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David vs Goliath: When mighty Plymouth humbled Pele’s Santos

On Monday, playing in an empty stadium away from home, Plymouth Argyle were hammered 3-0 by Shrewsbury Town in the third tier of English Football.

The defeat leaves them languishing at 16th in the League One table, having acquired 52 points from 40 games this season.

Watching your club fight lower tier obscurity week in, week out can be tiresome.

However, older fans often reminisce about the ‘glory days’ when Plymouth not just matched Pele’s Santos but humbled them in spectacular fashion.


It’s the 1970 FIFA World Cup final. Brazil are up against the dynamic Italians for world football’s most coveted trophy.

The two football heavyweights will fight it out at the iconic Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. A 30-year-old Pele, playing his last World Cup, opens the scoring in the 18th minute as the Brazilians thrash Italy 4-1 to lift the cup.

Pele’s goal, which was coincidentally Brazil’s 100th at World Cup events, was immortalised in the iconic photograph depicting him jumping into the arms of teammate Jairzinho in celebration.

Pele with Jairzinho

Pele even provided the assists for Brazil’s third, scored by Jairzinho, and the fourth, often dubbed as the greatest team goal of all time, scored by skipper Carlos Alberto.

Pele was responsible for 53% of the goals Brazil scored in the tournament, a feat that earned him the Golden Ball.

The footballing genius hung up his international boots in 1971 after a 2-2 draw with Yugoslavia in a friendly at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

Now fully concentrating on club football, Pele, although not dazzling at the international stage, was still at his lethal best for his childhood club Santos.

The Mighty Argyle

On March 14, 1973, during their tour of England, Santos were scheduled to play Plymouth Argyle at Home Park or ‘The Theatre of Greens’.

Back then, besides Pele, Santos also had players like Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo and Edu in their ranks.

The Brazilian side often embarked upon world tours to play friendlies with foreign clubs as a means to earn big bucks.

A club of modest means, Santos executives were always eager to cash in on their star-studded team to fill the club’s coffers. “We were in demand,” Pele wrote in his autobiography. “The suits were very keen to cash in.”

In the south coast of Devon, Plymouth were battling it out with Third Division heavyweights like Notts County, Oldham Athletic and Grimsby Town among others. The 1972-73 season saw Plymouth finish eighth on the table.

A match against Pele and Santos provided provisional respite from the humdrum of the English lower leagues.

David vs Goliath

Santos tour of England began at Craven Cottage where the Brazilians lost 2-1 against Fulham in front of 21,464 fans.

Pele in action against Fulham at Craven Cottage

Next in their way were minnows Plymouth who were expected to be given a drubbing by the Samba boys.

However, the friendly was almost called off after some disagreements between the two clubs over payments.

Plymouth had agreed to pay Santos £2,500 for the match but with Home Park filled to its brim with 40,000 people, Santos felt that they were missing out on a lot more money.

“I was with our directors 15 minutes before kick-off when we were called down and they said, ‘We are not going to play unless you give us another £2,500,’” Graham Little, the Plymouth club secretary at the time, told the Daily Mail.

“Well, we had no choice — there would have been a riot if we cancelled … [After the game] I had the money, £50 notes in cellophane packets and the chairman started telling the man from Santos: ‘This is crooked, we will report you. You will never play in this country again.’ He shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Plenty more countries.’”

Regardless, the game went on with the teams lining up something like this:

Plymouth: Jim Furnell, Dave Provan, Colin Sullivan, John Hore, Bobby Saxton, Neil Hague, Mike Dowling, Derek Rickard, Jimmy Hinch, Les Latcham, Alan Welsh.

Subs: Milija Aleksic, Steve Davey.

Santos: Claudio, Carlos Alberto, Murias, Hermes, Leo, Marcal, Jair, Brecha, Alcindo, Pele, Edu.

Subs: Clodoaldo, Pitico, Mario Marinho, Vincente.

Plymouth’s Mike Dowling opened the scoring after just three minutes.

Barely three minutes into the game, Plymouth’s Mike Dowling opened the scoring. Derek Rickard and Jimmy Hinch added two more goals to establish an unbelievable scoreline of Plymouth 3-0 Santos at half-time.

Into the second half, Pele pulled a goal back from the penalty stop before Edu added another to make it 3-2. The mighty Argyle held on to their slender lead until the referee blew the final whistle.

During the game, Pele stuck up a rapport with Plymouth defender John Hore who was tasked with the job of marking him.

“He had been kicked and chased his whole life and he just wanted a game of football,” said Hore. “At the end of the game he came up to me. We didn’t really understand each other, but he wanted to change shirts.

“I was glowing. I think it was because I didn’t kick him. People say I could sell it, but why would I? It’s worth more than money. I sometimes wonder what he did with my shirt. I’d sign it if he likes.”

A three-time FIFA World Cup winner, Pele’s final sojourn in England ended on a disappointing note.

“In 1973 we began another year of travelling,” Pele later wrote in his autobiography.

“We played in the countries of the Persian Gulf. We played in Egypt and Sudan, in Africa and Europe, we performed in Germany, France, Belgium and England … my farewell on English soil was a sad one. The ‘footballing machine’ was losing its shine.”

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