World Cup Legends: ‘A childhood dream’

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Amar Shah’s family ran a sports store importing footballs from Pakistan so he grew up re-enacting World Cup moments with his mates. When Adidas released a historical match-ball series for the 2010 World Cup, on a dare from his wife, he set about a mission: to have a World Cup winning legend sign each ball in the collection. This is his story.

My first ever World Cup memory is from the summer of 1986, when the tournament was held in Mexico. I was about 8-years-old and because of the time difference I wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch many games and was mostly reliant on my uncles to give me accurate information of the previous night’s games. Around that time, my family had just started a sports equipment business, mainly selling footballs imported from Pakistan.

Pakistan back then was the number one manufacturer of leather footballs in the world including manufacture of the World Cup matchballs. As you can imagine, I couldn’t resist the temptation of ‘borrowing’ one or two balls so me and my mates could carry out our World Cup replays. This was around the same time that I wished that one day I would have the greatest football collection in the world and would get to meet my heroes face to face, something most kids dreamt about when watching the World Cup. I never believed that it would actually come true for me.

Fast forward to 2010.

To celebrate the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and to commemorate their 40 years as ‘official ball supplier’ for the World Cup, Adida produced a ‘historical match ball collection’ which featured every World Cup ball from the previous 10 World Cups (1970-2006). When I heard about the collection, it triggered the memory of my childhood ambition so I set about trying to get my hands on the collection, but it wasn’t easy. It was 2011 by the time I acquired the set online and I had them delivered to my friend’s relatives in Chicago. Thankfully, they were coming to the UK for a wedding and packed them up in a big box and brought them over with them. The balls then spent 3 months in my friend’s garage. One day I finally picked them up and brought them home. I sat there with all the matchballs (adding the 2010 Jabulani) and said to myself ‘Now what?’.

For a joke I said to my wife ‘Do you think I should get World Cup winners to sign these balls for me?’ She responded with ‘Yeah go on then, I dare you’, and the World Cup Legends Challenge was born.

The Criteria

To kick off the challenge, I set myself some basic criteria which consisted of three key questions – Is the player a World Cup winner? Yes. Did the player take part in the World Cup Final? Yes. Is the player called Marco Materazzi? No. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just finding any player who won the World Cup, it had to be someone who played a part in the journey and if possible was remembered for an iconic moment (except Marco Materazzi). I also decided that I would ask friends and family to sponsor me to raise money for charity along the way (c.£3000 raised for my nominated charities). As you can imagine, the first players on my list were Diego Maradona, Pele and Zinedine Zidane. I had no clue about how I was going to get anywhere near these legends never mind get them to sign a ball. I wasn’t sure where to start, I didn’t believe anyone had ever done it before. I didn’t know what to do. So naturally I did the one thing most people would do in this situation – I went online.

The internet turned out to be a pretty useful tool and over a short space of time, I’d managed to get hold of contact details for many football agents, clubs and representatives of the World Cup winners on my list. I started to send emails initially just to see what the response would be and never expected to hear anything back. My efforts were initially half-hearted because I thought the challenge I’d set myself was just too big and I had no way of succeeding. But astonishingly, people responded and said that they would be willing to help. Before long I was emailing contacts regularly and getting dates in the diary. I then started to make some calls and soon I was learning basic greeting phrases in Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. After 11 months of searching, travelling and using many international calling cards I finally completed the challenge. An amazing journey which I’ll never forget. Here are some of the highlights from the project.

