Wilson Piazza: ‘Only God is perfect, but dare I say Pelé was perfect as well?’
Rivellino: ‘The King.’
Tostão: ‘Pelé had everything.’
Rivellino: ‘The greatest player in the world.’
Paulo Henrique: ‘Genius.’
Denilson: ‘Saviour of the fatherland.’
Antonio Lima: ‘Everyone knew Brazil depended on Pelé.’
Paulo Henrique: ‘I don’t even have the words to describe what Pelé was like.’
Edu: ‘He was a father, who taught us how to play.’
Antonio Lima: ‘He means everything.’
Marco Antônio: ‘He was the best player in the world and, in my mind, he will be until I die.’
Amarildo: ‘He was Pelé from the moment he began playing to the moment he retired.’
Paulo Henrique: ‘He never said he was going to lose, it was only about winning, do you understand?’
Rivellino: ‘Pelé has always been the biggest example in my life. I’ve never seen him complain about anything.’
Marco Antônio: ‘As a kid in Santos, I would go to watch him. He once played the ball off an opponent’s leg. I had never seen that.’
Gérson: ‘His thinking was always ahead of you.’
Marco Antônio: ‘God gave him everything.’
Tostão: ‘It was as if he was a computer − he calculated all movements of the opponents and the ball.’
Rivellino: ‘There are certain athletes who should be eternal.’
Marco Antônio: ‘I could die here and now, but I played alongside Pelé and that remains my salvation.’
Rivellino: ‘Thank God, he was born Brazilian.’
Rivellino: ‘And, I think, there won’t be anyone like him.’
* * *
Those who played and trained with Pelé feel privileged. They performed on pitches lit up by his radiance and dwelt in a ‘Pelé universe’. He was the synthesis of all talent. The lodestar of Santos. The talisman and top scorer of the Seleção. Triple world champion. Football’s first global superstar. Brazil’s ambassador. Black icon.
With his short haircut, oval face, bright eyes and impressive physique, Pelé seemed ageless. Yet, on a sunny afternoon in July 1971, when Brazil took on Yugoslavia, the Maracana clamoured for him one last time. The week before, Sao Paulo had feted him with a crown and a sceptre after a 1-1 draw against Austria. Rio left such hyperbole aside. From the stands, the fans implored him to stay, but the No. 10 was adamant: this would be his farewell match in the Brazil shirt. Amid the reverence and festivities, Pelé’s mind was drifting back to his father, Dondinho, who gave his son a simple piece of advice: ‘Quit, not when you are asked to retire; quit at the top.’ Pelé did just that.
Pride and fear
A skilled player but with a career curtailed by injury, Dondinho internalised the trauma of his career before passing his dreams on to his son. Pelé always wanted to emulate his father, much to the dismay of his mother, Dona Celeste, who viewed football as an unstable profession, one that brought Dondinho too much sadness and suffering. Why should her son experience the same torment? How would he provide for his family? At the age of 13, Pelé contributed to his parents’ household as a shoe-shiner and as a vendor of stolen peanuts … to his neighbourhood club.
His parents shaped him: from his father, he got the drive to train harder, run faster, play better and think smarter; from his mother, the fear of financial insecurity. Pride and fear equally moved the young Pelé. They, in part, made him outgrow Zizinho, his idol and Brazil’s 1950 midfield metronome.
At a young age, Pelé became synonymous with the World Cup. He was the hero, who rose, fell and triumphed in a classic play in three acts. By 1970 he was no longer the skinny teenager of Sweden 1958, but a stocky, cerebral player. Mature and calculated, his game was pragmatic and frugal. Roberto Miranda said, ‘He no longer had that velocity, intensity, he didn’t have that anymore. He played with the name that he had acquired in the previous World Cups.’
The man, the myth
The world never saw Pelé at his best. TV simply wasn’t around in the early 1960s. Even Jairzinho wonders how the spell of Pelé, an abstract genius to the modern mind, has persisted. He asked, ‘How is this extraordinary myth, that of a player considered the athlete of the century, being kept alive so strongly? It makes you reflect and think a lot, things look unreal.’
‘Those who didn’t follow Pelé from the start have a distorted view − that Pelé had his peak at the World Cup in 1970,’ explained Tostão, who watched Pelé as a teenager. ‘What happened with Pelé was the following: from 1957 until 1964, more or less, that was his pinnacle, because he was quick. He went to the  World Cup, consecrated. There was a championship in 1959 in which he scored two, three goals in every game, each one more spectacular than the last. He was so spectacular in a short period of time.’
Tostão pointed out that Pelé, in reality, hardly trained. From one match to the next, he barely had time to recover. He said, ‘Santos played too much. Everyone, the whole world, wanted to see Santos play. He never trained, he never prepared. From the age of 16 he followed that rhythm. It’s absurd.’
A natural phenomenon
Gérson said, ‘Watching a rested Pelé is one thing, watching Pelé on a crazy tour is something else.’
‘He never had specific fitness coaching. He was a natural phenomenon. He had speed, acceleration and physical capacity, all without preparation,’ added Tostão.
