Pelé at 70
– What some who saw him play have said about Edson Arantes do Nascimento, a.k.a. Pelé, the world’s greatest soccer player:
“In the 1960s and 70s, no one did more for Brazil’s ‘happy’ image than Pelé.” Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil
“I told myself before the game, ‘he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else’. But I was wrong.” Tarcisio Burgnich, Italian defender who marked Pelé in the 1970 World Cup Final
“In some countries they wanted to touch him, in some they wanted to kiss him. In others they even kissed the ground he walked on. I thought it was beautiful, just beautiful.” Brazilian player Clodoaldo
“After the fifth goal, even I wanted to cheer for him.” Swedish player Sigge Parling on the 5×2 loss to Brazil at the World Cup Final in Stockholm
“I arrived hoping to stop a great man, but I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us.” Portugal’s Benfica player Costa Pereira on 5×2 loss to Santos in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup in Lisbon
“Pelé was the greatest – he was simply flawless. And off the pitch he is always smiling and upbeat. You never see him bad-tempered. He loves being Pelé.” Brazilian player Tostao
“When I saw Pelé play, it made me feel I should hang up my boots.” French player Just Fontaine
“You may be right. But you know nothing about football and I’ve seen Pelé play.” Brazilian coach Vicente Feola to team psychologist who said Pelé was too immature to play at Sweden 1958
“Pelé was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.” Dutch player Johan Cruyff
“His great secret was improvisation. Those things he did were in one moment. He had an extraordinary perception of the game.” Brazilian player Carlos Alberto Torres
“I sometimes feel as though football was invented for this magical player.” English player Sir Bobby Charlton
“The difficulty, the extraordinary, is not to score 1,000 goals like Pelé – it’s to score one goal like Pelé.” Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
“Pelé was so focused on winning the Trophy. It was like he knew it was his destiny. He was like a child waiting for Santa Claus.” 1970 Brazilian masseur Mario Américo
“Pelé was one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.” Andy Warhol
“Pelé played football for 22 years, and in that time he did more to promote world friendship and fraternity than any other ambassador anywhere.” Brazilian Ambassador to U.N. J.B. Pinheiro
“My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the President of the United States of America. But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pelé is.” Ronald Reagan
Malcolm Allison: “How do you spell Pelé?”
Pat Crerand: “Easy: G-O-D.” British TV commentators during Mexico 1970
Grace Under Rain
As he walked off the field, head down, oblivious, the crowd jeers turned into cheers. He waited until they grew louder and finally acknowledged us like the king he already was. It took him a second and we were all his forever.
Pelé, arguably football’s greatest player, had come to my hometown to play against my team. The rough first half had just ended, with no fancy plays or memorable greatness. Just another mid-week league game, in a cold and unforgiving winter. No other redeeming memory to speak of.
But no ordinary knight was among us that night. And he acted the part with style.
Sport fans are rude, raw, irrational the world over. Crude emotions always trace them, but civility is left out at the turnstiles. Just like at the Parthenon: Christians and pagans crowd the pit but to the beasts belongs the hour.
The land of the “jogo bonito” is no exception in this world unbounded brutality. The exquisite touch of skills, the artistry with the ball have their own bizarro mirror reflected at the bleaches, all screams and cursing and obscene gestures to match.
Let’s not get into the urine-bag throwing at random, the foul smelling bathrooms, the fights that break at chance between rivaling factions. And the slurs throw at women, let’s just not go there.
In such a cold and raining Wednesday, as only a place too close to Antarctica can be, 30 thousand or so of us were braving elements and matching odds but for a glimpse of a special player, to whom songs and toasts and accolades are still being raised.
Chanting our undying commitment to follow our blue team until the end of the world and back, that’s where we were this very night. That and for a chance to see how memories are built to last.
Ours was the no-nonsense team, the one that made its name an equal to the German blitzkrieg. We kick the ball and the opponent with the same gusto we keep an eye on the result. All else is fancy schmancy and we’ve no flair or patience for that.
It was 1969 and Pelé had already won two world championships with the national team. By then though, he was close to retirement, his great glory days left smashed in the fields of England three years earlier. For all it counted, he had nothing else to prove and a lot of reasons to just fade away.
