Remembering Pelé, the world’s greatest footballer

Brazil, and the world, is mourning a legend. The greatest ever footballer, Pelé, has died aged 82.

Meeting a legend: Rob and Pele, London, June 2016

I was privileged to meet Pelé in 2016. He was the star speaker at an event organised by Shell, speaking movingly about his charity work encouraging deprived young people in the favelas of Brazil’s cities.

We met the day before the Wales men’s football team played in the quarter-final of Euro 2016. I commented to Pelé that the last time Wales appeared in a quarter-final he had scored the goal that knocked us out of the 1956 FIFA world cup finals. It was a magical moment: Pelé’s face transformed into a dazzling smile as he remembered the game and tournament that made his reputation.

I will never forget the moment I shared with the true gentleman who was the world’s greatest footballer.

PS: the BBC invited me to talk about my memories of Pelé on the World Service OS programme this evening. I enjoyed hearing of the experiences of the other guests, especially one taking part from India who saw Pelé play in Brazil in 1972 when his ship docked there.

Dewch ymlaen, Cymru!

Talking to Pele about 1958. London, 2016

It’s taken a lifetime. Cymru (Wales) tonight play our first game in the FIFA men’s World Cup finals since Pele knocked us out of the 1958 tournament in Sweden. Pele was 17 years old at the time. He’s now 82. But more on Brazil’s greatest legend later.

Ticket to disappointment

We’re used to heartache and disappointment. I was selling programmes at Ninian Park on the night in 1985 when Scotland denied Wales a place at the 1986 World Cup. I was standing on the touchline with my friend Anthony Beer watching the drama as Wales took the lead early in the game. We seemed to be heading for Mexico until Scotland equalised in the second half. But the drama didn’t end there. As the game ended and we left the ground we saw an ambulance arriving to take Scotland manager Jock Stein to hospital. The legendary coach had collapsed as the game ended, and sadly died that evening.

That wasn’t the first time I’d experienced heartache following Wales. In May 1976 I saw us lose narrowly to England in the old British home international tournament, grabbing the autograph of Southampton’s FA Cup giant killing manager Lawrie McMenemy as a slight consolation. Just weeks later I was back in Ninian Park for the home leg of Wales’s quarter-final against Yugoslavia in the European Nations Cup 1976. We needed to win after losing the first leg, but a draw that day in Cardiff saw us knocked out, a disappointment mixed with shame as hooligans invaded the pitch and pelted the referee with coins. (I watched the scenes with a sinking feeling.) Wales were banned from playing at home, and so the next disappointment, defeat to Scotland in the 1978 World Cup qualifier, took place in Liverpool.

C’mon Cymru!

The great Welsh footballing resurgence began with Euro 2016 in France, when we exceeded everyone’s expectations and reached the semi-finals, losing narrowly to Portugal. The highlight of that campaign was a magnificent 3-1 win over Belgium, with magical goals by Williams, Robson-Kanu and Vokes putting Cymru through to the semis. We also reached the delayed Euro 2020 finals.

All credit to the Wales FA, who have been masterful in linking the national football team with our identity as a nation. It uses the Welsh name Cymru for the team, and brilliantly adopted Dafydd Iwan’s 1980s protest song Yma O Hyd (‘Still Here’) as a second anthem to inspire the team and fans alike. The eve-of-tournament Yma O Hyd video used footage of defining moments in modern Welsh history including the destruction of Welsh village of Tryweryn for a reservoir for Liverpool, the Aberfan tragedy of 1966 and the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

Wales take on the United States in the first game of the campaign. Just think: a nation of three million taking on one with 331 million people! Wales is the second smallest country in the tournament after hosts Qatar.

The tainted tournament

This is one of the most controversial World Cup finals. Back in 2010 many were shocked that FIFA had awarded the tournament to a country with no footballing tradition. The finals are happening in November as Qatar is too hot for football during the normal summer slot. Still worse is the host’s attitude to LGBT people, and women. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, while many migrant workers have suffered injury or death in the construction bonanza the world cup unleashed. The BBC chose to highlight criticisms of Qatar rather than show the opening ceremony yesterday. Today, Wales and England, alongside five other national football associations, abandoned plans for their captains to wear OneLove armbands promoting diversity and inclusion. They caved in after FIFA threatened to book the players, continuing FIFA’s shameful surrender to Qatar’s regime.

The spirit of 1958

I’ll end as I began, with Pele. The night before Wales played Belgium in that 2016 quarter-final I was lucky enough to meet Pele at an event in London, organised by Shell. He spoke eloquently about his work with deprived young people in Brazil. I mentioned that Wales was about to play a quarter-final for the first time since that Wales v Brazil match in 1958, and that he’d scored the winning goal that ended Wales’s World Cup. His eyes lit up as he recalled the tournament that made his reputation. It was a priceless moment.

May the spirit of 1958 light up Cymru’s 2022 World Cup campaign.

PS: Cymru drew 1-1 after Gareth Bale scored an emphatic penalty to level the scores. Ry’n ni yma o hyd!

Cycling to Oxford’s dreaming spires

Oxford

I’ve always liked the idea of cycling to Oxford. It’s just 40 miles from home, making it a realistic adventure. Yet until yesterday I’d never made the journey, despite enjoying the annual Bike Oxford sportive.

It nearly didn’t happen. The forecast was ominous – I was going to get wet. But after a lazy day in the sunshine on Saturday, I shrugged off the easy option, packed a rain jacket and headed to the city of the dreaming spires.

I’d barely gone seven miles before I felt raindrops. I confess I briefly considered cutting the ride short. But today was a day for determination in the face of precipitation. If I’d been riding the London-Wales-London audax (whose route I was largely following to Oxford) I’d have had no choice. So I donned the rain jacket by the Two Hoots sign above between Amersham and Hyde Heath and continued. I was glad I did as the rain wasn’t that heavy, and didn’t last long.

