OF all my childhood gifts – the Adidas Beckenbauer boots, the Celtic outfits, the Subbuteo games – the Brazil strip that came on Christmas Day 1970 provided the greatest thrill. I’d got the Celtic strip the previous year, but at my school those green and white hoops were regarded more as a rite than a gift, destined to arrive at some point between your first Holy Communion and the sacrament of Confirmation.

That Brazil strip was something else again: glamorous and esoteric … and wholly unexpected; an artwork lighting up a monochrome Glasgow childhood. The yellow top with the green trimmings carried the badge of the Brazilian Football Federation. Even that wee escutcheon seemed suave. And then those sky blue shorts and the white socks topped with bands of green and yellow. Later I discovered it had come from Lumley’s on Sauchiehall Street, the sports shop which provided geography lessons wrapped in the colours of the world’s best football teams to West of Scotland schoolboys.

I’d started going to football matches a year or so previously, but at the World Cup in Mexico in the summer of 1970 my football consciousness was raised to a new level. And mainly through the deeds of the Brazilian football team. Their star player was Pele, or Pe-lay as the great English sports commentator, David Coleman called him. He was the player that my dad’s generation all talked about.

I loved all his teammates as well though, especially Rivelinno who sported a big, bushy Pancho Villa moustache and could bend the ball around a wall of players with his ‘banana-kick’ routine. And they were all known by chic single names, which added something cinematic to them: Gerson, Tostao, Jairzinho, Clodoaldo. Only their captain, Carlos Alberto had two names. But who wouldn’t want to be called Carlos Alberto?

I still remember my dad and my uncles being mesmerised by a move Pele executed that didn’t result in a goal. It had come against Uruguay and had seemed to convey a mastery of geometry as well as footballing technique.

I can still see it now. There’s Pele running to receive a long, diagonal pass struck with some pace. The goalkeeper rushes to avert the danger and you’re expecting Pele to get there first, take it round him and slip it into the net. It would have been a fine goal, but perhaps in the moment Pele felt he could imbue it with a wee sprinkling of angel-dust.

Instead of taking the ball himself he lets it run on and heads in the opposite direction, leaving the keeper marooned miles from his goal-line. Now Pele’s running back across to fetch the ball which is heading out of play. Pele’s dead fast though, and he reaches it and gets his shot away, but the angle has become too tight and the ball slides just past the wrong side of the post. This was sorcery. And perhaps it’s what older witnesses mean when they say that Pele re-drew the boundaries of what was then thought possible on a football field.

Another memory stands out from that World Cup. It’s when Pele exchanges shirts with the England captain Bobby Moore at the end of their match earlier in the tournament. That was new too, and so was the expression of mutual respect that passed between these two great players in that moment. This was the game where Gordon Banks performs a feat of breath-taking athleticism to thwart Pele’s header (incidentally, if you ever get the chance to watch a recording of this game you’ll agree that no England side has ever performed better than it did in that 1-0 defeat).

Pele wasn’t yet 30 when he retired from international football and a few years later he became the pre-eminent marketing face of the fledgling professional game in the US. It’s tempting to think that if he’d played in the modern era he’d have spent his best years playing for one of the major English, Italian or Spanish sides. But such observations are trite and simplistic.

And besides, in an era when skilful players were afforded far less protection by referees, Pele had – quite literally – been kicked and trampled out of the World Cup in England in 1966 by brutal Portuguese defenders. And it was probably this more than anything else that persuaded him to remain in Brazil with Santos.

Several footballers who came after have been touched by greatness. But in 1958 Pele, at the age of 17, scored the best goal ever seen in a World Cup final when he juggled the ball past several Swedish defenders before scoring. Only Diego Maradona really compares.

And this is important too. The emergence of a gifted black athlete who would go on to become arguably the world’s greatest sporting and international diplomat was an eternal rebuke to racial inequality and the forces of white supremacy.

Nor can you overlook another testament to his greatness. Pele, like Diego Maradona – his only rival for the title of Greatest Ever – emerged from a neighbourhood blighted by unimaginable poverty. The grace, eloquence and style he brought to his role as a global ambassador was entirely natural and self-taught.

Occasionally, Pele and his international teammates – like great Brazil teams since – have been subject to occasional criticism for failing to condemn the corruption and brutality of the right-wing regimes which have held sway in Brazilian politics. This though, is absurd. Most of these players and their families survived extreme deprivation; they don’t need any advice from us in affluent Europe about their moral and social obligations.

Another hackneyed narrative attaches to the eye-watering riches that modern footballers can command. These are often described as obscene and immoral. “… and none of them are as good as Pele”. But I’ve never heard Pele espousing such sentiments. Indeed, you rarely hear the greats from previous generations express envy or contempt at the financial rewards offered to their successors.

They perhaps know more than most that for a century or so, top players received paltry wages while the business classes exploited their genius. It’s only in recent years that these footballers, mainly of working-class origin, have gained access to the riches that commercial predators had enjoyed for decades on the back of their efforts. Pele helped make it all possible.

In the grand scheme, football probably commands a disproportionate degree of importance and influence. But for some of those who have little, it will always hold out the promise of something better. For the rest, it provides solace and fleeting joy. Pele gave us both. God rest him.