This Pelé danced through defences with the ball glued to his feet: the slick and sinuous movement of his goal against Mexico at the 1962 World Cup; the pace, poise and balance of his wonder strike against Benfica that same year in the Intercontinental Cup; exploits the leaner Pelé of 1958 and the bulkier Pelé of 1970 wouldn’t have accomplished. He embodied, for the first time perhaps, the concept of a modern-day player, of today’s super athletes. His football was a study in precision at an inconceivable pace.
Even in Mexico, where he often conserved his energy, he remained unstoppable. Pelé’s genius was indestructible. His audacious shot from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia was a simple message to his detractors: Pelé was still the best. He’d fooled his opponents. They thought they could contain a slower and older Pelé. But nobody could. In a way, Moore came closest, but to no avail. Did Alan Ball mark Pelé well? Perhaps. Ball’s effort was commendable but he was guilty of the cardinal sin: letting Pelé out of his sight for a split second.
‘He saved himself to keep going,’ said Miranda. ‘He slowed down and then went again.’
‘He could no longer ignite, but he still worried three opponents,’ said Marco Antônio.
His athleticism prevailed because his mind raced faster. His brain matched his feet.
‘He saw things differently, right?’ explained Gérson. ‘He noticed things before others did, that’s why you had to be … You weren’t going to compare yourself to him, so you had to always be on his tail, watching the play, but knowing where he was. Suddenly, he’d move. The players at the back, who set up the play, in particular for Pelé, had to have all their senses switched on because, otherwise, the moment would pass. And then came the complaint: “Are you sleeping back there?” For my set piece pass against [Czechoslovakia] to Pelé, which he controlled on his chest and scored from, I was watching him from on our half. I noticed that he was beginning to move to the outside of the defender. I did the same thing for the third goal against Italy, he headed the ball to Jairzinho.’
‘I learned [from Pelé] to have a different view of the game − to observe my team-mates and the opponents before I received the ball,’ said Clodoaldo.
An illustrious page in Brazilian football history
Brazilian teams were always a good mix of artists and athletes, of cerebral and vigorous. In 1958 Dadá and Garrincha were the virtuosos, Zagallo and Vava industrious. In 1970 Jairzinho was a sheer force of nature – a ‘bull’ according to Tostão − whereas Gérson, Rivellino and Tostão were the aesthetes. Pelé conflated the two characteristics the best. It’s what set him apart in a team of stars: he was both the supreme athlete and supreme artist.
‘Well, Pelé never ceased to surprise with new moves,’ said Carlos Alberto. ‘His halfway line attempt against Czechoslovakia was audacious. It was the first time a player had tried to do that; today everybody does it. For 12 years I played with Pelé at Santos and then at the Cosmos. Every game he played, Pelé could surprise. Those two moments against Uruguay were again unique. Pelé tried to do something that hadn’t been done before. In every game, he improvised, a hallmark of great Brazilian players.’
“ ‘It’s funny, you know?’ If it had been Jairzinho or Tostão, no one would comment on the attempts that didn’t go in’.”Dada
In a tribute for magazine Eight by Eight, journalist and book editor David Hirshey wrote of Pelé’s most illuminative moment in the semi-final:
‘… he stretched the boundaries of logic as far as humanly possible. Racing toward a seeing-eye through ball from the diminutive centre-forward Tostão that put him one on one with Uruguay’s standout goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiwiecz, Pelé appeared to have two choices: 1) chip the hardcharging keeper while running at full tilt; 2) drop a shoulder and dribble around him. He had a fraction to make those calculations … Pelé dismissed the two expected options, even though either manoeuvre would doubtlessly have resulted in an easy goal. But where’s the fun in that? In that instant, he had the audacity to reach for soccer perfection and rip a hole in the space-time continuum … His off-balance shot trickled past the far post by a centimetre, making it the greatest goal never scored in World Cup history.’
Jairzinho said, ‘Pelé let the ball pass and, in a capricious way, that thing that makes football, it was that marvellous move – moments like that, the unmissable, unforgettable ones – that lived on the longest in our minds, in the minds of fans, even more so than a real goal, do you understand?’
‘It’s funny, you know?’ chuckled Dadá, observing that ‘if it had been Jairzinho or Tostão, no one would comment on the attempts that didn’t go in’.
By 1970, and because of 1970, Nelson Rodrigues’s prophecy that Pelé belonged ‘more to the mythology of football than to football itself’ had come true. Pelé had been crowned the greatest player of all time and Brazil the happy free-wheeling masters of the game. Rodrigues had been the first to call Pelé the King and to the great playwright, who had little knowledge of the actual game, he was precisely that. But for those who played alongside Pelé, he was everything.
‘We are with the King, we are with God,’ Piazza remembered, lost in thought.
God can do no wrong
God and ten mortals formed the Brazilian team. That the No. 10 was a master at wrapping his arms around opponents and conning the referees is conveniently forgotten. Tostão went as far as to say: ‘He simulated at times, but it didn’t stand out.’ Even his fouling is praised, notably elbowing Uruguay’s Fontes as a reprisal in the semi-final. Piazza explains that Pelé ‘even knew how to go in hard, how to kick the shit out of someone’.
