In 1969, as talk of Pelé’s unprecedented feat grew, the football men had a problem. Before they even thought about celebrating his 1000th goal, they needed to find out exactly how many he had scored so far. 

The Brazilian Sports Confederation (CBD), the forerunner to the Brazilian Football Confederation, had no department of statistics and so it fell to Santos and journalists who covered the club to record where and when Pelé scored his goals. The key men were Santos’s statistician Mario Lamas and a local journalist known as De Vaney, who had been one of the first people to interview Pelé when he arrived at Santos. The two were close, with Pelé occasionally staying the night at the house of the man he sometimes called “my white father”. 

De Vaney and Lamas put their heads together and on 24 October announced that Pelé’s total to that point was 995 goals. Two of the country’s biggest newspapers, Rio’s Jornal do Brasil and São Paulo’s Jornal da Tarde, both accepted their count but they faced opposition from Thomas Mazzoni, a respected writer with another of the big dailies, A Gazeta Esportiva. Mazzoni calculated that Pelé had scored 998 goals and O Globo, another big Rio-based paper, sided with him. 

The discrepancy consisted of two goals scored earlier in the decade in the Paulista state championship and another against Corinthians just a few days before. Newspaper articles had reported the goals in the Paulista as Pelé’s but De Vaney and Lamas cross-referenced them with the official match reports and discovered they were actually own goals. The goal against Corinthians came in a match on 19 October that ended 1-1 but was abandoned due to heavy rain. 

De Vaney and Lamas challenged Mazzoni to discuss his numbers but he refused and the deadlock was only broken when the CBD stepped in to adjudicate and rule in favour of the more conservative estimate. Pelé, who had said he would only celebrate his 1000th goal if the count was sanctioned by Santos, was relieved to see a resolution. 

The anticipation of Pelé’s 1000th goal brought rare optimism to Brazil. The country was five years into a right- wing dictatorship and less than 12 months previously the military had clamped down on opponents, shutting down congress, restricting the press, unions, churches and other social organisations, and arresting, torturing and killing anyone it considered hostile to their regime. 

There was little to cheer about – and with censors hard at work, a lot of news to cover up – but Pelé’s pursuit of history was front-page news and vied with coverage of the Apollo 12 mission that was about to put men on the moon. 

Part of the interest revolved around where he and Santos wanted the 1000th goal to be scored and to what lengths they would go to make it happen at the right time and in the right place. 

On 995, before a game against Flamengo, the club president said Pelé wouldn’t reach his target against them because the president was a fan of the Rio club and to do so would be “disrespectful” to the military leader. 

Pelé failed to score even one against Flamengo but he got his 996th against São Paulo on 9 November and then grabbed two more against Santa Cruz three days later to take his tally to 998. (The second in that game would more than 30 years later be declared his true 1000th goal after another two uncounted goals were discovered by researchers working on the film Pelé Eterno.) 

Santos’s next game was in the poor north-eastern state of Paraíba and there was every chance he would score twice in a game against the local side Botafogo, who had invited the Brazilian champions for a friendly to inaugurate the floodlights at their José Américo stadium. 

However, there was a clear feeling inside Santos that Pelé should avoid reaching his landmark 2,000 miles away from the Santos fans and the big cities of São Paulo and Rio. Officials wanted to milk the occasion, or at least make sure that when it did finally happen the world’s media would be there en masse to record it. 

On the eve of the Botafogo match, Santos’s coach and Pelé’s close friend Julio Mazzei all but guaranteed he wouldn’t be making history quite yet. “We’ll have him playing deeper or we’ll take him off after he scores one,” Mazzei said. “I don’t know, but he’ll not be doing it here.” 

Pelé’s teammates worried his opponents would do what they could to let him score so that they too would be remembered as part of the historic event. “They are going to let him shoot, they are going to let him play,” said the centre-back Djalma Dias. “They might even all charge forward on the attack just so Pelé can score goals. The governor and a whole load of important people have gone out of their way to make sure this game is played so Pelé can score his 1000th goal.” 

The match against Botafogo on 14 November should not really have been played at all because it was scheduled to take place less than 72 hours after Santos’s previous game, contravening a rule designed to stop clubs from playing too many times in quick succession. Santos got round the problem by declaring the game a training session rather than an official match and although the CBD president João Havelange was asked to rule on whether or not it could take place, he deferred to state officials, who, having already declared a local holiday and awarded Pelé honorary citizenship of the city, were not about to ruin their own party by cancelling the match. 

