When Pelé ended a war

From July 1967 to January 1970, Nigeria was engaged in civil war. Apparently, one person could make the war pause: The G.O.A.T., Pelé.


The story goes that in 1969 the great Brazilian footballer Pelé and his club, Santos, stopped the Nigerian civil war for 48 hours as the warring factions (Nigeria and Biafra) put aside their differences for a couple of days for Santos to play in the country. But did this really happen? And how come the world’s greatest player came to Nigeria in the first place? In this essay, I look back through the archives in search of the real story of Pelé in Nigeria.

The Lagos Match

The Brazilian club, Santos, embarked on a money-making African football tour in January 1969. The itinerary included exhibition matches in The Congo, Nigeria, Mozambique, Ghana, and Algeria. Pelé, the world’s best football player at the time, was a Santos player and the star attraction on the tour. He was already a two-time world champion, and would lead Brazil to their most celebrated victory the following year in Mexico. He got crowds into the stadium and enabled Santos to charge high appearance fees for their exhibition matches. Fans wanted to see him play against their teams and were willing to pay for that privilege.

Santos arrived at Lagos International Airport on Sunday morning, January 26, 1969. They were scheduled to play their exhibition match against the Green Eagles, Nigeria’s national team, that afternoon at the Lagos City Stadium. 28-year-old Pelé was received by Nigerian football officials and journalists eager to welcome him to the country. Santos arrived in Lagos on the back of a 3-2 defeat in Kinshasa to Congo’s national team – The Leopards.

The Lagos match was arranged by the Nigeria Football Association who paid Santos about £11,000 (Nigerian pound sterling) to play against the Green Eagles. The Nigerian pound was the official national currency until it was replaced by the Naira in January 1973. It was equal in value to the British pound sterling. There was an editorial in the Nigerian Daily Times debating whether this was a justified expense during an ongoing civil war in the country.

Chief A.B. Osula, vice-Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, argued that the cost to bring Santos to Lagos was a bargain. He told a press conference that “when one considers the worth of the club internationally, the money we will pay them is comparatively small.” He explained that the match was arranged for the benefit of the fans and the national team. It provided Nigerians the opportunity to watch world-class players like Pelé. The match would also spur Nigerian footballers to emulate the high standards displayed by Santos’ players.

The match between Santos and the Green Eagles ended 2-2. Muyiwa Oshode and Baba Alli scored the Green Eagles’ goals while Pelé got Santos’ two goals. The Lagos spectators rose up to applaud Pelé’s goals.

Nigerian officials took charge of the match and the Santos’ medical officer, Dr. Rodriguez, complimented the quality of the officiating team as the best Santos had experienced so far on their African tour. He said, “We shall commend the referee and his linesmen to FIFA.”

Santos left Nigeria for Mozambique the next day to play an exhibition match.

The Benin (Midwest) Match

Isaac Okonjo, Chairman of the Midwest Sports Council, had called a press conference in Benin on Thursday, January 16, 1969. He announced the formation of the Santos Midwest Match Committee which was charged with the task of raising funds for Santos’ match in Benin. Okonjo had travelled to Lagos the previous week to see Mr.Geoffery Amachree, Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, about bringing Santos to Benin for an exhibition match. He told Amachree that his council could only afford to pay Santos £6000 instead of the £11000 which the Nigeria Football Association was paying Santos for the Lagos match. Amachree agreed to contact Santos on behalf of the Midwest Sports Council to enquire if the club would be interested in playing in Benin on Monday, January 27 for £6000. Santos was in Congo at the time.

The Midwest Sports Council’s reasons for arranging the match was to entertain the Midwest football-loving public who would get the opportunity to see the best football player and club in the world. Also, it would provide the Midwest players the opportunity to compete against elite players.

Okonjo announced at a press conference in Benin on Saturday, January 25 that the Santos match planned for January 27 was off. Santos had only committed to playing one match in Nigeria – Lagos. It wasn’t possible to accommodate another Nigerian match in their busy tour schedule. He said there was no “possibility to bring them here.”

He would call another press conference two days later to announce that Santos had changed its decision and agreed to play the Midwest team on February 5. This was the same day (January 27) that Santos left Lagos for Mozambique. He told reporters that match tickets would go on sale later that day in front of all post offices and major shops throughout the state.

Santos sent a cable to the Midwest Sports Council on Saturday, February 1 from Mozambique to request that the Benin match be changed from Wednesday, February 5 to Tuesday, February 4.

Santos flew to Benin airport from Lagos on the morning of February 4. The Santos team and officials paid a courtesy visit to the Military Governor of the Midwest, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia, as well as the Oba of Benin upon their arrival in the city.

The match was scheduled for a 3.30pm kick-off, but Benin’s Ogbe stadium was opened from 10am. This was a showcase match befitting the new 10,000-capacity stadium (opened in December 1968) which had cost the state government £70,000 to build. It was full by 2pm and there were lots of people who were stuck outside the stadium unable to get in. Football fans came from neighbouring states; some even came from as far as Lagos. These were fans who had missed Santos’ match against the Green Eagles and didn’t want to miss out the second time.