Tostão added, ‘That aggression was part of his talent, because, above all, one of Pelé’s greatest qualities was that when things were difficult, he was more aggressive. He had that desire, he wanted to turn things around. At times he shoved the defender. He used his body, his arms. [He was] aggressive and malicious. He wanted to win. He was a beast. He was not a soft player, to the contrary.’
‘He always said, “We must win, we will win!”’ added Rivellino.
Pelé’s benediction has no boundaries. They revered him when he closed his eyes on the bus or in the dressing room before a match to get in ‘his mood’, his mindset to allow him to outclass opponents and to keep on winning. Paulo Henrique recalled, ‘He would lie down, relaxing, with a towel. He was meditating for about five minutes. He had to do that to know what he had to do. He had to concentrate because for him everything was football, football, football. And he would lie there and be quiet. No one would mess with him. It was only him, only he did it. It was his.’
‘Pelé showed himself to be humble,’ added Miranda, sarcastically.
His meditation was also part of his cunning. He understood how to awe those around him, how to imbue himself with that veneration. In Mexico, Pelé was focused on his own objectives, as he’d always been. This was to be his last World Cup. It was his final chance to ascend the pantheon of the gods. ‘We knew that he was O Rei (the King), but to us he seemed just another guy,’ said Edu.
Pele, the symbol
With his third World Cup victory, Pelé transcended the game. He’d become an icon. Brazilians adored Garrincha, with whom they could identify themselves. Life was harsh on him, he didn’t belong to the establishment and his success was restricted to the pitch. But Pelé belonged to a different category altogether. He enacted Brazil’s ultimate collective fantasy: victory rendered the country important. Pelé represented a successful Brazil, a nation that taught the world.
For the government, he was a useful propaganda tool, an emblem of a united, buoyant nation on the march. A soldier in 1959, Pelé was alien to politics. He neither criticised the military dictatorship nor questioned the absence of democracy in Brazil. He was happy to receive the medal of the Order of Rio Branco alongside high-ranking members of the Serviço Nacional de Informaçao, the dictatorship’s secret service, and to fete the 1970 world title with General Médici at the Planalto. Did that fraternisation render Pelé an ally of the regime? This was a question that, as time passed by, was never truly answered. Pelé always remained vague about his own attitude during the military dictatorship.
For many football fans Pelé was the greatest ever. They moulded him − the man and the hero – to their own needs and likings. Kings, prime ministers, supermodels, rock stars, groupies, football officials, agents, broadcasters, journalists and hangers-on, everyone wanted a piece of Pelé. A football persona isn’t meant to hold such significance but Pelé lent himself to it. His aura unmatchable, he responded with friendliness and an infectious smile. Edson loved being Pelé, the superhero. He loved being the King.
Images captured of Pelé during his prime, and decades thereafter, reveal a life that must have been desperately claustrophobic. Amid all the euphoria and hysteria, Pelé always had to oblige the circus. ‘People wanted to touch him, take pictures, in short, see if Pelé was really human,’ said Clodoaldo. ‘On tour with Santos, he was almost seen as an extra-terrestrial.’
For mortals this would have been a life of incomparable solitude, hidden in plain sight, but not to Pelé. He always believed that he was the best, the greatest. Sitting at the table of his Santos lodgings, listening to the radio, Pelé, 17, wasn’t shocked to be called up for the 1958 World Cup and to be named alongside greats like Didi, Djalma Santos and Nilton Santos. No, he’d expected it. Early on he embraced what he perceived to be his destiny.
In an interview with Jornal dos Sports during the week leading up to his 1971 farewell match, he trotted out a line that he’d repeat over the years − Pelé was to become immortal. He was discussing his silly dream of winning an Oscar, wrapping up the final scenes of A Marcha, a movie in which he, implausibly, played Chico Bondade, the leader of an abolitionist movement. The interview’s context was different, but the underlying idea was the same − Pelé would never die. He already referred to himself in the third person. Edson had vanished, usurped by Pelé.
Those close to him, Antonio Lima, Edu, Pepe and Mengálvio, the old Santos guard, who still frequent his seaside house in Guaruja for long and joyful lunches or café com leite, argue that Edson is still around, you can be with the man who has put up with Pelé his entire life. Edu said, ‘Pelé wouldn’t be Pelé without Edson. Pelé stood out as Edson did as well, with his qualities and possibilities, like a normal person. He has humility and respect for family and friends. He receives us very well. His joy and happiness when he sees us is something fantastic, spectacular. We bring him some happiness as well.’
‘He joked with us: “If you think you will get rid of me, you can think again!”’ recalled Lima.
Back in 1971, against Yugoslavia, Brazilians simply wanted their football star to not retire. He wasn’t yet in the autumn of his career. He could still defy what convention dictated one could do with a ball. But Pelé, who redefined the game as well as the image of his nation, ignored the calls and cries. The King was abdicating.
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