England were in Rio de Janeiro when Sir Alf Ramsey summoned Alan Mullery and issued instructions to keep Pele quiet.
‘If you’d seen any of Alf’s press conferences, you’d know he wasn’t a man who said a lot,’ Mullery tells Sportsmail. ‘He took me aside and said, “Get out there and get in his shorts, follow him everywhere because if they lose him and we lose you, we’ll win”.
‘I followed him everywhere and when half-time came, I followed him into Brazil’s dressing room. When I came out, Alf wanted to know where I’d been. I told him I’d been doing what he asked!’
Alan Mullery was tasked with shackling Pele when England played Brazil at the 1970 World Cup
Former Tottenham player Mullery poses with one of Brazilian legend Pele’s iconic shirts
This was the Maracana Stadium in June 1969, a 2-1 Brazil win before a fervent crowd, officially recorded at 135,000, although Mullery is convinced there were closer to 200,000 crammed into the stands and the terraces.
Ramsey’s world champions were touring South America, playing friendlies in preparation for the defence of the title in Mexico, 12 months later, when England and Brazil would meet once again in the searing heat of Guadalajara.
Again, Mullery was tasked with shackling a genius. ‘It was a nightmare really, in one respect, but thoroughly enjoyable in another, to have the privilege of playing against the best player in the world,’ says the 81-year-old former Fulham and Tottenham midfielder, who won 35 England caps.
‘Everything they’re saying about the great Pele is true. He had it all. He could play anywhere. Two good feet, explosive off the mark and you didn’t know whether he would go one way or the other, he turned you around. He was powerful, well built, all muscle, good in the air.
Brazil beat England in Guadalajara despite Gordon Banks’ incredible save as Mullery (right) watches on
‘I did a reasonable job on him but you can’t stop him for ever. In those couple of games, he didn’t do a lot.
‘He didn’t like people marking him tightly. I wasn’t giving him the sort of treatment he suffered in the 1966 World Cup against Portugal, when they kicked him out of it. I didn’t go that far.
‘I caught him a few times, but nothing nasty and he’d get up with a big smile on his face, laughing as though he was thinking, “Is that the best you can do?”’
England’s clash with Brazil in Mexico was the defending champions against the World Cup winners from 1958 and 1962, and Ramsey’s squad was considered stronger than it had been in 1966.
The game created some of the most iconic images of the era, such as the photograph of Bobby Moore and Pele exchanging shirts, smiling in mutual respect, and the save by Gordon Banks often cited as the best ever.
‘The Banks save was phenomenal,’ agrees Mullery. ‘The greatest save in the world to stop Pele, the greatest player in the world.
‘The ball was crossed to the back post and Pele climbed high, near to where I was standing between two players. Up he jumped and whoosh, headed the ball down into the ground as all the very good players would do.
Football icon Pele died at the age of 82 on Thursday following a battle with colon cancer
‘Pele was shouting, “Goal!” as soon as he’d headed the ball. Banks had dived from one post to the other and got his fingers under the ball. Somehow he turned it over the bar. I went over, gave him a pat on the head and said, “Why didn’t you catch it Banksy?” That’s when he gave me a volley of abuse.’
Brazil won 1-0, with a goal by Jairzinho, and went on to win the World Cup as England wilted in Mexico’s heat and altitude.
‘It was very, very hot when we played Brazil, over 100 degrees in the shade,’ recalls Mullery. ‘The altitude was over 5,000 feet. There were no water breaks. You had to get to half-time and take on as much water as you could but it was a losing battle.
Pele presents Fulham captain Mullery with a watch to commemorate their past meetings
‘I lost about a stone in weight from 12 stone 12 to 11 something, and stayed in bed for days after that game.’
Mullery and Pele would meet one more time on the pitch, albeit in less competitive circumstances as the Santos world tour stopped at Fulham in March 1973.
‘I met him off the coach as soon as Santos arrived at Fulham,’ he says. ‘He gave me a great big hug and his English was very good at the time. He was a lovely man, a gentleman. I saw him spend 45 minutes signing autographs and posing for pictures.
‘We talked about the World Cup but this was a charity game and I told him I was going to push the ball through his legs during the game.
‘He just laughed and said, “No chance”. In the dressing room, I told our lads if I managed to get the ball through Pele’s legs they all had to put a tenner in for the charity.
‘Sixty or 70 minutes in, I made this pass and it went between his legs. I laughed and said I’d warned him so. I even got the money from the lads and it went to charity.’