The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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‘When Pelé knelt before me’ – Fr Hilary speaks of the 1970 World Cup, Pelé and football today

Albert Galea Sunday, 13 November 2022, 11:00 Last update: about 26 days ago

Besides being a priest and the well-known champion of those in need who founded the Millennium Chapel, Fr Hilary Tagliaferro is what one may describe as football mad.

Having had a playing career cut short due to an injury, Fr Hilary went into coaching – he coached Hibernians FC when they faced Manchester United in what was then known as the Champions Cup (which included a 0-0 draw at home) in 1967 – and then into sports journalism.

It was that which led him to become the first Maltese journalist to cover a FIFA World Cup on site, where it was being played.

It was the 1970 FIFA World Cup which was played in Mexico, one which Fr Hilary describes as having been “so different” to the World Cups of the present day.

“We held daily telephone calls back then because there wasn’t any video or the technology we have today. People used to look forward to hearing this 10-minute telephone call from Mexico City or Guadalajara. I used to give a report on what was happening in Mexico during the tournament,” he says when asked for his recollections of that World Cup.

While covering the World Cup in Mexico in 1970, a perhaps rather unlikely friendship was struck between him and one of the greatest (Fr Hilary hastens to point out that to him, he was the greatest) people to ever touch a football: Brazilian legend Pelé.

“The place where I was staying was very close to Brazil’s training ground,” Fr Hilary begins when asked how the friendship came about.

“I made friends with an Argentinian journalist who already knew Pelé and he introduced me to him. That connection continued and I used to meet him every four years at the World Cup,” he continues.

Fr Hilary interviewing Pelé when he came to Malta in 1975

In 1975, Pelé also came to Malta for a three-day visit at Fr Hilary’s behest and with the backing of Pepsi, he gave a training session to young footballers at a packed Empire Stadium in Gzira.

“I found out that he was, first and foremost, a very religious person. In fact he wouldn’t let me leave his hotel room before I gave him a blessing. He used to kneel before me: the first time that he did it, he shocked me because I saw him as an idol and then I saw him kneeling in front of me. He would insist that because I was a priest he wanted a blessing from me before he went,” Fr Hilary recalls.

He says that to him Pelé was the greatest player to ever play football: “Not just because of his personality – he was a great man even off the field and was very respectful” but also because no other player – although he points out that Lionel Messi is now reaching that milestone – played for so long at the top of the professional game.

Pelé, he pointed out, spent 20 years at the top of professional football. Others compared to him, such as Diego Maradona, spent less time at the top of their game, he says, and that’s why to him Pelé is the “number one in my lifetime”.

Fr Hilary has met a number of other footballing greats as well.

Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer is one whom he met personally when he came to Malta and who he witnessed playing in the World Cup in both Mexico in 1970 – when he played most of the semi-final against Italy with his arm in a sling after he fractured his clavicle – and in Germany in 1974.

Fr Hilary also recalled how he met England legend Bobby Charlton when he came to Malta and how he even interviewed him on television. He also met Argentinian legend Diego Maradona and towering Welshman John Charles, who made a name for himself with Leeds United and Juventus in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“I met a lot of good players and that was a great experience for me,” he recalls.

Fr Hilary has been to eight World Cup tournaments in total: every edition from 1970 right up to the tournament held in France in 1998, but he says that his first was the best.

As this year’s FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Qatar and which kicks off on 20 November, approaches, the discussion turns to the state of football today.

“The World Cup today is going to be totally different to what I saw back then. First of all, the game itself is different to what we were used to in Mexico,” he says.

He says it’s a much faster game based less around individual star players, save for players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

“I wouldn’t pick any team to be favourites to win if you had to ask me. The level of football today is equal to all. Everyone has a team and nobody has any star player so any result can happen. We don’t know much about Asian, African and South American football. We know about European teams and they are all at the same level,” he says.

“A World Cup is always a World Cup. There will be a lot of excitement; the game has improved and the rules have made it faster – but the issue is that the players will be tired. We are asking too much from the players and the human body can only take so much, even though the physical preparation has improved tremendously, but the body can only take a certain amount of stress and it’s not fair that we are putting all this pressure to play so many matches,” he adds.

“Money… greed is the great problem of the world and greed is the problem of football,” he states.

Fr Hilary agrees with the sentiment that football has lost some of its spirit because of the extreme commercialisation in the sport: “Money has taken over,” he says, noting that FIFA and UEFA had increased the number of matches because of the money involved in television rights and advertising.

However, he points out, around the world stadia are still packed, showing that the passion for football is still very much alive.

“It’s a social benefit for the whole world – during the pandemic we had football to help us face it. Even though we witnessed the dullness of a stadium void of spectators, which was a sad picture for football, but when the gates for fans were reopened then people returned, and it helps people cope with life,” he says.

“With the difficulties society is facing in the world it’s a great consolation that we have the game of football that is bringing people together,” he concludes.


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