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!

Own goal: Prince of Wales supports England

The Prince of Wales – supporting England. FA/PA Wire

No one asked the people of Wales whether they wanted an English prince William to be Prince of Wales in September. We’ve had no say in the matter since England’s Edward I named his son prince of Wales in the 14th century.

So it was no surprise that William didn’t give a moment’s thought before his crass decision to visit the England football team to say “I’m really here to point out that the rest of the country is behind you. We are all rooting for you, enjoy it.”

How could he be so foolish, so insensitive? Did he give no thought to how his actions and comments would be received in Wales? Did none of his advisers tell him to step back from cheerleading England?

It should have been obvious that he should have stepped down as president of the English football association the moment he was named Prince of Wales. Yet he chose to support England, a country in the same group as Wales in the FIFA men’s world cup in Qatar.

it’s time to ditch the anachronistic, imperial title of Prince of Wales. The country is not a principality, but has its own government and parliament, the Senedd. William backtracked today when challenged to the Llwydd of the Senedd: “I’m supporting both [countries] definitely.” He should have thought this through and avoided scoring this spectacular own goal.

Here’s to Cymru’s success in the world cup…

The Falklands war, 40 years on

HMS Ardent explodes, May 1982

I never expected Britain to be at war when I prepared to sit my A levels in 1982. Let alone at war with Argentina over a group of islands 8,000 miles away.

Yet that was the reality as I woke on the morning of Friday 2 April 1982. Barely awake at the start of the last day of the school term, I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme some armchair general talking of nuking Buenos Aires. Later that day, we learned that Argentina had invaded the Falkland islands, one of the few remaining British overseas territories. Margaret Thatcher’s British government was stunned.

Contrary to popular belief, the invasion wasn’t a complete bolt from the blue. Two days earlier. I noted in my 1982 diary: ‘Falkland island crisis worsening: Guardian front page lead’. Yet the legend holds that many people in Britain were shocked, thinking the Falklands were off the coast of Scotland. Recovering them would have been a lot easier had that been true.

Going to war was a novel and shocking experience in 1982, almost 40 years after the end of the second world war. Yet it felt like an echo of the past. I described it in my 1982 diary as Britain’s last colonial war, a description that has stood the test of time. (Although there was no doubt that the islanders wanted to live under British rule.) Several of the warships involved in the Falklands took part in or were laid down during the second world war: the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, sunk by the Royal Navy, survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. In 1982, it was not so lucky. HMS Hermes, the Royal Navy’s Falklands flagship was laid down in 1944. And the RAF Vulcan bombers that flew 8,000 miles to bomb Stanley airfield relied on an updated version of the wartime H2S navigation radar system to find their target.

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COP26: the end of King Coal?

Penrhos Junction, 1920. Gwyn Briwnant Jones, Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

It was a symbol of Welsh industrial might: a locomotive hauling a coal train that seemed to go on for ever. A century ago Welsh steam coal powered the world. Yet Wales has become one of the first countries to join a global coalition of nations aiming to phase out fossil fuels: the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. It’s comes as criticism grows of the weak response of the COP26 climate conference to the climate crisis.

I grew up in Cardiff on tales of King Coal. As I lay in bed I could hear the growl of locomotives hauling coal trains along the old Rhymney Railway line from Caerphilly. And I loved visiting the mock coal mine at the National Museum of Wales – appropriately located in the basement. The museum is in Cardiff’s magnificent civic centre, part of the impressive architectural legacy of the immense wealth created by the coal boom, along with elegant ship and coal owners’ mansions such as Insole Court, Llandaff.

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Flintshire detached: remembering our old counties

Flintshire detached county

Flintshire detached: our old blurred county lines

Forty years ago today, many of Britain’s most cherished counties disappeared under local government reorganisation. The changes also ended a curious historic anomaly: ‘Flintshire detached’: the area of Flintshire, Maelor Saesneg, which was detached from the rest of the county of Flint and surrounded by the Welsh county of Denbigh and the English counties of Shropshire and Chester.