May 2012: Diego Maradona, Dubai, UAE

Diego Maradona was my hero from Mexico 86’ so he was on my list of targets from the start. The more I thought of actually meeting Maradona and getting him to sign my match ball, the more ridiculous it all sounded. Fortunately I knew where he was but I didn’t know how to get hold of him. Maradona was the coach for Al Wasl FC in Dubai at the time and I had searched all over the place to find someone who could get me in front of him. That’s when I came across Tariq, head of PR for Al Wasl. Tariq had daily contact with Diego and would sit next to him in press conferences. I managed to get an email to him and he was happy to help out. He told me that the best time to do it would be either before or after a training session or a press conference but he would confirm and that I should get the ball to him as soon as I could in the meantime. A couple of days later Tariq got in touch to say he could arrange it for the following week. I then had a big dilemma on my hands; whether or not to travel to Dubai and meet my football hero in person. It would only be for 30 seconds so was it really worth it? I decided not to travel in the end so I asked my mate’s brother, Almas (who lives in Dubai) to do it for me. I gave him a call and after about 10 minutes of ‘Maradona?! You want me to go and meet Maradona?’ he agreed to help and I shipped the ball over to him. A few days later, he set out for the stadium to meet Diego.

IMG_6097If you’ve ever been to Dubai you will be aware that the traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road can get quite crazy and unfortunately Almas had a little car accident en route. Thankfully all involved were ok but it meant that he missed the chance of meeting El Diego. Tariq said it was ok and that Almas should try again later in the week. A few days later Almas made his way to the stadium again and managed to get there in one piece this time. A press conference was underway and Tariq asked Almas to join the media group and wait to be called up. Maradona was in good spirits that day (apparently he can get quite moody, I’d never have guessed that…) and Almas got the nod to go over to Diego with the ball. Diego began to sign the ball but the marker didn’t work! Diego gave Almas a frown and then asked a kid who had a marker and signed it with his instead. Crisis avoided, ball signed. Almas said thanks and made his way out.

Meanwhile over in the UK, I was sat on a train, staring intently at my mobile waiting for some news from Dubai. Finally, Tariq sends me a text that said ‘Mission accomplished’. I was so happy to get Diego Maradona to sign my WC86 ball and became my very first World Cup Legend signing. I guess it was fate that he would be the first since his heroics in 86’ were the first World Cup moments I’d watched. The timing worked out well too as a few months later, Maradona was sacked by Al Wasl, the news was broken by Tariq (which he had to do from a park bench in Istanbul, where he was on holiday at the time). The Beard was definitely on my side for this mission (Maradona’s nickname for God).

August 2012: Pele, London, England

It took a little while to arrange but I met Pele at Somerset House in London during the summer of 2012. Pele was in town for the Olympics and luckily his people approved our meeting. This was the result of many calls and emails over the previous 4 months and it very nearly didn’t happen as his representatives were quite cagey on the day, sending me messages asking umpteen questions about the project, who had already signed and laying down conditions such as no photos were allowed and I had to come alone. Eventually I was asked to get ready to meet ‘O Rei’ and I stood outside a suite waiting to be told to go in. Pele wasn’t there at the time but it didn’t take long to know that he was on the way. Suddenly the place got crowded and in came Pele with his entourage and security flagging him on both sides. It was crazy. Pele stopped to say ‘Hi’ to some people he recognised but it was all very brief as his sea of ‘people’ made sure they kept him moving along at a steady pace. He entered the suite which I was stood outside and the mad scramble to get in began. On one side of the door was Pele, smiling away and on the other side was me and loads of others trying to get a glimpse of him and trying to get into the room. I looked at my contact to see if I should enter and finally I got the nod and a ‘Yes you, yes he’s ok let him in’. A little insight into the life of a World Cup legend, I was glad to be on the right side of the door.

IMG_8466Inside, Pele was still greeting friends and working the room, until he came to me and walked straight by totally ignoring me. I guess I knew then how Stan Getz must have felt when the Girl from Ipanema passed by him; he would smile when she passed but she just wouldn’t see. Pele took a seat and began to sign t-shirts for the crowd who had now formed an orderly queue to meet him. I just stood around and waited for my turn but within a few minutes my contact asked me to go and sit with Pele so I could speak to him, get my ball signed and be on my way. I sat down next to Pele and he just looked at me like ‘Who the hell are you? So I said hello and introduced myself and explained why I was there and that I’d be honoured if he would sign my match ball. His eyes lit up and he asked about the project and said it was a great idea. He became quite lively and we spoke a little more while he signed my ball. I mentioned that I also had a WC70 replica shirt and he asked me if I’d like him to sign it. In the corner of my eye I could see his handler beam at me and when I looked over she mouthed the words ‘Wrap it up’. I looked at Pele, he looked at her then turned to me and said ‘Quick, give me!’. I gave him the shirt and he signed it. We had a photo together, he wished me luck and off I went. It was a great experience and amazing to get one to one time with Pele.

