Philip Barker

Today is the 80th birthday of Pelé, a fact which will make an entire generation feel a little older.

The year he was born should have been an Olympic year but the Games never took place because of war. At one stage they had been awarded to Tokyo.

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Tarō Asō spoke earlier this year of a cursed year. He too was born in 1940.

It was indeed a dark time in the world, yet it also yielded a "golden generation" of sports stars.

Pelé first saw the light of day in Três Corações in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where a street now bears his full family name, Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

By 17, he was playing for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup final. He scored twice in a 5-2 victory over host nation Sweden.

"He remained sprawled in the mud in front of the Swedish goal beating the ground with both hands in a frenzy of joy," said one report from the game.

Pelé continued in similar vein at the 1962 tournament in Chile until injury brought his tournament to a premature end.

He also limped away in 1966 after receiving brutal treatment, particularly in the match against Portugal.

Brazilian football legend Pelé celebrates his 80th birthday today ©Getty Images
Brazilian football legend Pelé celebrates his 80th birthday today ©Getty Images

But his crowning moments were yet to come. In 1969, playing for Santos against Vasco da Gama in Rio’s Maracanã, he scored his 1,000th goal, and pandemonium followed as he was besieged by interviewers.

"Now that everyone is listening, help the children, help the helpless. That’s my only wish," he said.

Less than a year later came the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, where his two near misses are remembered as fondly as any goal.

In Brazil’s opening match against Czechoslovakia he shot from the halfway line but the ball dropped just wide.

In the semi-final against Uruguay, he sold keeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz a dummy so complete that BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme simply exclaimed: "What genius!" Sadly the shot went wide.

In the final against Italy, Pelé soared to head the opening goal, the 100th Brazil had scored in the World Cup.

After retiring from international football, he embarked on a remarkable new chapter as a standard bearer for the game in the United States.

He played for New York Cosmos until 1977, when in a special farewell match, he represented both the Cosmos and his old club Santos.

He told the huge crowd: "Say with me, Love! Love! Love!"

On the field, he scored from a typically brilliant long-range free-kick.

A few months earlier, an England cricketer born two days before Pelé had reached his own remarkable milestone. In 1977 Geoffrey Boycott had returned to the national team against Australia after almost three years of self imposed exile and became the first man to score his hundredth first class century in a Test match. 

Boycott was notably single minded and John Arlott, the distinguished Radio Commentator, observed: "His mind was set so firmly on the objective that no-one, not even the Australian team could bar its way."

Partly thanks to Boycott’s efforts, England won the match and regained the Ashes. His career as a player lasted until 1986 before he turned to commentary for television and radio.

Pelé enjoyed a hugely successful career with club and country ©Getty Images
Pelé enjoyed a hugely successful career with club and country ©Getty Images

Figure skater Carol Heiss, born on January 20 1940, was only 13 when she first competed in the 1953 World championships. She finished just outside the medals, but won Olympic silver in 1956 at the age of 16.

By the time the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, she was a comparative veteran of 20 and a world champion. Heiss spoke the competitors’ oath and three days later began a successful quest for gold.

At the Rome Olympics later that year, the US had another 20-year-old to acclaim. Wilma Rudolph had been born on June 23rd, Olympic day, so perhaps success was in the stars.

Yet as a child she contracted polio and many did not expect her to walk let alone run. She won relay bronze at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne as a 16-year-old, but will be forever associated with the the Eternal City. After gold in the 100 metres Neil Allen of The Times newspaper wrote: "The rest of the world past and present is not in the same class."

This was followed up by gold in the 200m and with the 4x100m relay team.

For the rest of her life, Rudolph was an inspiration to other female athletes, but died aged only 54 from a brain tumour.

Where Rudolph had swept all before her on the track, Prince Constantine of Greece sailed in the Olympic regatta in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. His royal status counted for nothing as he helmed the Greek boat Nirefs to the gold medal.

At the Tokyo 1964 Games. Tsutomu Hanahara, Masamitsu Ichiguchi and Osamu Watanabe won wrestling gold for Japan. All had also been born in 1940.

As was long jumper Mary Rand. A pavement in her hometown of Wells in the South West of England is the precise distance of her winning jump, 6.76m long, then a world record. She also won pentathlon silver and 4x100m relay bronze to complete her set of Olympic medals.

The late Willi Holdorph of Germany was another in his prime at Tokyo 1964.

In the decathlon he held a slender advantage by the end of the first day of competition in the Japanese capital and never lost it.

In the 1,500m Estonian Rein Aun pushed hard to win the race by 12 seconds and earn silver. Both medallists were, of course, born in 1940.

Almost a decade later, Holdorf demonstrated his true all round ability with a European silver medal in bobsleigh.

Wilma Rudolph, right, was among the stars of the 1960 Olympics in Rome ©Getty Images
Wilma Rudolph, right, was among the stars of the 1960 Olympics in Rome ©Getty Images

Kenya’s Kip Keino could lay claim to be the greatest runner in the class of ‘40. Fifth place in the Tokyo 5,000m indicated potential.

He won double gold at both the African and Commonwealth Games before a stunning performance to beat American world record holder Jim Ryun by some 25 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. A further Olympic gold, this time in the steeplechase, came in Munich.

Jack Nicklaus is now affectionately known as the "Golden Bear", but he was not initially popular because he had beaten crowd favourite Arnold Palmer. He soon became a favourite in his own right and at Turnberry in 1977, his epic face off with fellow American Tom Watson at the Open Championship became known as the "Duel in the Sun". Nicklaus did not win but bounced back to lift the title the following year and won the last of 18 majors in 1986 aged 46.

Mario Andretti was born in what is now modern day Croatia, but was enthused by motor sport from an early age. He began racing after his family moved to the United States from Europe in the 1950s.

His Formula One debut came at the 1968 US Grand Prix. Driving a Lotus, he made pole position, although he did not finish the race itself.

In 1969, he won the Indianapolis 500 before signing for the March F1 team, but it was when he rejoined Lotus that sparks flew. He won the World Championship in 1978, in spite of - or perhaps because of - a volatile relationship with team boss Colin Chapman.

Andretti continued to drive Indycar and sports cars and was a regular at Le Mans into his 60th year.

European football was growing in importance but it took until 1967 for a British team to lift the biggest club prize, though both Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves, great goalscorers born within four days of one another in February 1940, had both tried their fortunes in Italy’s Serie 'A'.

Billy McNeill, born in March, skippered Celtic’s legendary Lisbon Lions to European Cup glory in 1967.

Jack Nicklaus is another famous sports star born in 1940 ©Getty Images
Jack Nicklaus is another famous sports star born in 1940 ©Getty Images

Willie John McBride, captain of the fabled 1974 British Lions rugby team, was born three months later.

In a career which began with the 1962 tour, McBride won an unprecedented 17 Lions caps but in 1974 he skippered them unbeaten through an entire tour of South Africa.

"His outstanding qualities as a player and a man are so well known I can never accurately describe them. He was literally worshipped by the players because they saw in him all the things they would like to be," team manager Alun Thomas wrote.

McBride’s philosophy was "never take a step back".

It was a state of mind which applied to so many of this "golden generation".