Pelé proceeded to score Santos’s third from the penalty spot after 58 minutes but it was obvious from his actions immediately afterwards that he had no intention of reaching his milestone in Paraíba. He dropped deep and made no attempt to score again, keeping well away from the 18-yard box so the referee couldn’t award him a soft penalty and taking corners to avoid a chance falling to him in the box. 

When the home crowd cottoned on to the ruse and started booing, the Santos keeper Jair went down with a mysterious injury and Pelé donned his jersey and replaced him. The rest of the match passed without event and the referee blew for time four minutes before the 90 were up. 

The next match was a league fixture against Bahia at the Fonte Nova stadium in Salvador and there, at one of Brazil’s best supported clubs, Santos lifted their restrictions and told Pelé to do his thing. A crowd of 27,000 turned out in the hope they might be a witness to history. 

In anticipation of the historic event, Bahia had prepared pennants, gold plaques and celebrations and the club president promised the moment Pelé hit the net “the game would stop and carnival would start”. They had even arranged to play the game with three different balls to ensure no one would miss out: one was earmarked for the club museum, another for the state football federation and the third for Pelé. 

Pelé had faced Bahia on eight previous occasions, scoring on seven of them, and he was unlucky not to do it again. He hit the bar with one clever chip and then saw a goalbound shot kicked off the line. The game ended 1-1 without him reaching his target but it wasn’t for the want of trying. Nevertheless, he was gifted a 10,000 square metre piece of land on a local industrial estate that he promised he would turn into an electrical factory with investment from his German business partner. 

Pelé’s pursuit of his 1000th goal had masked Santos’s worst run of form in a decade. They lost their first four games in the Taça de Prata, the forerunner to Brazil’s national championship, and were effectively out of the tournament little more than a month after it started. They had lifted the Paulista state championship earlier in the year but one major trophy a season was slim pickings for the greatest team Brazil had ever seen. 

Their next opponents, Vasco, were doing even worse, having taken just eight points from their first 14 games of the competition, and the match at the Maracanã was about nothing other than whether Pelé could finally get the elusive 1000th goal. Convinced this was finally the big day, TV companies agreed to televise the game live and 67,000 people pushed their way through the stadium turnstiles. The Santos newspaper A Tribuna sent an unprecedented 10 reporters and 10 photographers to cover the game. 

The torrential rain that had flooded Rio the day before the game threatening a postponement had abated and the night was clear and cool. Vasco took the lead in the 18th minute through Benetti but Santos pushed hard for an equaliser with Pelé forcing the Argentinian keeper Edgardo Andrada into several good saves. He hit the woodwork just before half-time but Santos eventually got the equaliser their pressure deserved 10 minutes into the second period when Renê put through his own goal. 

Then, with 13 minutes remaining, just when it looked like the fans would once again go home disappointed, Lima threaded a low pass into the box for Pelé to run to. He raced between two Vasco defenders and, as he prepared to tee up a shot, Fernando’s leg entangled with his and sent him sprawling 15 yards from goal. It was a clear penalty. 

The Santos coach Antoninho had asked Pelé before the game if he would take a penalty and he said yes. He wanted to score his 1000th goal with a moment of skill or determination but he was tiring of the circus that had followed him around for weeks and he now just wanted to get it over with and had no qualms about scoring from the spot. He was also aware that there was no greater stage than the Maracanã on which to record his greatest feat. 

Pelé had once referred to penalties as a cowardly way to score, saying that standing in front of a goalkeeper from 12 yards out felt like being part of a firing squad. But when he took a few steps back and prepared to shoot he all of a sudden felt very different. As he stood over the ball and waited – the Vasco players harassing the referee and scraping their boots across the penalty spot, photographers jostling for position behind the goal, the crowd caught in that nervous limbo between a hush and a roar – he was gripped by an unusual sensation. The most famous man in the world was scared. “For the first time in my life I was afraid,” Pelé said. “I looked at the crowd behind the goal, I looked at the photographers, I looked at the goalkeeper. And I confess, I was shaking. I was scared.” 

It was a momentary feeling. Pelé was nothing if not collected and when the referee blew he took a short run-up and side-footed the ball to the keeper’s left. Andrada dived the right way and got a finger to the ball but he couldn’t stop it going in. It was the 90th penalty of Pelé’s career and his 83rd successful spot kick. 

Before the game, the two teams had agreed that if Pelé scored, the Vasco captain would run to the goal to get the ball and save it for Pelé. But when the ball hit the net Pelé reacted instinctively. 