No one knew then that a year later, he’d rise and enchant the world all over again. Football is a game for the minute. All else if for history books and they all were not yet written that night.
His team, Santos, was also fading fast. For all we knew, this was not a game for the ages. It all looked rather moldy and out of shape or focus. By the middle half, I was already thinking on my way home, some warm milk, the homework I never got to finish. But not for him, for sure. A lot was left to reach inside and offer to this unknown bunch. And we’ll get to see it, one way or another.
He may have managed some little plays, some sudden touches or phantom moves. Not much came out of that soaked pitch that night. But there was a moment I’ll need to die to forget.
First half is over. No score on the board. We’re standing above the visitor team’s lockers. The herd mentality was at full motion. So was the cursing and the peeing and the motto, always cheer the local team, and give hell to the adversary. And it can all be very loud.
So here he comes. The one who’d draw up Brazil to the map of the world, with a smile. No one else did it like him, this black dude from poor slums, who rose way past us and made his mark our own.
The rowdy crowd roars as he walks very slowly, fully aware of what kind of lion is about to be tamed tonight, as it always is whenever his team is the enemy.
He’s walking and being booed, cursed, trashed as if he has no business being there.
But just before ducking into the underground rooms, he stops and surveys his minions. The face-off takes a few seconds. His sworn enemies are caught in silence and lay down all weapons.
A moment worthier than the game’s score or the freezing rain, it’s singed on my itchy eyes, burned in my faulty memory. He looked at us and we bowed in awe: this is King Pelé and we’re nothing more than his subjects.
For all it’s worth, we could’ve lost that game. Nothing could’ve topped the experience to this rag-tag brood. One look of his and we were won over. One look to last for all the time we have left.
(Originally published in June, 2010.)
Don Diego de la Argentina
One of the greatest soccer players of all times, Argentine Diego Armando Maradona, reaches his 50th birthday, marked by unique achievements on the field and embarrassing mistakes off of it.
His playing ability and skills remain unmatched and it’s his arguably the most beautiful goal ever scored in an official tournament, against England in 1986, Mexico, during the second World Cup won by Argentina.
It’s also his one of his country’s most vexing moments, during the 1994 cup in the U.S., when Maradona failed a drug test and was banned from the competition. Since that quick exit, Argentina’s still to win another trophy.
His volatile personality, a magnet to controversy, threatens at times to obscure his achievements as a player. It also doesn’t help that to most he plays second fiddle to Brazil’s Pelé, who won two more tournaments than him, and far outscores everyone else in the game, almost 40 years after retiring.
In fact, Maradona’s public feud with Pelé is now part of the lore of the world’s most popular sports and a polarizing issue for its fans. Even his biggest victories seem to be multiplied by those of Pelé, except in what run-ins with the law and fan devotion verging on the bizarre are concerned.
His trials with illegal drugs and personal drama were often played out in public, and yet Argentines of all stripes would gladly light up candles for him anytime. Some went as far as to create the Church of Maradona, founded in 1998 and that counts 2010 as the year 50 D.D., Después de Diego (After Diego).
Still, to soccer lovers the world over, it’s more than simply coincidence that its two greatest idols were born exactly 20 years and a week apart, in two countries known for their petty but intense rivalry.
Thus, Maradona would be the Dionysius to Pelé’s Apollo, the dark, younger, unbound tango god and the sunny, wiser, hedonistic king of samba. Such over the top characterization, though, always gets in the way of a fully appreciation of such a complex and vulnerable public figure represented by the one once known as “Dieguito.”
But it seems appropriate that unlike Pelé’s 70th birthday celebrations last week, Maradona’s will be considerably more subdued because of the national mourning in Argentina for the sudden death of its former President Nestor Kirchner.
Once again, for a freak of destiny, his long anticipated coronation will be somewhat shortchanged, and he won’t be able to completely rule the headlines in his own birthday, sharing them instead, with the commentary and reflective news on the death of another powerful populist figure.
Or it may all be a bit of a payback from that infamous “Hand of God.” Whereas it once graced Maradona with an illegal and crucial goal, now it may be reminding him of its moody, counterbalancing whims. For if anyone’s greatness or disgrace would be close enough to be touched by the powers that be themselves, that would clearly be El Pibe de Oro.