The whole time I was with him I was composed and calm on the outside, but inside my whole body was screaming ‘I’m sat with Pele! PELE!’ I couldn’t believe I’d just been sat with him, but it gave me the confidence to seek out the remaining World Cup Legends. I hope I get to meet Pele again one day and tell him the whole story.

March 2013: Gerard Pique, Paris, France

Fate was at it again when the last ball I needed to get signed turned out to be the Jabulani, which was the official match ball of the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa. Pretty much all of the Spanish team that took part in that final were still playing atthe the highest level, which meant that they would be harder to get close to. Players these days are constantly guarded by a number of henchman, agents and handlers to keep the likes of you and me well out of reach. So I decided to take the official route and contact the clubs, representatives and even the RFEF, the Spanish national football association. My request went unnoticed by Barcelona and Real Madrid and my own less formal efforts to sign their World Cup stars while they were in the UK on Champions League duty didn’t turn out well (failed to sign Iker Casillas on two occasions previously). I also contacted Mediabase Sports, a sports agency in Barcelona which is run by Pep Guardiola’s younger brother Pere (he represents Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez among others). They humoured me a little but in the end there was no cigar.

The RFEF were the ones that helped me complete the challenge. I contacted the RFEF and by using my very limited Spanish skills I got through to someone who spoke English, a guy called Gavin. I think Gavin is probably the only Englishman working at the RFEF and it was great to speak to him about my project. He suggested that I speak to a lady called Silvia Dorschnerova. I had no clue who she was, but after a little searching on the internet I found out and recognised her straightaway, if anyone could help me get access to the players then she was the lady to make it happen.

Silvia is the Spanish national team secretary or handler if you like. If you remember seeing a woman on the Spanish team bench at every game at the 2010 World Cup then you’ll know who she is too. I spoke to Silvia and she was ok to help but advised that I couldn’t meet the players and would need to send the ball to her in Madrid. It was pretty much a ‘take it or leave it’ offer so of course I took it. Meanwhile I found out that Spain were due to play France in a World Cup qualifying group game in Paris and so I decided to try my luck there as well. This was also around the same time that I’d got in touch with France WC98 winner Emmanuel Petit who confirmed that he was ok to meet on matchday. I bought a ticket to the game online, took the Eurostar to Paris and made my way to the ‘Hotel Le Bristol’ where the Spanish national side were staying.

Ignoring the army of fans outside the hotel, I walked on the opposite side of the street and made my way into the hotel lobby. I spotted a lot of people in Spanish FA standard issue tracksuits, including the coach Vincent Del Bosque. I couldn’t help asking him for a picture and then started to look around for Silvia. After a short while I spotted her and introduced myself. Thankfully she remembered our conversation a few weeks before and said that I should wait around and see who turns up. I waited for a good while and then Iker Casillas turned up. Having failed twice to get him to sign my match ball I went over to him and just before I could say anything, a big bald guy came in front of me and starting saying ‘No, no’ while ushering me out of the way. So close yet so far for the third time,

In fact, this security was the same one who got in my way earlier in the year when I tried to approach Iker at Manchester Airport. Iker rolled his eyes and disappeared into a lift. Opportunity lost and I went and sat back down in the lobby. About 20 minutes later, Xabi Alonso turned up with some of the RFEF guys so I went over to him and asked him to sign my matchball. He signed the ball with no expression on his face and when I asked him if I could get a picture with him, he handed me the ball and snapped ‘Take it!’

