but to my surprise it was Tostao and, even more shocking, he was smiling.
He invited me in and, before anything else, I handed over the charitable receipts. The retinal injury that curtailed his career had left him partially cross-eyed; a middle-aged paunch and fuzzy grey hair gave him the appearance of a loveable uncle. He sat down to sign the prints, and I reflected on the enormity (as well as the eccentricity) of his gesture. By effectively turning down a blank cheque for his own pocket, he had displayed the rarest example of human kindness. And there, at the very end of my journey, I reflected that this single gesture provided the most fitting reminder of the spirit of 1970.
'Pelé' is published by Gloria. The Carnival edition, signed by the 1970 Brazilians, has sold out, but there remains a waiting list for interested parties, as inquiries can be directed to resellers. The regular Samba edition is also available at £2,000, signed by Pele only. Go to www. number10 shirt.com, or call 0870 279 7353
Where are they now?
Birth name: Felix Mialli Venerando
Born: 24 December 1937, Sao Paulo
Felix – Signed in a hotel near his home in downtown Sao Paulo
Today, Felix remains in Sao Paulo where he supervises a city-sponsored programme that teaches sport to underprivileged children in Sao Paulo's favelas.
Birth name: Hercules Brito Ruas
Born: 9 August 1939, Rio de Janeiro
Brito signed at home in Ilha do Governador, a suburb outside Rio
Hung up his boots in 1979, worked as a coach and trainer in Brazil and the Middle East. Now retired and spends his time at home on Ilha do Governador, located 20km outside of Rio de Janeiro.
Birth name: Eduardo Goncalves de Andrade
Born: 25 January 1947, Belo Horizonte
Tostao signed at his home in the hills of Belo Horizonte
Tostao, a qualified medical doctor, lives in Belo Horizonte. He writes a bi-weekly football column for Brazil's biggest-selling newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo.
Birth name: Carlos Alberto Torres
Born: 17 July 1944, Rio de Janeiro
Carlos Alberto signed at home in Barra, an exclusive suburb of Rio popular with retired footballers
Carlos Alberto lives in the Rio district of Barra. Post-football, he served as a local councillor. Later coached Brazilian club Flamengo and the Azerbaijan national team. He now promotes the Brazilian airline Varig and makes trips to Europe.
Birth name: Jair Ventura Filho
Born: 25 December 1944, Rio de Janeiro
Jairzinho signed at home in Rio
Jairzinho now lives in Barra, in Rio de Janeiro, where he works as a soccer coach for children.
Birth name: Gerson de Oliveira Nunes
Born: 11 January 1941
Gerson signed at the headquarters of his charity in Niteroi, near Rio de Janeiro
Today, Gerson lives in Niteroi, where he works as an administrator for local government. He dedicates most of his time to Projeto Gerson, a social project that provides underprivileged children with free access to sports facilities and tuition. He also provides football analysis for Brazilian television and radio.
Birth name: Wilson da Silva Piazza
Born: 25 February 1943, Minas Gerais
Piazza signed at the office of his financial advice company in Belo Horizonte
Today Piazza lives in Belo Horizonte where he runs an organisation that provides advice and financial incentives for footballers looking to secure their future post-retirement. He also owns a couple of petrol stations.
Birth name: Roberto Rivelino
Born: 1 January 1946, Sao Paulo
Rivelino signed in the office of his soccer school in Sao Paulo
Rivelino remains in Sao Paulo, where he runs a thriving soccer school. He also owns a bar in the city and makes regular television appearances as a football pundit.
Birth name: Clodoaldo Tavares de Santana
Born: 26 September 1949, Aracaju
Clodoaldo signed at home in the seaside city of Santos
Clodoaldo lives in Santos, one hour's drive south of Sao Paulo, where he buys and sells property.
Mario Zagallo (coach)
Birth name: Mario Jorge Lobo Zagallo
Born: 9 August 1931, Maceio
Zagallo signed at his apartment in Barra, near Rio de Janeiro
Zagallo served as assistant coach to the Brazil national team at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany. Now aged 76, he is no longer active in daily football management.
Birth name: Everaldo Marques da Silva
Born: 11 September 1944, Porto Alegre
The only member of the side to have died, Everaldo perished in a car crash in his hometown of Porto Alegre in 1977, aged 33.
Birth name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento
Born: 23 October 1940, Minas Gerais
Pele signed on a trip to London
Pele lives in Sao Paulo but has a home in New York and a family ranch outside Sao Paulo. While he has taken a step back in recent years, he maintains business interests including relationships with MasterCard and, recently, the sportswear group Puma. He travels the world as a football ambassador, appearing at the opening ceremony of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies