Pelé: The man football was invented for

As part of its coverage of the 1970 World Cup, ITV, the British television network, broadcasted a post-match studio show featuring pundits and former players and current stars from countries that hadn’t qualified for the then 16-team tournament in Mexico.

The panel analyzed the day’s action, traded jabs and answered questions sent in by viewers.

At one point during a World Cup dominated by Brazil, Malcolm Allison, a coach at Manchester City, had a question of his own.

“How do you spell Pelé?” Allison asked.

“Easy,” Pat Crerand, the Manchester United and Scotland star, said without missing a beat. “G-O-D.”

To watch Pelé in his prime was to undergo an almost spiritual experience, to bear witness to 90 minutes of proof that there is something beyond our imaginations, beyond our comprehension in the stars.

Pelé’s football wasn’t so much a game as it was a divine act. Fittingly, Pele in Hebrew means “miracle.”

“Pelé,” Johan Cruyff, the Dutch master, once said, “was the only player who surpassed the boundaries of logic.”

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known to the world on a first name basis by his childhood nickname, the missionary who launched a soccer revolution in this country with otherworldly gifts and larger than life personality, died Thursday at the age of 82 after a long battle with cancer.

Named for the inventor who gave the world light, Pele was the sport’s brightest star for three decades. Born and raised in poverty, he spent much of his life as the most famous man on the planet, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, overshadowing heads of state, popes and rock stars.

“My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the president of the United States of America,” Ronald Reagan said while introducing himself. “But you don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pele is.”

He was the world’s game’s first truly global and transcendent superstar, his brilliance beaming to small African and South American villages, behind the Iron Curtain and China’s Great Wall, across Europe and the Americas. Both sides in Nigeria’s civil war agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire in 1967 so Pelé could take part in an exhibition match in the country. Indeed even before Muhammad Ali, Pelé emerged as an icon and inspiration for Black people around the world, including a political prisoner imprisoned on South Africa’s Robben Island.

“To watch him play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full,” Nelson Mandela once said.

That joy and imagination and wonder of a child, his oh-so-rare gifts, elevated his sport into an art form.

“The moment the ball arrived at Pelé’s feet, football transformed into poetry,” Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian poet and playwright, once said.

For decades the sport was referred to as the “simple game.” During Brazil’s run to a then-record three World Cup titles between 1958 and 1970, Pelé transformed the simple game into “jogo bonito.” The beautiful game. Pelé put beauty into the world’s game.

“I sometimes feel as though football was invented for this magical player,” said Sir Bobby Charlton, the former Manchester United and England superstar.

Pelé invented soccer in this country. The popularity of the United States can be traced to Pelé’s 1975 signing with the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. The Brazilian government declared Pele an official national treasure in the early 1960s, preventing him from being sold to European clubs. His arrival in the U.S. was facilitated in part by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asking the Brazilian government to lift the prohibition on Pele signing with a foreign club. He spent the next three summers playing before sold out crowds coast to coast, planting the seeds for a sport now in full bloom, before playing his final competitive match, the Cosmos’ victory in Soccer Bowl ‘77 in Portland. (I was among the paying customers that day.)

Cruyff, George Best, Eusebio, West Germany World Cup stars Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller all followed Pelé to America.

Eventually the world would as well.

Without Pelé, there’s no 1994 World Cup. There’s no summer of 1999. There’s also no MLS. There’s no Mia or Alex. No Premier League Mornings on NBC. There’s no Manchester United and Liverpool playing before 101,000 at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Pelé’s impact on the game globally is also undeniable.

Argentina’s epic victory against France in the World Cup final earlier this month has further fueled the debate over who’s the game’s greatest player: Lionel Messi, the hero of Qatar ‘22, his petulant contemporary Cristiano Ronaldo, the tortured genius Diego Maradona, Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano, the superstar of Real Madrid’s 1950s dynasty or Pelé. It is an exercise in the unnecessary.

There is no debate.

“Pelé is the greatest player of all time,” Beckenbauer told the magazine 90 Minutes. “He reigned supreme for 20 years. All the others–Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini–rank beneath him. There’s no one to compare with Pelé.”

He is the only player to win three World Cups. He scored a world record 1,279 goals in 1,363 matches, 77 in 92 games for Brazil. FIFA named Pelé and Maradona as joint players of the century. The International Olympic Committee named Pelé athlete of the century.

“The greatest player was Di Stefano,” said Ferenc Puskas, who played with Di Stefano at Real Madrid. “I refuse to classify Pelé as a player. He was above that.”

He was named after the inventor Thomas Edison, his birth coming shortly after electricity became available in his hometown of Tres Coracoes, a small city in southeast Brazil. The son of a former professional player, Pele’s first pitches were city streets. Grapefruits or bundles of newspaper held together by string were his first ball. He was stuck with the nickname Pele as boy after mispronouncing the name of a Vasco de Gama goalkeeper Bile. Pelé was brought to the attention of Santos, a club in the port city of the same name near Sao Paulo, at the age of 15 in 1956. The scout who discovered Pelé told the club he would become the best player in the world.

Two years later he was.

Pelé, just 17 and then the youngest player in World Cup history, scored a hat-trick in the 1958 tournament’s semifinal against France.

“When I saw Pelé play, it made me feel I should hang up my boots,” French superstar Just Fontaine said.

Pelé added two more goals in a 5-2 romp over Sweden in the World Cup final.

“When Pelé scored the fifth goal in that Final,” Sweden midfielder Sigvard Parling said, “I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding.”

He opened the scoring in a 4-1 blowout of Italy in the 1970 World Cup final in Mexico City and then with a stroke of simplistic brilliance set up Brazil’s final goal, a blast from overlapping defender Carlos Alberto that more than 50 years later remains one of the most iconic goals in the tournament’s history.

“An artist, in my eyes, is someone who can lighten up a dark room,” former Manchester United and France forward Eric Cantona said. “I have never and will never find the difference between the pass from Pelé to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud. There is in each of these human manifestations an expression of beauty which touches us and gives us a feeling of eternity.”

Cantona was right. Pelé was poetry come to life.

Rimbaud wrote, “I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star, and I dance.”

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Pelé did just that, dancing around a planet held captive by his genius. In life, he was emulated on streets and dirt pitches and state-of-the-art stadiums across the globe, courted by pop icons and kings.

“Muhammad Ali was waving to the crowd, blowing kisses, doing the Muhammad Ali thing,” Cosmos goalie Shep Messing said after Pelé’s farewell match at Giants Stadium in October 1977 “As soon as he walked into the locker room and saw Pelé…he was like a star-struck child.”

Andy Warhol once said, “Pelé was one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.”

So now he belongs to the ages, the world forever at his feet.


Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, winner of record 3 World Cups, has died at 82

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