London Calling: When Pelé Was Floored By Fulham In His Only Ever Game In The Capital

On this day in 1973, 21,464 fans witnessed Santos and Pele take on Fulham at Craven Cottage
07:00, 12 Mar 2023

Pelé only played in London once during a glittering career which saw him regarded by many as the greatest to ever play the game; but it wasn’t Highbury, White Hart Lane, Wembley or even White City that he graced with his presence - but Fulham’s humble home, Craven Cottage.

No wonder, then, that a bumper crowd of 21,464 turned out on 12th March 1973 to see Brazilian superstar and his Santos team play a friendly against the Second Division side on the banks of the river Thames.

Having spent all of Brazil’s matches at the 1966 World Cup at Everton’s Goodison Park, it meant that this would be the 31-year-old’s only game in the English capital as his Santos side embarked on a lucrative world tour.


In an era where football teams often crisscross the globe to fulfill commercial obligations, back in the 1960s and ‘70s, the idea of a team jetting halfway around the world for a series of mid-season friendlies was virtually unheard of.

Santos would change all that, however, and a side boasting a player who would win 10 state titles, six national championships and two Copa Libertadores, including the treble in 1961, meant that they had huge global appeal.

As part of a money-spinning tour which is thought to have generated over £20 million over more than a decade, Santos first arrived in Blighty in 1962 where over 50,000 witnessed Pelé and friends destroy Sheffield Wednesday before returning to these shores in 1969 to play Stoke City - allegedly charging £12,000 to ensure Pele took to the field.  

Trips to Villa Park and a rematch at Hillsborough followed before the club’s last visit to England in 1973 saw them rock-up in the capital for what would be the superstar Pelé play in the ‘Big Smoke’ for the first and final time.


Fulham skipper Alan Mullery had faced Pelé at the 1970 World Cup, but, aware of the fact that most people weren’t there to see him, said before the match: “Tell Pelè that I won’t be marking him too closely this time. The fans want to see his skills, not me trying to stop him play.” 

Somewhat against the run of play it was Fulham and not their megastar opponents who took the lead when Santos goalkeeper Claudio came out to claim Alan Pinkey’s cross, only to let the ball slip through his hands and into the net.

The visitors were soon level when a marauding Pelé was brought down in the box by Fulham goalkeeper and, after getting to his feet, the star-striker composed himself to send Mellor the wrong way from the resulting spot-kick. 

“I had stopped spot-kicks from George Best and Jimmy Greaves and wanted to make it a hat-trick,” Mellor later claimed. “I asked Alan Mullery which way Pele normally shoots. He told me to go left, but Pele put the ball to the other side.”

But just seven minutes from time, striker Steve Earl fired home from close range to inflict only Santos’ second defeat in 12 matches of their gruelling tour that took them to France, Belgium, Sudan, Germany and Egypt - ensuring it was an evening to remember for everyone inside Craven Cottage.

Half a century on that night remains a real: “I was there,” moment for Fulham fans, but the number of people who came through the turnstiles actually became a bone of contention and almost overshadowed the victory as Santos were not just being paid to play, they also wanted a percentage of the large gate receipts too.

As a result, when the Brazilian side faced Plymouth Argyle at Home Park a few days later, not only did they demand an appearance fee up front, but also a cut of the profits in cash - an unsavoury end to a tour which would later see the great Pele claim: “My farewell on English soil was a sad one. It seemed they were determined to get a few more hundred out of me before I went.”

*18+ | BeGambleAware

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