Pele

Pele, a Socceroo and a World Tour That Was ‘Better Than Playing with Elvis’

By the end of his career, John Coyne was a Socceroo who played in the UK, US and Australia – but for a few glorious weeks in 1975 he was teammates with Pele, who dubbed him ‘Crazy John’. Tom Smithies reports for keepup.com.au

Even now you can hear the slight disbelief in John Coyne’s voice, recalling the summer nearly 50 years ago when he almost accidentally became mates with Pele and played alongside the world’s greatest footballer on a global tour in front of adoring fans.

Coyne still has Pele’s shirt in his attic in Perth, alongside other mementoes of a nomadic career that took him from the north-west of England to the US and on to Australia, even making him a Socceroo via late stints in the NSL. But none of that compares with the “surreal” few weeks in 1975 when he stumbled into Pele’s orbit and had a brief taste of life as a global celebrity. “Not bad,” he says now, “for a lad from Liverpool.”

Coyne admits he’s told the stories numerous times to his sons, particularly Chris and Jamie as professional footballers themselves (and, in Chris’s case, also a Socceroo). But there’s real poignancy in Coyne’s voice as he goes through this remarkable tale in the hours after Pele’s death this week.

Pele playing for New York Cosmos
Pele celebrates finding the back of the net for New York Cosmos

“Pele used to call me Crazy John – my kids still ask me why, and I still don’t know,” Coyne says, and there is the nickname written by Pele himself on the back of a photograph. “I guess I was in the right place at the right time for all this to happen. We had fun though.”

The series of unlikely events that brought John Coyne and Pele together began after Coyne, having floated around England’s lower leagues, made a brief foray into Ireland’s national league. Scouts for the newly established North American Soccer League were watching, and offered him and a couple of teammates the chance to head for the US.

Feeling they had nothing to lose, Coyne signed up and joined the Boston Minutemen in 1974 – switching to Toronto Metros-Croatia for the next season. That was the point at which the music industry executives backing the New York Cosmos team convinced Pele to sign a multi-million-dollar contract to turbocharge interest in the new league. His first competitive game happened to come against Coyne’s new team.

“I’m not sure why but at the end of the game he came over and offered me his shirt – it was just one of those moments,” Coyne says. “And then a few weeks later they invited me to go on tour with them. Me, just this lad from Liverpool.”

Anxious to recoup their investment, Cosmos’s owners took the team on a bewildering tour of exhibition games to show Pele off – starting in the US, but quickly heading for Istanbul, Stockholm, Oslo, Rome, Jamaica and Haiti. Short on numbers for such a packed schedule, a handful of extra faces were invited to be part of the squad. From the beginning, the superstar from Brazil and the boy from Liverpool hit it off – literally.

John Coyne with Pele
John Coyne (far left), with New York Cosmos tour teammates including Pele (centre) and Pele’s bodyguard Pedro Garay (far right); Pele’s written tribute to his friend, John Coyne

“It’s a funny story, I nearly couldn’t make it on the tour because Pele hit me in the ribs so hard at our first training session,” Coyne says. “People don’t realise how tough he was, you know, he’s hit me so hard. It was just this thing the South Americans did, we didn’t know about it. My very first training session and I’m thinking shit, I’m out of here, I’m not going to make this tour.”

“I had to do everything I could to get fit. But I think it was actually because he’d smashed me that we became good friends. To be fair he looked after me, picked me up off the ground and took me to the side. He was speaking Portuguese and I didn’t understand him then but after that, once we went on the tour, he sort of looked out for me.”

It’s hard not to draw parallels with another global figure taking entertainment to the masses in the 1970s – a bit like, keepup.com.au suggests, touring with Elvis.

“Oh it was better than that mate! It was all a bit unreal because I’d watched him play in the 1966 World Cup at Goodison Park (when Portugal beat Brazil 3-1). I stood in the Gladys St end with my brothers and watched Portugal just kick him off the park. He walked off injured that day with no shirt on, just this coat over his shoulders, and he just had the air of a superstar.”

“And then a few years later I was playing with him on this tour. We stayed at all the best hotels, there were fans everywhere, it was so good. In the dressing room there’d be a couple of bodyguards, and some really good players, and I’d say to myself, how did you get on this tour again John? Just unreal.”

“Pele actually trained harder than anybody. Even that little move when he smashed me in the ribs, he saw me coming probably five metres away. I’m thinking I’m gonna sneak up on him, which I was good at, to pinch the ball and he’s just smashed me in the ribs. He got kicked so much in games but that’s why he played for so long, people don’t realise how tough he was.”

“Even his hands, I said to him, how do you get them so tough? He said that he used to hit them against these trees, like a karate chop. It was a South American thing – he showed me and I tried to do it but I never could. The way he thought about the game, he was just so far ahead of everybody. What was he when he first scored those goals in the World Cup, 17?”

Pele playing for Brazil
Pele in full flight for Brazil

“When we went on the tour, I was just like, Thank you very much, get on the bus, get on the train. People weren’t there to see me, they were there to see Pele. People still debate it to this day, like who’s the best and all that. Come on. He’s the best there’s ever been, by far.”

There was supposed to be another game at the end of the tour, in Canada, but Pele’s knees had taken a battering – kicked and kicked, even in friendlies – and it was called off. Coyne went off to join Hartford Bicentennials, then moved continents again to join Brisbane City at the start of the NSL in Australia in 1977. 

Two years later he earned the first of four caps for Australia and finally settled in WA, where Chris is now assistant coach at Perth Glory (and from where John’s grandson Aiden moved to Watford recently) – and of course where Pele’s shirt from that first game is packed away in the attic.

The memories of his former teammate have been strong this week, not least those of a night on the tour at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome where Cosmos took on Serie A giants Roma. Though they lost 3-1, Coyne’s name is on the score sheet – and 47 years later, something of a confession is called for.

“The ball came across and it’s heading for Pele, but I just sort of nudged him out of the way – I was about 15 metres out, put it in the bottom corner,” Coyne says, still laughing at the memory. “I didn’t score that many but I’ve told the grandkids, that goal was a thing of beauty.”

Originally published on keepup.com.au as Pele, a Socceroo and a world tour that was ‘better than playing with Elvis’

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