Football dies a little next to Pele, the greatest of all in the greatest of sports. However expected or anticipated the event was, it remains tragic. We lost the man who anticipated the future and redefined the game in all its dimensions, who, based on goals, dribbling and charisma, introduced Brazil to the world.
Never before has a celebrity been so exposed to public scrutiny as Edson Arantes do Nascimento. For the last 65 years, every detail of their behavior has been exhaustively covered, debated, criticized. The man, the father, the husband, the singer, the actor, the politician, the Brazilian ambassador, the friend of power, in all these roles Pelé was a product of his time. The many verdicts on him have been and will continue to be scrutinized or revised, more or less fairly.
But the fundamental Pelé, the Pelé who gave rise to all the others, this one should not be a reason for doubt. Pelé, the footballer, the one who came from another dimension to revolutionize football and establish worldwide devotion to the game, to the Brazilian team, to Santos FC, to the number 10 shirt, this is indisputable.
How to preserve the legacy left by Pelé
December 29, 2022, the day Pelé died at the age of 82, will forever be the saddest day in football history. As of this date, all of us who love this game have a mission that we cannot abandon: prevent Pelé and football from dying any more; Preserve his legacy, don’t allow the campaign to prosper to reduce his achievements on the field.
In one more act of this indomitable game, Pelé only died after seeing, from a hospital bed in São Paulo, the definitive consecration of Lionel Messi, which also became synonymous with football. The Doha epic makes it tempting to put Messi on top, maybe there’s even some justice in that, who knows, football doesn’t stick to such details. Soccer happily allows polytheism. But Pelé did it before, he did it better, he did it more times, he did it in more difficult conditions.
And, in addition, he did it all in front of fewer cameras. All his skill, power, grace and strength were produced in stadiums without screens, shown less frequently, on smaller televisions, with fewer colours, in a still disorganized global football – of which Pelé would be a pioneer. The excursions in which Santos and the Brazilian National Team toured the planet were the equivalent of today’s Champions League: a way to bring together the best players in the world. Our duty is to always remember that scoring three or four goals in a friendly in Europe against Milan, Barcelona or Manchester United in the 1960s was something more difficult and more relevant than scoring against Ludogorets, Apoel or Girona in the year 2000.
It wasn’t just the friendlies, of course. Scottish journalist Andrew Downie, author of a seminal book on the 1970 World Cup, analyzed the King’s numbers. “In all the years until 1966, when he was literally kicked out of the World Cup in England, Pelé averaged more than one goal per game in official matches. Between 1962 and 1963, he played in 11 official tournaments and won 10, including the World Cup, the Club World Cup twice, the Copa Libertadores twice and the Copa Brasil twice. All this after having scored six goals in four games in the 1958 World Cup, at the age of 17. All this long before the World Cup in Mexico, understood by the world (incorrectly, but understandably) as the peak of his career.
Where would Pelé be if he had played at this time?
Today Pelé would be contested by Russian oligarchs, American tycoons and Middle Eastern monarchies. It would parade across our televisions every Wednesday afternoon and every Sunday morning. Series prepared and recovered by scientists and machines that did not exist in their time. He would be protected by the referees; he would suffer and convert all the penalties detected by the VAR into goals. Pelé invented the modern game with no tools at his disposal other than his own talent, his own determination and teammates whose presence inspired and transformed into better players.
As if that wasn’t enough, he was a hungry winner, for whom defeat was an unacceptable fate. We owe to Pelé the evolution of the game and the explosion of interest in the game. Lionel Messi Kylian Mbappe, that wowed us at the World Cup final in Qatar, were and are inevitable, as will their successors, finished products of an environment designed to exploit their talents with beautiful uniforms on perfect pitches and repeat their goals and dribbles from a thousand different angles, all time, on screens of all sizes. This world only exists because Pelé existed.
For O’Globo. America Newspaper Group