Pelé’s long tours with his Santos club and the many trips organized by his sponsors took him all over the world, and three of those trips were in the 1960s and 1970s to the very exciting – perhaps too exciting – city of Lagos, then the capital. from Nigerian. .
1969 – The ceasefire, or not?
At the beginning of 1969, Santos begins a lucrative series of matches in Africa. At the end of January, the Sao Paulo club arrives in Nigeria to play two games there, despite a very tense situation. Since 1967, the country has been mired in civil war after the secession of the eastern region, the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra. Santos faces the Nigerian team for the first time on January 26. Pelé scores twice in this match (2-2). A second match takes place on February 4, in Benin City, near Biafra, and Santos wins 2-1 against the home team.
Brazilian legend is that Pelé wants a 48-hour ceasefire between the belligerents before allowing this meeting to take place. But Pelé does not mention the episode in his first autobiography from 1977. And in another work published in 2007, he confesses: “I am not sure that this is entirely true, but the Nigerians certainly made sure that the Biafrans did not invade Lagos while we were there.” He adds that the commercial director of Santos would have assured the players that the civil war would be stopped by the time of the game.
But this version is disputed. In an investigation, Olaojo Aiyegbayo, a researcher of Nigerian origin at the University of Huddersfield in England, states that he could not find any trace of this mythical cessation of hostilities.
1976 – Coup!
In February 1976, Pelé, who now plays for the New York Cosmos, travels again to Lagos on a Pepsi-sponsored trip. He is going to play a friendly match there and participates in the inauguration of the soccer schools.
But the Brazilian is not the only sports personality present in the Nigerian capital. Tennis players Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith participate in a tournament and stay at the same hotel as Pelé.
On February 13, 1976, General Murtala Mohammed, then in power in Nigeria, is assassinated by gunmen. The main coup plotter is Bukar Dimka, a 33-year-old lieutenant colonel, whose attempt to seize power will be quickly crushed.
But tension remains high in the city where checkpoints have been erected. On February 16, the match between Arthur Ashe, winner of Wimbledon the previous year, and his American counterpart Jeff Borowiak, is interrupted by five soldiers who order the evacuation of the players and the public. Tournament participants return to their hotel under protection and leave the country by plane the next day.
But Pelé, who has taken refuge in the Brazilian embassy, will have to wait three more days to escape. Then, the Brazilian authorities conjure up an escape plan: he will disguise himself as an airplane pilot and manage to fly out of Lagos. He works and returns home safely.
1978 – Playing for… Fluminense
Undeterred by his two eventful previous visits, Pelé, now retired, returns to Nigeria again two years later on a trip sponsored by Fluminense, an appliance brand.
The Fluminense team is in Lagos where they plan to play a match as part of a tour. Taking advantage of this coincidence, the local authorities ask Pelé to start the friendly between Fluminense and the Nigerian team, Racca Rovers.
Rumors quickly spread: Pelé is going to play! But despite the refusals, the fervor and ticket sales are such that the police end up convincing the “King” to play the game for fear of public disorder. And that’s how Pelé appears after 45 minutes.
In 2018 he joked about it on his Twitter account. “I played for Fluminense by accident once! As a guest at a game in Nigeria, so many people came to see me that the police forced me to play to keep the peace.” A message accompanied by a photo from the time reads: “The flu had the honor of having the King of Soccer for a day.”