By Jamie, 6 February 2018 #
It’s almost impossible to imagine, in an age where global megastars are anointed before the age of twelve, scouted at six to join the biggest clubs, have their highlights reels on YouTube, and fluorescent boots named in their honour on signing their first contract, but one of the greatest, most talented players to ever kick a football never played a professional game in any of the major leagues. He never played at a World Cup, never even represented his country, and no footage of him exists apart from a few photos. But speak to those that saw him play; ask Pele, Carlos Alberto, or Franz Beckenbauer; and you’ll hear of the glorious, golden talent of Edson Vincent.
But so much of the story is still unknown. How did a skinny kid from Indonesia come to be sharing a pitch with the biggest superstars the world has ever known? How did such a remarkably gifted boy then disappear as quickly as he’d arrived—not tragically taken from the world before his time like the victims of Munich or Superga, failing to fulfil early promise like Freddy Adu or Nii Lamptey, or lost to the temptations of the nightlife like Lee Sharpe, but simply dissolving into the shadows without a backwards glance? And what would the man have to say today about his incredible journey to the other side of the world and back again?
I had to go in search of Edson Vincent, and find out for myself.
My first exposure to the legend of Vincent was thanks to the joys of the early versions of Championship Manager on the PC. Along with the likes of contemporary scouted players that never quite made it (like Cherno Samba, or Tonton Zola Moukoko), there was always a character called Vincent Edson, whose position and starting club could vary from GK at Norrköping to an AM/F RC at Hadjuk Split to an under-21 international for Chad—but who could always be picked up for a song and would inevitably graduate to greatness. But unlike other recurring figures in the game there seemed to be no basis in football reality for this addition to the ranks of the greats—so where had he come from?
As a geek and a fanboy—and seeing as Ask Jeeves didn’t come back with anything relevant (who knew?)—I wrote to the Collyer brothers (not really expecting a reply), to find out who this guy was meant to be. Surprisingly they were kind enough to recognise a nerdy soul in need of answers, and I received a letter with the slightly cryptic message:
“Here’s the skinny on Vincent Edson. As we were doing research for the early versions of Champ Man, we spoke to a bunch of scouts, managers and former players about what up and coming kids they knew about that we could include in our player lists—not to add realism necessarily, but to give a bit of an ‘a-ha!’ moment when in a few years’ time one of them might break through, and collectively our game players could recognise a name and make a connection with the game. But as we were talking to people, this one name from the past would repeatedly be dropped into the chat—always as a qualifier though, like ‘but he’s no Edson Vincent.’ You’d never get much more than that, and probing for answers brought a kind of almost masonic silence. But ever since, we decided we wanted to put Edson into the game as a kind of Easter egg, a tribute to this almost mythical guy who kept cropping up in conversation. Good spot!”
Interesting, but it didn’t give me much to go on. Until I came to throw the envelope away and found a yellowing newspaper cutting from the 70s. A photo of the unmistakeable Pele, doing keepy-uppies in front of a crowd of smiling teens. One of them was circled in red pen, with the initials “E.V.” scribbled alongside—and a note written in another hand beneath the picture. “Jamie—start with the Cosmos. UN connections, 70s.”
I pulled at the thread, it’s fair to say. After a lot of calls and visits to public record offices, this is what I managed to assemble:
But there was more anecdotal evidence. I talked to a few aging soccer journalists in New York, who could remember the buzz about a new boy who’d turned up from out of nowhere and was going to be the next big thing playing alongside Pele and Carlos Alberto. Plus a few ex-players, who were warm at first but then went light on detail. Not to mention a few hucksters and shysters who claimed to have all the answers but disappeared after the second drink. The most coherent story I got came from a newer journo on the block, who’d caught up with the legendary Cosmos coach Gordon Bradley at the turn of the millennium, before he succumbed to Alzheimer’s.
“He told this story of this kid. Apparently a whole bunch of the foreign delegations from the UN came on a tour of the Downing Stadium, and had a kickabout on the pitch. The groundsman, Stan Cunningham—the guy who’d famously spray-painted the pitch green to look good on TV on Pele’s debut—called Gordon to come to the stadium immediately. There was a skinny brown kid doing things with a football he’d never seen.”
Bradley approached the boy, and his father, slipping them his card and inviting them to come back to the stadium the following week, when try-outs for the upcoming season were beginning. Tipped off by Bradley that a special talent would be coming, a bunch of the senior Cosmos players showed up, among them the legendary Brazil superstar.
Pele wouldn’t talk to me at first. But when I showed him the photo, and reassured that I wasn’t here to dig the dirt on the late seventies shenanigans at the Cosmos, he shared some of his recollections of that day.