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Surfing at Fiftysomething

Rob tries surfing

For 10 years, I’ve looked admiringly at the surfers cresting the Atlantic waves at Mawgan Porth on our regular Cornish holidays. Watching the groups led by KingSurf surf school heading down the beach, I though I’d love to do that, but feared that at my age I’d only embarrass myself by trying.

Last week, I put my doubts aside and gave it a go. 13 year old Owen and I had two lessons with KingSurf and loved it. We did better on the first lesson, as there were more waves and we had more practice. On the second lesson, we had the benefit of a particularly good instructor, seen in the yellow top below. He noticed that I was instinctively putting my wrong leg forward – something I hadn’t even noticed. Had we had better surf, I think I’d have made more progress. (During the first lesson, I stood up several times – something I never thought I’d manage.)

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David Walsh and Lance Armstrong: truth to tell

It was all about the cheating

Almost 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. His best selling book, It’s Not About the Bike, told the extraordinary tale of the cancer survivor who returned to win the world’s toughest cycle race, the Tour de France.

Back then, I was a modest cyclist (I still am) with dreams of cycling the length of Great Britain, Land’s End to John O’Groats. I was inspired by Armstrong’s story, especially his dedication to training. Yes, I knew all about cycling’s sordid relationship with drugs, notably the 1998 Tour de France’s Festina affair. (Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on this culture in Rough Ride.) But I believed the Armstrong line: he was the most tested cyclist in history. And every one had shown him to be clean. Karen and I followed Armstrong’s annual progress in Le Tour. I wore the US Postal team kit on several cycling holidays.

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Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

Screenshot 2020-07-03 at 15.28.51Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC’s Test Match Special was my summer soundtrack. I loved the ritual of turning on the radio just before 11am in time for the start of play in a test match. It was a treat to hear the rich Hampshire accent of commentator John Arlott, the voice of cricket. Arlott also wrote for The Guardian, taking on the mantle of the legendary Neville Cardus.

The other great name in cricket journalism during the mid 20th century was EW (Jim) Swanton. The two men were chalk and cheese yet Stephen Fay and David Kynaston’s wonderful book Arlott and Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket shows unexpected similarities. Most notably, both men hated racism and were appalled by South Africa’s racist apartheid laws, which segregated races and treated non-whites as second or third class citizens. As pressure grew to cancel South Africa’s 1970 tour of England, Arlott said he would not broadcast tests if the tour went ahead. And Swanton argued strongly that South Africa should field multi-racial teams. That didn’t happen until the 1990s, after the end of apartheid. More on that later.

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Thoughts on Wales beating England to Rugby World Cup knockout stage

Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage

Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage

In the end, the Group of Death proved nothing of the sort for Wales’s Rugby World Cup dreams. I was privileged to watch the victories over Uruguay and Fiji at the Millennium Stadium – but the real glory was our magnificent victory over England at Twickenham last weekend.

I still expected England to beat Australia – they have a good record against the Wallabies – but the hosts were woeful, going down to their worst ever defeat at HQ to Australia. Stuart Lancaster’s obsessive tinkering crashed England’s world cup chariot after just 16 days.

I’m thrilled that Wales are through. It’s extraordinary that a team so decimated with injuries should have the power to overcome tough opponents in England and Fiji. It speaks volumes for team spirit and their extraordinary coach, Warren Gatland, who has now plotted three wins at Twickenham in eight seasons. Australia will be tougher opponents, but that’s no longer a must-win match.

I’m also sorry that England are out. They didn’t deserve to progress, but the tournament is diminished by the host’s departure from their own party. And millions of England fans including many friends are feeling the intense pain of a premature exit. Blame the crazy decision to make the draw almost three years before the opening ceremony. Back in 2012, Wales slipped down the world rankings because we lost an extra autumn international to the Wallabies. As a result, the authorities placed four of the nations ranked in the top 10 on the eve of the tournament – Wales, Australia, England and Fiji – in the same group. Let’s hope they learn the lesson.

Meanwhile, the Welsh party continues!

Cymru am byth!

Cymru am byth!

When Hereford United FC were watched by 35,000

Today’s sad news that Hereford United FC has been wound up in the High Court brought back childhood memories. In April 1976, I was one of 35,000 people who watched the team play Cardiff City at Ninian Park in Cardiff. Hereford were leading the old third division and City were placed second. Cardiff won 2-0 that unforgettable evening.

It was one of my favourite Ninian Park memories. I still have the match programme, signed by members of Cardiff City’s promotion team.

I hope Hereford one day rise from the ashes, like former Welsh Cup rival Newport County.

#putoutyourbats in tribute to Phillip Hughes

Tribiute to Australian cricketer Philip Hughes

#putoutyourbats for Philip Hughes

People around the world were deeply shocked by the tragic death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes. He was struck on the neck by a ball on Tuesday and died two days later.

We’ve grown used to seeing batsmen wearing helmets – but Hughes’ helmet didn’t protect him from this freak accident.

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Bill Shankly Red or Dead

I remember the shock of Bill Shankly’s resignation. I was 10 years old. I’d been to just one league football game. (Cardiff City 0-1 West Brom.) Yet even I realised this was an important moment.

My mind went back to that summer 1974 bombshell this week as I read David Peace’s book about Shankly, Red or Dead. Forty years ago. It was the summer I became truly interested in the game. Travelling back from a family holiday in Dunoon, Scotland, I was intrigued by Shoot magazine’s league ladder. I used it to track Carlisle United’s brief spell at the top of the first division. (I recounted this in my blogpost about the closure of Shoot magazine in 2007.) 

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