I got a pic of him at the same time and left him alone. He was not on my wish list and I’d never considered him at any point of the challenge. This has nothing to do with the fact he’s an ex-Liverpool player (I’m a Manchester United fan) but more about the fact that I had visions of getting Iniesta, Xavi and/or Iker to sign from the 2010 World Cup champions. This guy of course did play in the final and is remembered for getting Kung-fu kicked in the chest by Holland’s Nigel De Jong. Something that the whole world witnessed but the referee Howard Webb somehow didn’t.

I felt a bit weird about what had just happened. On one hand I had just completed the World Cup Legends Challenge and on the other hand I was annoyed about the way Alonso had acted. I didn’t think there was anything lost in translation as his English is good having spent a few years with the Scousers, so I concluded that he was just in a hurry. It was a bittersweet moment that left me feeling annoyed instead of happy. I decided to go chill out for a bit. I told Silvia I was leaving and she said that most of the players were now back in their rooms and that I could try again later before they made their way to the stadium if I wanted.

IMG_1200I decided to head back there after some food. I’m glad that I did as I got to sign up another player that restored the balance because he was an ex-Manchester United player – Gerard Pique. That was all down to Silvia who took me around to the other side of the hotel where the players were holding a meeting just before they left for the Stade de France. As I waited, all the players walked past me, Ramos, Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas, Mata, and the rest, all ignoring me, my broken Spanish and my outreached arm with a Jabulani on the end. All except Pique, who signed the ball and caught up with the rest of the squad. NOW I could relax, the challenge was over and I could celebrate. (In the end I also posted a ball out to Silvia and she arranged for Casillas, Iniesta and Xavi to sign my match ball, shortly before the team went to Brazil for the Confederations Cup last year).

Later that evening I met Emmanuel Petit who was brilliant and signed my WC98 match ball. We kept in touch and a few months later I got the chance to interview him, another fantastic moment along this crazy journey.

The Future

The project has taught me a lot about the world of football that exists off the pitch and I’ve started to write a book about it (don’t expect it to be finished anytime soon). For now though, with World Cup 2014 under way I will definitely be continuing the challenge and will hunt down a winner from this tournament to sign my Brazuca matchball. I don’t know for sure who it will be but whoever he is it will certainly more challenging than before. I’ll be in Rio for part of the tournament and I’m looking forward to getting out there and meeting people that I’ve got to know through the project and Twitter over the past two years. I’ve managed to get a little following on Twitter, including a follow from an actual real life World Cup Legend, WC70 Brazilian captain Carlos Alberto Torres.

Later this summer there will be a new site launch and a ‘Legends Exhibition’ which will feature the signed World Cup match ball collection, as well as football art by illustrators from around the world (the likes of Richard Debenham, Daniel Nyari and Gonza Rodriguez).

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The World Cup Legends in total:

Mexico WC1970
Winners: Brazil
World Cup Legends: Pele, Carlos Alberto Torres

West Germany WC1974
Winners: West Germany
World Cup Legends: Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Uli Hoeness

Argentina WC1978
Winners: Argentina
World Cup Legends: Mario Kempes, Ossie Ardiles

Spain WC1982
Winners: Italy
World Cup Legends: Marco Tardelli

Mexico WC1986
Winners: Argentina
World Cup Legends: Diego Maradona

Italy WC1990
Winners: West Germany
World Cup Legends: Lothar Matthaus, Rudi Voller

USA WC1994
Winners: Brazil
World Cup Legends: Romario

France WC1998
Winners: France
World Cup Legends: Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit

Japan & South Korea WC2002
Winners: Brazil
World Cup Legends: Ronaldo, Cafu

Germany WC2006
Winners: Italy
World Cup Legends: Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Fabio Cannavaro

South Africa WC2010
Winners: Spain
World Cup Legends: Gerard Pique, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Iker
Casillas, Xavi Hernandez

Bonus Ball England WC1966
Winners: England
World Cup Legends: Sir Geoff Hurst

Brazil WC2014
Winners: ?
World Cup Legends: Who knows?
Visit: www.wclegends.com / facebook.com/WCLegends / @worldcuplegends

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