Godwin Izilein, captain of the Midwest team, who was defeated 2-1 by a Santos complete with Pelé, in this interview, recounts ‘TANA AIYEJINA how he prevented the Brazilian legend from scoring in an exhibition match played in Benin City in 1969
How did you receive the news of Pelé’s death?
I supervised him the whole time when he was admitted to the hospital. I really felt the loss of him, I felt it because he was a unique legend that should have stuck around to see more development in the game. He was able to impact the game in his time. He was such a unique legend because he would still have been at the point of advising next-gen players on what to do and what not to do. May his soul rest in peace.
You were part of the selected team from the Midwest region that played a Santos coached by Pelé in an exhibition match in 1969. What was the purpose of Santos’ visit to Nigeria at the time?
The main objective was to expose ourselves (the footballers) to excellence, to good football because our football association headed then by Chief Nosakhare Igbinedion and the Military Administrator of the Midwest Region, Samuel Ogbemudia, capitalized on Santos’ visit to Nigeria and they pleaded with the Nigeria Football Association to allow them to come to Benin to play against us. The second purpose was to remove that fear that enveloped everyone because of the Civil War. Before that, we had visited some states like Ibadan, Lagos and Kaduna to preach awareness. So Santos coming back again was to help take the fear out of the people and get everyone out of the nooks and crannies to the stadium in Benin. It was like a carnival, everyone enjoyed it and momentarily forgot about the war.
How did you expect that game, as captain and the man designated to guard Pelé?
It was very exciting and it’s interesting to know that in the first five minutes they were leading 2-0 and the fans were shouting ‘this one is going to reach 20-0’. But during the game, someone was injured, and when we replaced him, I had to assign responsibilities to all the players, but the biggest problem was who will mark Pele? I volunteered, said I’ll mark it since we’re the same height, and reset. So I was never afraid because my co-central defender at the time, Dele Okubore, was a very enterprising footballer who gave me all the encouragement to mark Pelé throughout the time he was on the field. And he didn’t score against us. Around the 70th minute, Pelé left the field of play. There was a ball that he kicked over our heads, if he kicked it, it would have been another goal. So, I just controlled the ball and played it to the corner. After that, Pele took off his shirt and left the pitch. When we got to the guest house after the game, he praised our efforts. That match came and went, but different stories emerged here and there. However, none of those who told the stories were there. Thank God I was there and witnessed it. We played very determinedly to make sure we didn’t fall out of favor on the pitch. The match ended 2-1 after Titus Okere scored a goal for us.
In the stadium, how did the fans receive Pelé and his teammates?
They were excited and applauded Pelé and his teammates. We, the home team, were like the villains, they didn’t even know we were there, they kept cheering on the Brazilians. But we had decided that we were not going to fall out of favor. God heard our prayers, it was 2-1 against us, while the national team was defeated 4-1 by Santos. Edu, Pelé, Lima, Di María from then, all of them, we saw them, they played and they saw that we were just as determined to equalize them.
After the match, did you speak to him personally?
The interpreter called me and Pelé said through him that I had a future; that was the moment I was given the name ‘utility player’. He said that he saw me in front of him, he saw me in the defense and asked me what my real position was. I said I play every position and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re a utility player.’
What impact did the arrival of Pelé have on sport in the region at that time?
It was quite motivating because (Samuel) Ogbemudia said after the visit that he believed in training and some trainers were sent to different parts of the world to train. Some were sent to Brazil, and none of that is happening now. I don’t expect coaches to give what they don’t know, if you are trained, you will excel and have enough to pass on to your players. For the Midwest Region, like at that time, we were trained and that’s why there was absolute development in all aspects of sports in football, cricket, hockey and everything in the region. We were dominating because our coaches were trained and knew what to give athletes when it came to training programs in their respective sports. It was quite motivating.
Do you agree with those who say that Messi is now the best player of all time and no longer Maradona or Pelé, since he won the World Cup and seven Ballon d’Ors?
Winning all these awards and competitions can be political and not performance based. Pelé was a natural player, he played soccer well and if he had the facilities they have now, he would have done more than the others are doing. For me, Pelé is still the greatest because he had a natural performance.
Having played with Pelé, what qualities did he have that you think today’s footballers need to be the best in their positions?
First is discipline, he was very disciplined. He was submissive to his coaches and I noticed that during training sessions and warm-ups before the game, he listened carefully when his coaches talked about him. And two, even though he was a gifted player, he never allowed those gifts to do him pride, which is a problem with our modern players. Once they stick out a bit, they get arrogant and before you know it, they’re out of the game.