GERRY FRANCIS: Playing against Pele was one of the proudest moments of my career… the Brazilian icon made football a global sport through talent and personality, and that’s why he’s still my greatest of all time
If captaining England was my proudest moment, sharing a pitch with Pele came a close second.
Like many players of my generation, he was my idol growing up, I’d fallen in love with him and Brazil as a seven-year-old watching the 1958 World Cup and wanted one of their shirts, much to my grand-dad’s annoyance being a proud Englishman.
Pele was 35 when I finally got the chance to play against him for England against Team America in Philadelphia in 1976 and he was still some player even then; two brilliant feet, quick as lighting, great balance and outstanding in the air.
Pele – widely considered as one of the best players of all time – passed away aged 82 last week
Ex-England captain Gerry Francis starred in the last Three Lions team that Pele played against
I’d have to say he was the best I’d played against. I walked away from that particular game thinking he was still capable of playing in our First Division in his thirties. Though we won the game 3-1 – and I managed to score! – he was their biggest threat and forced Ray Clemence into some good saves.
When you think of the protection skilful players get today added to the better pitches and sports science, I think he would have earned billions in the modern game.
I’m not often starstruck but when I met him a few years later at the Sky Sports studios, I asked him to sign a picture I had taken with him and Bobby Moore before our match in 1976 and it’s still on display in my study at home.
The Brazilian legend claimed three World Cups and helped develop football into a global sport
Even getting the English national team to play in the USA was down to Pele. Though lots of Americans played ‘soccer’, it wasn’t regarded as a big spectator sport until he went over there to spread the word.
Through his talent and personality, he became a household name like all their American Football and basketball stars. Today football is a truly global game and that’s down to Pele.
It’s impossible to definitively compare different eras of the game but I was in football for more than 50 years as a player, coach and manager so I have seen most of the greats and I’d say he was the greatest.