Maelor Saesneg (‘English Maelor’) was one of the very last ‘exclaves‘: detached county territory. Most of these exclaves were tidied up in the 19th century. For example, much of Minety, Wiltshire, was part of neighbouring Gloucestershire until 1844, the year parliament started the tidying process.

I remember being curious about ‘Flintshire detached’ on childhood maps of Wales. I had a reminder of those long-gone days last Sunday on a bike ride in Buckinghamshire. Near Amersham, I passed a handsome property called Hertfordshire House. Its name reveals that it was once in an exclave of Hertfordshire in neighbouring Bucks, centred on the village of Coleshill. Centuries ago, the house was owned by Thomas Ellwood, who held illegal Quaker meetings there, safe in the knowledge that it was too remote for Herts justices of the peace to interfere. (It was Ellwood who rented a cottage for John Milton in Chalfont St Giles, where the great poet lived during London’s great plague of 1665 and completed Paradise Lost.)

Back to 1974. An even greater historical anomaly was Monmouthshire. Until 40 years ago, that border county was regarded by many as technically part of England rather than Wales, having been annexed as an English county following the forced acts of union in the 16th century. The 1974 local government reorganisation in Wales put an end to such nonsense. Never again would acts of parliament refer to South Wales and Monmouthshire.

I was there: the night Jock Stein died

Ticket to tragedy: the night Jock Stein died

Wales are playing Scotland in a FIFA world cup qualifier tonight. It’s a fixture freighted with ill luck for Wales and tragedy for everyone. On a September night 27 years ago, Scotland’s revered manager Jock Stein collapsed and died at Ninian Park after his team qualified for Mexico 1986 at our expense. As Max Boyce would say, I was there.

I had a pitch-side view of the events of that extraordinary night, although I didn’t see Jock himself. I described the experience in my blog five tears ago:

“My friend Anthony Beer and I sold programmes at the dramatic Wales v Scotland World Cup qualifier game at Ninian Park, Cardiff. My diary notes that we were the only sellers inside the ground; we went down the players’ tunnel as the Welsh national anthem was played. We had to exchange programmes for cash through the netting that kept fans from the pitch – not so easy when many fans wanted five or more! We soon ran out of our initial 500 – the Welsh FA had printed just 20,000 programmes for a crowd of 40,000.

“We saw Mark Hughes give Wales an early lead before Scotland snatched a draw through a very dubious penalty, ending Wales’ hopes of playing in the 1986 Mexico finals. Afterwards, we passed Scotland’s Willie Miller being interviewed live on ITV as we took our takings in to the offices under the grandstand next to the dressing room. It was there that we heard that the Scotland manager, Jock Stein, had collapsed. Later, we heard the tragic news that he had died. We collected our £10 seller’s fees and walked out of the ground as an ambulance driver manoeuvred to avoid a Securicor van. Scottish and British football had lost a legend – the first manager to lead a club from these islands to victory in the European Cup.”

PS: Wales won! Cymru am byth. That will help overcome the painful memories of 1977 and 1985.

Cardiff City: why the Bluebirds mustn’t become the red dragons

Blue is the colour: Cardiff City at Millennium play-off, 2003

In the week the traditional 3pm FA Cup final kick off disappeared, another football tradition is under threat. The Malaysian owners of Cardiff City want to turn the club red – and replace the bluebird symbol with a red dragon.

It would not be City’s biggest change. The club said goodbye to Ninian Park three years ago. But there’s something symbolic about a team’s home colours. Can you imagine Liverpool in green or Chelsea in red?

And there’s something lazy and unimaginative about opting for a red dragon symbol. As future Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan argued in the 1990s, in a book about Cardiff called Half-and half a capital, the red dragon symbol was all too often chosen by businesses because “it was safe, bland and reassuring and therefore dead right in modern marketing terms.”

Let’s hope that common sense and tradition prevails.