Before the Champions League turned into the contemporary global powerhouse of football, the World Cup was seen as the pinnacle of the game, not only in terms of prestige but also of standards, tactical development and individual achievement. And the name Pele is synonymous with the tournament. He bestrode the game at the moment when Brazil established themselves as the greatest and most attractive power on the planet, everyone’s favourite “other” team.
Born in 1940 — just 52 years after Brazil abolished slavery — he takes his leave as the undisputed king of the global game. He was originally named Edson Arantes do Nascimento after Thomas Edison — his birth came as electricity was introduced to his remote hometown of Tres Coracoes in the state of Minas Gerais. A fitting name for a player who would go on to illuminate the game of football.
He did not set out with a global mission. As a 9-year-old he was struck by his father’s tears as he listened on the radio to Brazil’s defeat to Uruguay in the final of the 1950 World Cup. The child vowed to avenge the father’s tears. Brazil were still wearing white in 1950. Twenty years later their yellow shirts were synonymous with the beautiful game, with winning in style.
His is a tale in which natural talent meets drive and ambition. Pele’s father, known as Dondinho, was a highly rated player who suffered an injury that essentially put an end to his footballing prospects on the day that should have been his big break. The family were plunged into poverty and the youngster earned some cash as a shoeshine boy.
In order to take up the game he had to overcome fierce maternal resistance; football was an insecure profession, argued his mother, where you were only ever one injury away from the scrap heap. The young Pele — the origins of the nickname have never been entirely explained, and he originally hated it — paid attention. He gave himself the best chance of success by making the most of his enormous potential.
Brazilian soccer superstar Pele won three World Cup championships before finishing his career with the New York Cosmos.
Pele’s history with the World Cup is the classic drama in three acts. The hero makes his appearance and dazzles as a 17-year-old in Sweden in 1958. But this progress is interrupted by obstacles: injury cuts short his campaign as Brazil triumphed once more in 1962, and four years later they are eliminated early from the competition. With his claims to greatness in doubt, he goes back on his decision to not play in another World Cup and crowns his glory in Mexico in 1970, the first televised all across the globe, when the exotic quality of the images and the supreme quality of the team set the standard by which all subsequent Brazil sides have been judged.
Perhaps the most astounding aspect of the story is that the World Cup did not see Pele at his finest. In 1958 he was exuberant but raw, an outstanding work in progress. Twelve years later he knew all the tricks, was technically brilliant and had the calm in the penalty area that most players can only achieve in the wide-open spaces of midfield. But he had bulked up, and had lost some of the dynamism of his peak years.
His best World Cup goal came in 1962, the tournament that, were it not for injury, could have marked his definitive statement as a footballing genius. He played no further part in the competition after being injured against Czechoslovakia in the second match. But in the opening game against Mexico he sliced through the rival defence using all the virtues of the man in his prime, seizing the opportunity and charging with power and pace, changes of rhythm and astonishing two-footed control.
Pele’s dribbling was not like that of Lionel Messi, ball tied to his left boot. In Pele’s case, the ball appeared to bounce around him like an obedient puppy. “If Pele had not been born a man,” wrote Armando Nogueira, one of his best chroniclers, “he would have been born a ball.”
Frank Leboeuf reminisces over the passing of Brazilian football legend Pele, who died this week at the age of 82.
With skill and physique, hard work and intelligence he became a footballing machine. All of these attributes are evident in the match he considered the finest of his career. In 1962 the champions of Europe and South America met each other home and away to decide what was then seen as the world club title. In the first leg, Benfica of Portugal lost 3-2 away to Santos of Brazil, for whom Pele had scored twice. The Portuguese were confident of overturning the deficit in Lisbon but Pele ran riot, scoring three and setting up others as Santos raced into a 5-0 lead. Two Benfica goals in the last five minutes were mere consolation. Tapes of that match reveal a footballing force of nature, a player who stands out so much that he seems to belong to a different species.
A few years later, in preparation for the 1966 World Cup, the young Tostao was called up by Brazil for the first time. In Mexico 1970, the Pele-Tostao combination would dazzle the world, but at this point Tostao was little more than a young hopeful, grateful to be sharing training sessions with his idols from the conquests of 1958 and ’62. With characteristic astuteness, Tostao soon realised that most of the old-timers were long past their prime. Pele, though, was still at the top. Tostao’s father, a football fanatic, went along to one of the training sessions, and broke down in tears when his son introduced him to Pele. “It was as if he was in front of his God,” Tostao told me many years later.
Barcelona manager Xavi Hernández pays tribute to Brazilian football legend Pele, calling him a “reference for a whole generation.”
Inevitably, over time there was a price to be paid for such idolatry. Pele was surrounded by more than his fair share of “yes men” and those out to exploit him. Not all of his declarations and financial options were wise. The balance, though, is overwhelmingly positive. Not least because as Brazil’s sports minister in the mid-’90s, Pele worked hard to bring in freedom of contract for Brazilian players — a drive based on an admission that at the height of his influence as a player, he had not always made enough use of his power in the collective cause.
But it is as a footballer that he will and should be remembered, as he gave enormous pleasure to countless millions. For almost 20 years he was part of a Santos team that were one of the all-time great club sides. In the mid-’70s he came out of retirement to shine for the New York Cosmos and give a substantial push to the development of the game in the United States.
More than anything else, though, Pele was global royalty, the king of the World Cup. It seemed poignant that his health took another turn for the worse as the tournament in Qatar played out. He was, it seemed, still sufficiently healthy both to follow the competition and — more importantly — feel the love and respect emanating from the football community.
And in taking Brazil to the top, Pele had also made sure that football would be the planet’s No. 1 sport, and that the World Cup would be its quadrennial feast. The legends that came after him were, after all, inhabiting the house that he built.