“Vincent was like a penguin. You know what I mean? A penguin looks so silly. It’s supposed to be a bird, but it has these stupid stubby wings, it can’t fly, it can’t even walk properly. You think, God was joking when he designed the thing, right! But then, it dives in the water, everything makes sense. Vincent was the same—he always looked like a clumsy, awkward boy, but when he crossed that white line and had a football at his feet, no one could get close to him. He was in his habitat, he was the master of control, he belonged—the world slowed down for him. I said to Gordon—that boy can be the best there ever was. I want to work with him.”
Vincent signed non-professional forms with the Cosmos (bizarrely, as his Indonesian surname was too long for the mandated forms, he took Vincent as his last name and adopted Pele’s given name Edson as his first) and started weekly training. Alongside Pele, and the cream of the NASL. His father’s stay with the UN was coincidentally extended. Did Pele know anything about this?
“There were rumours, of course! Gordon had been the manager of the US national team, you know? I think he felt maybe if Vincent stayed in the US for longer, he might be convinced to become an American. It could have been good for the game, for the league, of course. Imagine the NASL with an American star player! And money, and connections, weren’t a problem…”
So what went wrong? Why aren’t we talking about him like we talk about you, like Maradona, like Messi?
“Ah—it’s not so clear. He was always a good boy, good attitude, always training, wanting to learn. Other people said he got distracted, that people were leading him away from football, to bad stuff. I don’t believe it. Maybe biggest problem was Chinaglia. Jealous guy. Connected. You’re going to find Vincent? Tell him hi. And ask him about his boots! Ha!”
Ah, Giorgio Chinaglia. The deadly Italian marksman, record scorer of the NASL, and the only man who rivalled Pele as the big shot of the Cosmos, the only guy with the coglioni to berate the Brazilian for not passing to him enough. He didn’t seem the type to enjoy being upstaged by a gangly upstart from the wrong side of the world. Had my story finally found its villain?
With no records anywhere else, the only place I could go was S—. From London, a flight to Singapore, a connecting flight to Bali, then a small plane several islands along and a boat ride. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would people know Vincent, as S—‘s only famous son? The only pictures I could find of him were like the first—a background feature, one of several in a crowd scene, as Pele or Chinaglia or some other superstar took the limelight. Could I recognise him, or find him, from these?
I needn’t have worried. The biggest issue was finding anyone in the first place—it’s not the most populous island, and they aren’t generally expecting visitors. But once I did, everyone knew the guy who’d been to the other side of the world. Of course they’d take me to him.
As we approached Vincent’s home—little more than a shack—I started to feel strangely nervous. But when one of my companions called out, and a head peered out, I saw the same smile that featured in all the photos, the look of enthusiasm and innocence undimmed by time or experience. If there was any skulduggery to feature in my story, it clearly hadn’t affected my protagonist very much.
We sat down for some tea. When I explained what I was doing here, Vincent roared with laughter.
“You’ve come all this way to see me?? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!”
I pulled out the newspaper cuttings and photos.
“Wow. I haven’t seen anything from those days in—what—nearly forty years? Hey, Pele! Man, that guy was something else. A real gentleman. He really looked after me, you know? And there’s the Kaiser! Franz—he was so elegant. I always wondered what they were doing now… And Giorgio—what a shot he had. He could kill you from anywhere on the pitch. He taught me about winning, really—always about the goal, using the skill and the trick to hurt the opponent, never for show, always with purpose.”
It didn’t sound like the memory of a man who’d been pushed out by an envious leader in fear of being usurped. Was there any truth in what Pele had suggested?
“Ah, Giorgio wasn’t so bad. He and Pele had a thing, maybe, he was close to the money guys and sometimes you saw a dark side to him. And people said I was Pele’s boy—the name didn’t help, right? But George helped me too, he just didn’t make a show of it.”
So why the return home? Why wasn’t he there into the eighties, or if not in New York then moving abroad? Maybe he wasn’t physically strong enough for those European leagues?
“You think those boys in England would have been too tough for me? Playing rough, the wind, the rain? You see, I’ll show you the football we grew up with here and you tell me if those guys could cut it in England. Any of these boys would survive that, don’t you worry.” [Later, Vincent was as good as his word. The best description I can think of is like those drawings you see of mob football in the middle ages, hundreds of players from the age of ten up to sixty kicking a bladder between rival villages, across ground so unpredictable you could see where Vincent’s unusual skills derived from—and with rocks wrapped to their fists with rags and vicious swinging blows throughout. It is brutal and visceral, but it has a purpose—the bloodletting is supposed to act as a libation for the ground, in preparation for the sowing season, and a celebration of fertility and new life.]