As the furious Andrada pounded the turf with his fist, Pelé ran behind him into the net and grabbed the ball, almost stumbling as dozens of reporters charged in behind him. He kissed the ball and was overcome with emotion, barely managing to string a few words together as the mass of people carried him back towards the halfway line where the Santos players had lined up to watch the penalty be taken, as certain he was going to score as they were of their second-class status. After a few moments shaking hands and celebrating with his teammates, the goalkeeper Agnaldo hoisted Pelé on his shoulders and carried him towards the side of the pitch where he made his first declaration from the middle of a scrum of reporters pushing their microphones in his face. 

“Look, now that everyone is listening,” Pelé said, “for the love of God, let’s think about more than having a party. Let’s think about the poor children of this country, let’s help them. I’m dedicating this goal to my little daughter Kelly Cristina and to the children of the world. I don’t deserve all this, I’m just a man the same as any other. Thanks to all Brazilians and once again, for the love of God, let’s think about the poor children of this country, especially now that Christmas is approaching.” 

Then Pelé got the hiccups and had to stop talking. He donned a specially made Vasco shirt with the number 1000 on the back and did a lap of honour as the crowd chanted his name. Reporters had agreed beforehand that no one was to try and get his shirt as it was reserved for Kelly, who was watching the live broadcast at home with Pelé’s mother – who that same day was celebrating her birthday – and 15 million others. 

Pelé’s appeal to care for Brazil’s children now seems twee and obvious but at the time it verged on revolutionary. In 1969 Brazil was one of the most unequal societies in the world and children bore the brunt of its searing poverty. The country’s infant mortality rate was almost double that of their neighbours Argentina. 

Pelé said his appeal came to him in the heat of the moment, which was an improbable claim from a man who had gone to great lengths to plan for the event, even trademarking the words ‘Milésimo’ (1000th) and ‘Mil Gols’ (1000 Goals) the day before the Vasco game. 

But even if the speech was scripted, it was not necessarily insincere. The next day Pelé repeated his call and began a campaign to force his compatriots to take action. Less than a week later he used his meeting with President Medici to call for a national campaign to target poverty. Pelé flew to Brasilia on 23 November for a whirlwind day of celebrations and he was greeted by crowds of adoring fans from the moment he touched down at the airport. People jostled to see him and get his autograph and by the time he made it to the presidential palace to be made a Comendador da Ordem do Rio Branco, one of the country’s highest decorations, his Pierre Cardin shirt had been ripped by fans desperate to get a piece of him. There, he returned to the theme of children and the need to do more to protect them. 

“We see so much poverty around that it is depressing,” Pelé told reporters. “Children who are hungry, children that are sick and aren’t treated, children that aren’t in school. There are charities that no one knows about, that aren’t able to raise money but who nevertheless are trying to help the kids. We all need to help those organisations. 

“If I had time I’d speak with all the state governments and mayors and I’d get from them the commitment and the help needed. I’d go to big industries and other firms and get money, I’m sure they’d help. But I don’t have the time and I want to help. So I am going to ask everyone to help the children.” 

Pelé appealed for people who knew the institutions or lived nearby to visit them and donate clothes, toys and food. He suggested the government organise benefit concerts and said artists would perform for free. Players and clubs, he added, would gladly take part in charity matches. Pelé wanted people to know he would encourage his fellow performers into giving up their time and energy to help. “If everyone gives a little then poor children will get a lot,” he said. 

He was equally demanding of Medici, stressing that the government had to play a major role because independent or uncoordinated campaigns would not be enough. “We need a big, unified campaign,” he said. “Poverty is all over Brazil. Only a big solution, bigger than poverty itself, can eradicate it. What we need is a National Campaign for Children.” 

The campaign, though, never happened. As Pelé understood full well, his gift was in creating publicity. He knew that when he spoke people listened but he was also conscious that he had neither the time nor the knowledge to coordinate any concerted effort. Just days after his call to arms he was back on the football pitch doing what he did best. 

Pelé spent December with Santos in a disastrous South American Supercup campaign and was on the road for most of January on a Latin American tour. By the end of February he was sequestered in a training camp with the Brazil squad preparing for the Mexico World Cup and the following four months were all about winning a tournament in which he wowed the world with a series of performances that were as majestic as they were daring. 

The men who could have acted on Pelé’s vision were characteristically negligent. The dictators concentrated on repression.