Let’s pay tribute to Pelé while we can

THE SAD news of Pelé’s declining health 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. Pelé may not be with us for long, but the memories he will leave behind will be 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.

About 15 years ago, a friend of mind was dying and he had handled his impending death with class, dignity and pragmatism. I was so moved that I wrote him a short letter expressing my admiration. When I handed it to him, I said I wanted him to know he was appreciated while we could still talk.

As Pelé’s life ebbs to a close, all football followers should 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. When this remarkable man leaves us, many will also weep, but they will also be thankful that they saw such a rare and wonderful talent. We should all wish him peace and courage at this difficult time.

Football club ownership is about to widen the chasms in the game

WITH Manchester United and Liverpool now on the market, both valued at well over £ 3 billion, another tranche of English football is about to move into the hands of investors from either the Middle East or the United States of America. As it stands, it looks as though both clubs may become part of the asset portfolio of an oil state, which would probably take both clubs to a comparable level to Manchester City and Newcastle United. The competitive advantages that Manchester City have may become eroded and two of the clubs that have complained vehemently about the uneven playing field that state ownership creates will move much closer to their despised rivals. It’s a contemporary version of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

If, as expected, the new owners of Liverpool and Manchester United emerge as Middle Eastern petrostates, it reinforces the strength of both clubs and also becomes a wedge between them and those scrambling below. In other words, the already substantial gulf becomes wider as more clubs become beneficiaries of Arab money. The protests over Newcastle United’s takeover by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) sovereign wealth fund will surely be replicated in Liverpool and Manchester. Or will they?

Levels

Club ownership now has a kind of league table of its own. The Middle East is top of that league as the owners rarely want much in return. They see a successful football club as good for their image, something which can provide positive public relations, enhance their relationship with football authorities and help smooth the path of business. Call it sportswashing, manipulation or disingenuous, but a club owned by a country with a challenging reputation will undoubtedly receive lots of money. Roman Abramovich had a similar relationship with Chelsea, although his one big requirement was the indulgence of impatience. Managers were not allowed to “fail” but Chelsea fans consider the Russian was a good owner, delivering plenty of success.

The second level of ownership comes from the United States, a growing group of investors who are very different from the oil states. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, among others, are in this group at the moment. Typical US sports team owners demand success on the field, but they also want to run their club as a fairly sensible business, use modern methods to buy and sell players and they also expect some sort of return from their investment. If things go well, the fans sing the praises of the owners, but as soon as success dries up or becomes more spasmodic, criticism of the owners’ lack of investment or financial priorities starts to dominate the narrative. Arsenal fans were very vocal and demonstrative about Stan Kroenke over the past couple of years, but with the Gunners flying high and playing well in 2022-23, the noise appears to have subsided. Kroenke’s name has barely been in the press this season. Fenway were praised when Liverpool won the Champions League and Premier League, but recently there have been suggestions they should move on. Manchester United’s dislike of the Glazers dates back to the very beginning of their relationship, but with almost a decade of aimless wandering, the popularity of the US family has never been lower. It was no surprise when the news was released of the Glazers’ desire to look at fresh investment in the club, a comment that could be translated as, “we want to sell”.

For the few

The sale of Chelsea to a consortium fronted by Todd Boehly, for a very lucrative price, has been the catalyst for a number of potential divestments in the game. At the very top, football clubs are very cash generative and they can be good for your image, although the vast majority of football followers can see the  agenda of countries who want to deflect from criticism of their human rights record and social/political conditions. Sadly, football sells its soul all too cheaply and too many fans choose to ignore the moral hazards of aligning clubs with regimes that discriminate on a grand scale. The winning of silverware should not be more important than the crimes and misdemeanours of intolerant societies. It is also wrong to turn a blind eye if its suits your own purposes.

Modern football is a capitalist game that relies on the generosity of benefactors and investors. Clubs no longer “belong” to fans, apart from those that are bespoke fan-owned models. If you open yourself to the benefits and perils of the free market, then you have to take your chances. Manchester United benefitted from their forays into the capital markets back in the early 1990s and this helped create the empire that dominated football until the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. But in doing this, the club also became an asset that could exchange hands and be the subject of takeovers or hostile takeovers.

The Glazers reputedly used a technique known as a Leveraged Buyout (LBO) when they bought United, loading debt onto the club borrowed to acquire their stake. While this was a much-used method for M&A markets, it was largely unknown in football at the time.

With clubs now worth far more than they ever were, prospective buyers start to become scarcer and in those circumstances, the net has to be cast wider and into territories that may not be wholly compatible. A club worth £ 4 billion only has so many takers and the appetite will also be largely governed by macro-economics as much as personal wealth.

The more owners of the type that have made Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City into clubs with extraordinary resources, the more football leaves behind its past and solidifies the elite. Fans may complain about their owners and also those rivals that have unfair advantages, but deep down, they really want their own club to enjoy the same sort of status and that often means some have to eat their words. Be prepared for campaigns of justification in the weeks ahead if the Middle East rolls into town once or twice more.