THE SAD news of Pelé’s death is also a reminder of our own mortality, a sign that the years are passing all too quickly and our youth becoming a distant memory. The memories he leaves behind are grand ones. Too often, we never reveal our full appreciation of a person until they are gone, the biggest compliments are paid at the graveside, but ever since Pelé retired, we’ve been singing his praises.
But now is the time for all football followers to pay homage to one of the game’s biggest influences. This not only provides an opportunity to applaud a man who became “the footballer” for many people, but also to let Edson Arantes do Nascimento know that the world still loves him. Pelé is one of the few individuals who could safely be called a legend in his own lifetime.
775 goals in 840 competitive games, 77 for Brazil in 92. A glittering career by any standards.
Pelé is in the same class as other legendary sportsmen and women who defined their sport: Don Bradman, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Babe Ruth, Muhammed Ali and Jesse Owens, to name but a few. Even those with no interest in their sports know their names.
Of course, we remember Pelé for his contribution to World Cups. He never played club football in Europe, so his reputation was built around the competition, from 1958 to 1970. Each time, Pelé was four years older, but the gaps merely served to strengthen the legend and keep the great moments quite vivid. His main career was with Santos of Sao Paulo, but the amount of money that could have been paid to his club by a European club like Real Madrid, AC Milan or Inter Milan would have been astronomical. The mystery of Pelé was comparable to the aura around Elvis Presley.
Inevitably, the image of Brazil was built around Pelé, the samba football that captivated the world, notably in 1970 when he was determined to erase the memory of 1966 when brutal European teams hacked away at him, supposedly paving the way for Eusébio to take over the mantle of the greatest player in the world. That didn’t happen; Eusébio never appeared again in the World Cup, but Pelé was back in Mexico, despite fears he would not play in the competition again.
Pelé was surrounded by sublime skills in the 1970 team, but he was the pivotal figure, not only scoring four goals, but also creating for others and demonstrating audacity and improvisation. Ironically, some of his finest moments included moments when he didn’t score; a lob from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia; a powerful header saved by England’s Gordon Banks; and a cheeky dummy against Uruguay. Most players wouldn’t have the nerve or ability to try such tricks, but for Pelé, nothing was out of bounds. Brazil have never really been able to live up to that 1970 team, although the 1982 side went close to recreating the magic of Pelé’s glorious summer. With his exit from the international stage, Brazil’s teams became less exciting and for some time, raw talent and virtuosity was in shorter supply. Some of their representatives in World Cups have been the antithesis of what we classify as Brazilian football.
If Pelé was the epitome of the “beautiful game” it is largely because he was its instigator in so many ways. He coined the phrase in his 1977 autobiography, “My Life and the Beautiful Game” and since then, “the beautiful game” has become part of the game’s lexicon.
And so too, has the name “Pelé”. Every major player, especially Brazil’s latest superstar, is compared to Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the young lad from Três Corações who wept with joy when he won the World Cup in 1958. This evening, many are weeping, but they will also be thankful they saw such a rare and wonderful talent.