Pele and the AC Milan Transfer That Never Was
Football, like life, can be strange in that sometimes things that don’t happen become as well known as those that do. This can especially be the case with transfers, where players not moving can feel like an opportunity missed, even if there was very little opportunity in the first place.
Before international football was televised, the best chance for coaches to familiarise themselves with new talents were the big tournaments. The Olympics was an important event, famously bringing the Scandinavian invasion of the late 1940s. The World Cup was an even bigger deal, as could be seen in the signings in the early 1960s, a time when Serie A clubs were allowed two foreign players in their ranks.
Jose Altafini played in the 1958 tournament in Sweden under the name ‘Mazzola’. As such, he was perhaps destined for Italy. He joined AC Milan after winning that competition. South Americans have remained hot property in Serie A since, and 1962’s edition brought another wave.
Amongst the newcomers was Victor Benitez, a Peruvian who played in defensive midfield. Benitez was not a bad player, coming into his own a few years later and going on to lift a number of trophies with the club.
At this time, there was another fledgeling way to learn about exotic overseas players, in the club competitions not just between European clubs, but also South American. Milan won their first European Cup in 1963, earning them a place in the then two-legged Intercontinental Cup against the champions of the Copa Libertadores.
Before the next campaign was to begin, rumours began to swirl in Italy as to who would join the big clubs over the summer. South America was already beginning to be a favoured location for players to join, and sure enough Milan’s representative Rodolfo Recchi travelled to Brazil, arriving in Sao Paolo in July.
His first bit of business was the signature of Amarildo, a snip at 200 million Lire. That deal was concluded in the middle of the month, meaning that the Rossoneri looked set to go into the new season with Benitez and Amarildo as their foreign contingent. Altafini was still a big part of the side, but having played for Italy by this point, was not factored into that number.
Yet even with Amarildo added to the Rossoneri line-up, Recchi continued his time in Brazil. Although the local press were tight-lipped regarding the situation, it was thought that Recchi might be sounding out Gerson – who was known to be on the verge of leaving Flamengo when his contract expired.
The midfielder eventually moved to Botafogo and the focus, both of the press and apparently Recchi, turned to Pele – already a star and the best player at Santos. The Milanese representative was seen watching the Brazilian side play, though he may have been watching the whole team instead of just one player.
By this stage, it was known that Milan were due to meet Santos in the Intercontinental Cup Final, and scouting them on a regular basis would usually prove difficult, though would have provided easy cover for Recchi if he was on the trail of the Brazilian star.
As time progressed, the Serie A season began with Altafini and Gianni Rivera continuing where they had left off and Amarildo slotting in just as well, even scoring on his debut, a 4-1 win at Mantova.
Reports at the time did suggest that Pele would be willing to move to Italy, having discussed the matter with Inter forward Jair and realising the potential financial windfall such a transfer would provide. Milan are thought to have had a bid of around 900 million Lire turned down at this stage, around four times the amount Torino had recently paid for Denis Law.
Yet, with the season underway, any deal for Pele would have had to be made to take the player in the summer of 1964, as the Rossoneri acknowledged in the rebuttal of the bid to Santos.
“Pele would make us comfortable,” it was admitted, “but we would not be able to use him now,” he admitted, “because we have already used Amarildo and Victor Benitez and regulations forbid us from changing foreign players now the league has started.”
And so, Pele stayed with Santos, another potential suitor denied. He would go to Milan soon. scoring twice in the first leg of the Intercontinental Cup to show the Rossoneri faithful what they were missing out on.
Of course, he remained with Santos for the majority of his playing career and the Rossoneri enjoyed continued success without him. Yet a strikeforce of Rivera, Altafini and Pele? That would have been quite something.