There was talk from some of my contacts about Vincent seeming disengaged, distracted—nothing was ever seen but there were allusions to him heading off from training with a look of purpose that one described as “a junkie heading for his hit”—and was never seen outside of the official training or meeting times. Had his time in America exposed him to dark habits—did he fall into the drugs scene?
For the first time, the twinkle disappears from his eyes.
“This is not easy to explain, OK? But you’ve come here, you’ve listened. So listen some more.”
There were a few different elements in play. Some was a simple sense of disillusionment with the showbiz and razzmatazz—did he want to be playing against the Tampa Bay Rowdies with their goal cannons? To be paraded like a trophy that had been bought by the State of New York? All for some money making machine? But that wasn’t enough to dim his love for the game.
“Maybe it’s our nature, all of us from here. We don’t like being told what to do, how to look. The idea of putting on the same jersey, of having to wear the same uniform to show you are part of a team, a tribe—that’s not how we think. The tribe is deeper than that.
“What people don’t understand is that we’re all part of one big machine. Every cog, every action, works best spinning in tandem with its partner. Disrupt the mechanism and the gears grind, friction kicks in, bad shit happens. People with agendas find gaps in the system, exploit them, start the machine working for themselves.
“It happens to my people, the longer we stay away from home. It’s why we don’t leave. My father, my family, we all went through it. You start losing yourself, you lose your connection. I don’t want people to get the impression of us as some whacked-out rainforest tribe, but it’s true—it’s something hardwired in our brains from birth. We’re connected to the land, to the world, to each other. And we do a kind of meditation—you look deep into yourself, you almost stop breathing, and you see the layers within reality, between what we see day to day and what really exists. You have to open the lid of the box to explore it, you connect your brain to the machine and you join into the deeper world. I lost all this in America. I found I couldn’t connect like I could at home. I don’t know whether it was the distance, or the background noise, but I just couldn’t do it by myself.”
So you used narcotics to try and help you connect?
“Hahaha! No man, you’ve got it all wrong! We say it when we see westerners trying to take a trip with drugs, if you have to use that stuff you’re doing it wrong. No, my habit was just music—with the right music, with a dark room and some disco lights—any flashing light—I could get some connection, you know? Get the brain machine working again. I did it a lot, I practised, it got me closer—but not the same as here. I knew I had to come home, and when I did everything would be OK. I miss that music now, though! But energy’s too precious, I can’t be having a record player and all those discs round here. Boy I’d love to hear some of those tunes again.”
Well, what could I say to that? I had my phone, its memory card loaded with tracks, and Vincent and I went on a journey back to the sounds of his New York apartment. I don’t know how long we spent, or how much tea we drank, but somehow I brought Vincent up to speed on some of the highlights of the last forty or so years of my musical existence. If you’d asked me at the start of this voyage how I thought it would have ended, I doubt I would have suggested I’d be sitting in a shack in Indonesia, listening to the Charlatans and to Café del Mar, the Housemartins and the Human League, Moby and Marvin Gaye, with a former footballing prodigy, talking about playing alongside Pele in matches against Cruyff and Neeskens.
What did Pele mean, anyway? About the boots?
“Ah, I’d forgotten that! Here, where we play, we make our shoes from rubber, you see? Like those barefoot runners in South America with their sandals. You just feel the ground, feel the ball better. But in New York, they made us wear those black leather boots. It’s like playing football in a suit! But it’s all part of the uniform, part of the show—everyone the same. So I had to wear them every time we played. But in training games, or just doing drills with Pele, I put my own shoes on. I even made him a pair, one time! Giorgio laughed, but I think Pele liked them. He told me he’d practice with them on and learn to play like me. Like I said, he was some guy.”
As I was waiting for my flight back to London from Singapore, I was flicking through the sports pages. Kids not much older than Vincent had been in New York being signed up by mega-clubs for tens of millions of pounds; death threats for referees and calls to replace them all with video technology; fans hiring planes to pull banners calling for their team’s manager to be sacked; oil money deciding the destination of the game’s prizes. And I wondered what Vincent would have made of it all, had I shown him what Pele’s “beautiful game” had become; it made me think of Don McLean’s seventies tribute to another artist of the same name:
But I could have told you, Vincent—
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you…
Subscribe to receive new stories by email. Fortnightly.
We are all Upsideclown: Vic, Jamie, Neil, Matt, James, George, and Dan. Material © its respective author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org