If you take away emotion from elite sport, it is just another prosaic physical exercise that makes no real difference in any of our lives. But the powerful pull of the top athletes and the magic they conjure make us believers in a divine power; these individuals are blessed with a gift of being able to elicit emotions and wonders that otherwise would have remained dormant in the depths of the human heart.
The sheer joy of seeing Roger Federer caressing a one-handed backhand, or a flick of the legs by Sachin Tendulkar will always remain in the memories of everyone fortunate to have witnessed them. High-definition television, with its multi-camera angles, makes the greats of today more accessible than their predecessors.
But the nostalgic black-and-white pages of magazines and newspapers and the oral narrative of the 20th century primitive casts a halo over the heroes of that generation, their work not sullied or over-scrutinised under the microscopes of the modern world.
And when the high priest of that world left us, losing his final battle against the cussed cancer, the world of today grieved, eternally grateful to Edson Arantes do Nascimento for the stories and memories he has left with us. Hailing from the shanty town of Minas Gerais, Pele first danced into the hearts of all football fans when his nonchalant arrogance humbled every opponent at the Sweden World Cup of 1958. As a skinny 17-year-old, he scored six goals as Brazil won the first of its five world titles. He was an instant hero, a teenage charmer who bewitched the Western audience, who remained forever transfixed by his nimbleness and strength. England great Bobby Charlton faced Pele in a friendly at the Maracana a year later and like many was left perplexed by his wizardry. “It was as if I’d been foolish enough to catch to try and catch a gust of wind,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Pele was courted by the money bags of Europe, Juventus reportedly starting negotiations with a USD1 million offer, but he remained loyal to Santos, scoring 643 goals in 659 games. He led the Brazilian outfit to the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental titles in 1962 and ’63. But the global audience eagerly awaiting to see him at the 1962 World Cup in Chile was left disappointed when an old groin injury flared up in the second game against Czechoslovakia, ruling him out of the tournament, which Brazil won riding on the maverick brilliance of its right winger Garrincha. The next World Cup in England saw him brutally stopped by the physicality of Bulgaria and Portugal’s play, but he was back in four years for Mexico 1970, winning his third and last World Cup at 29, scoring the first goal in the 4-1 final win over Italy.
His move in 1974 to New York Cosmos, bankrolled by the Warner Brothers, made him an exotic entertainer travelling the world. One of such travels brought him to Kolkata in 1977 for a game against Mohun Bagan at the Eden Gardens. “The Eden Gardens that day was brimming with 90,000 spectators. Those were the lucky few who could get hold of a ticket among the millions of his fans dying to catch a glimpse of the greatest footballer on earth. As a footballer I had always idolised Pele and decided to join Mohun Bagan from East Bengal dreaming to play against the Brazilian wizard,” recalls Shyam Thapa, who played in the historic game. “I used to collect video recordings of Pele’s matches whenever I had a chance to visit abroad and would practise his trademark bicycle kicks and side volleys. It was a dream come true when I could really take the field against him and scored the first of the two goals for Mohun Bagan (the match ended 2-2). The best part was when the emperor appreciated my goal during the dinner at a prominent hotel in the city the same evening.”
His post-football life was less enchanting as he stumbled from one disastrous business venture to another and dabbled in politics, too, as the Sports Minister of Brazil between 1994 and 1998 in the cabinet of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the President of a right-wing coalition government.
Despite the setbacks while navigating a life away from the game, he retained his youthful exuberance and remained a sought-after, well-compensated football diplomat called often to sprinkle his stardust in gatherings of all sorts. His aura never diminished, and he remained a sports royalty whose transformative power impacted lives outside the realm of the playing field.
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