A Maltese priest who blessed Pelé reminisced about his unlikely friendship with the football giant on Friday, a day after the Brazilian legend died following a battle with cancer.

Fr Hilary Tagliaferro, the founder of Malta’s first football nursery, first met Pelé at the 1970 Mexico World Cup, the last World Cup the footballer played in before his semi-retirement in 1974.

There, an Argentinian journalist who was a mutual friend, introduced the two to each other.

“I used to go to his training sessions for the World Cup... after the introduction, knowing I was a priest, a sports journalist and a football coach, we embarked on this unlikely friendship," Fr Hilary told Times of Malta.

Pelé training at the Gżira stadium. Video: Reuters

Infatuated with football, the Maltese priest had been following the star since the first World Cup he played in 1958, when he was only 16. 

“Most of the time he created a show on the field with his talents. He never received any red cards and was always respectful to his opponents. He was a very humble man.”

Despite the unplanned nature of their meeting, their bond “grew” and became stronger over the years, he said.

“He was a firm believer and had great respect for the priesthood. This enabled our friendship to grow. Although we only saw and spoke to each other every four years, he respected me a lot.”

Pelé in Malta

In 1975, Pelé visited Malta as an ambassador for Pepsi on a three-day trip, which included two training sessions for young footballers.

“There were thousands of people present.”

During the training sessions – one at the Empire Stadium in Gżira and another in Marsa – Fr Hilary got the chance to play with Pelé. Their last meeting had only been one year earlier - at the World Cup in West Germany.

“I was still young and could run around with the ball and the kids,” he recalled, adding that Pelé was six years younger and much fitter.

“He was a complete player physically, psychologically and holistically. He was a complete person.

“He gave his life to football and was instrumental to football’s popularity today.”

During the visit, Pelé was humble about his status, met fans and signed autographs and also spent time with the priest.

“We took him to visit Valletta, of course, and to other historical places like Mdina and a few others.”

“He was amiable, polite and reserved... not just during that trip but throughout our 28-year friendship," Tagliaferro said.

'You have to give me your blessing'

One specific moment that is imprinted in Fr Hilary's mind is when Pelé knelt in front of him at his hotel room in Attard and asked for his blessing.

“He had always been my idol so it was a moving moment for me.”

Although the pair did not keep in contact between the global competitions, they always “made it a point to meet” when they were both at the World Cup and watched the final matches together.

The last time the two met was at the 1998 World Cup in France when Pelé was a spectator and Fr Hilary was covering the event as a journalist. The pair shared lunch at the Paris hotel they were both staying at.

“We spoke about football generally and about life in Malta. He loved Malta and although his visit here was short, he had enjoyed his time."

When Pelé’s health began to deteriorate, Fr Hilary did not contact his old friend so as not to bother him.

Reacting to the news of his death, he said "it’s sad. The whole football world is saddened by the loss of such a great man but, unfortunately, this is the law of life, everyone has to go and Pelé was no exception.

“Although we are sad, I’m sure that God will receive him well. He made so many people happy and he used his talents well,” Tagliaferro said.

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