The Santos players were presented with gifts of wooden-carved walking sticks by a Midwest Sports Council official just before the match kick-off. Ogbemudia celebrated the occasion by wearing a Mexican-style sombrero.

Santos won the match 2-1 against the determined but limited Midwest team. Pelé failed to score, to the disappointment of the spectators. Edu and Negreiros got Santos’ goals while Okere scored a consolation goal for the Midwest team. The three goals were scored in the first half. Santos returned to Lagos as soon as the match ended, en route to Accra, Ghana for the next exhibition match.

A Nigerian Observer journalist, in his post-match analysis, reported that “for the first time since I began my sports reporting career, I saw a master footballer at work; I saw Pelé play the ball with grace and on several occasions, he made our defence stars look like new-comers to big-time soccer.”


The Nigerian Ceasefire Legend

So did Pelé’s visit really cause a pause in hostilities in the Nigerian civil war? And if not, where did this story come from?

There are several versions of the ceasefire story on the Internet. One version states that the match took place in 1967 while another claims it was in 1969. There are reports that the match was played in Lagos and there are also accounts that it was played in Benin.

The ceasefire story is a myth, despite the reports of this story on websites like CNN, Time, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Goal.com, Wikipedia, Globoesporte.com, etc. There is no reported Nigerian evidence of this story. Two key Nigerian newspapers – Nigerian Daily Times (Lagos) and Nigerian Observer (Benin) – were researched for this piece. There was no mention of a civil war ceasefire for a Santos match in the 1969 issues of these two newspapers. Both papers extensively covered Santos’ two matches in Nigeria thus making them credible sources.

The reason why some versions of the supposed ceasefire story state 1967 could be attributed to an error in Pelé’s 1977 autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game. He said in the book that he visited Lagos in 1967 with Santos, but he and Santos didn’t visit Lagos until 1969. Pelé travelled a lot with Santos in the sixties so it is no surprise that he got the dates mixed up. It is interesting that Pelé didn’t mention the supposed ceasefire story in his 1977 book and yet, he does in his 2007 autobiography Pelé: The Autobiography. He recalls the match taking place at Lagos in 1969. The Benin match isn’t mentioned in either of the books.

It is also assumed in some ceasefire accounts that the Midwest Governor, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia, opened the SaPelé Bridge to enable Biafrans travel from Biafra into Benin to watch the match. Actually, the toll bridge was specifically opened on match day so that fans wouldn’t have to incur extra charges to watch the match not for Biafrans to have access to the match.

It is unlikely that any Biafran would have dared to travel from Biafra (south-east of Nigeria) to any of the two Santos matches. The fear of detention or execution by Federal soldiers would have deterred even the most passionate Biafran football fan. It also didn’t help that four days before the Benin match, a Biafran aircraft bombed a village, Obagie, eight miles from Benin. Four farmers were killed in the air raid and several were injured. This Midwest bombing would have made any ceasefire truce between the Nigerian Government and Biafra unlikely for Santos’ match in Benin. The Midwest Governor didn’t mention a ceasefire with Biafra in his account about the Benin match written in his ‘Eighteen Months of Stewardship’ report. This was published a month after the match.

Guilherme Guarche, Santos historian and Coordinator of Santos’ Memory and Statistics Centre, stated on the club’s website in early 2015 that the original source of the 1969 ceasefire story was a 1990 Placar magazine article on Pelé by Michel Laurence, a French-Brazilian journalist. This story is mentioned briefly in the article as one of the interesting incidents that occurred during Pelé’s football career.

“I’m not sure it’s completely true,” Pelé said in his 2007 book about the 48-hour ceasefire story, “But the Nigerians certainly made sure the Biafrans wouldn’t invade Lagos while we were there.” He recalled “a huge military presence on the streets” and protection by the army and police during their stay in Nigeria.

He also said in his book that the Santos’ business manager assured the players that the Nigerian civil war would be stopped for their exhibition match and it wouldn’t be a problem for the authorities.

Pelé, however, doesn’t raise his doubts about the ceasefire story during his 2011 interview with CNN. He reinforced the ceasefire legend in this interview.

Excerpted interview transcript:

Pelé: Yes, that’s — I feel proud of that. Because, you know, with my team, Santos — this you have in the film, my biography — we stop war. Because the people were so crazy for football — they love football, they stop the war to see Santos play in Africa.

COREN: Yes, you are referring to 1967, when the cease-fire —

Pelé: Exactly.

COREN: — was announced in Nigeria for 48 hours so that both warring factions could watch you play in Lagos. I mean, that is just phenomenal.

Pelé: All the Africans play — It is different — because we didn’t expect that. The same what I used to say, when we travel, where we stay, we try to give always good message. You know? This is a big responsibility, but I trust God.

Pelé’s global status, as well as the location of the incident (a civil war ravaged African country – Nigeria), made the ceasefire story believable. If any sports personality could stop a civil war in an African country in the sixties then it would be Pelé.

The only problem with Pelé’s Nigerian civil war ceasefire story is that it isn’t true.

Further Reading

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