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 of 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.