The prodigal son of Brazil

GULU EZEKIEL

In the semifinals of the 1958 World Cup, Brazil beat France 5-2 and Pele(far right) became the youngest player to score a hat-trick-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

IT is doubtful if any sportsman has made such a huge impact on the world stage at such a young age as Pele. He was instrumental in Brazil winning the World Cup football title for the first time in Sweden in 1958 when just 17 years of age. It was the start of a brilliant career for the man who many still consider the greatest footballer of all time.

Pele went onto win many more laurels, including being part of the victorious Brazilian side at the 1962 and 1970 World Cups. But 1958 remains a special year in football history.

Though at his peak he would become one of the most recognised faces around the world and one of the richest sportspersons as well, Pele's beginnings could not have been humbler. He was born in a ramshackle house in the rundown neighbourhood of Tres Coracoes in the State of Minas Gerais on 23 October 1940 and christened Edson Arantes do Nascimento, though his first family pet name was Dico.

His father was a professional footballer of modest skills and means and from the moment he could walk, the infant Pele was kicking a ball. In his own words, "Brazilians learn to kick as soon as they learn to stand up; walking comes later."

Life was hard as the father struggled from one club to another, beset by injuries and with poverty a constant and unwanted companion for the ever-increasing family. "Poverty is a curse that depresses the mind, drains the spirit and poisons life. It is being robbed of self-respect and self-reliance. Poverty is fear," Pele wrote poignantly in his autobiography of these early days of struggle.

Pele's mother hated the mention of football. She blamed the game for the plight the family was in since her husband could never get a steady job. Though he spent his childhood kicking a ball around the streets, Pele swore he would never follow in his father's footsteps into professional football. Instead, he grew up wanting to be a pilot.

His first job experience though came at the tender age of seven as a shoe polisher. It was not till a year later that he began his formal schooling. And it was at school that he was given the new nickname of Pele, though he could never discover how it came about or its actual meaning. Always though, between the shoe-shining, the dreams of becoming a pilot and school, he would find time for a game of football. It was certainly in the genes as his father's late brother too had been a professional player.

The boys in the neighbourhood scraped together enough money for a proper ball and roughly hewn uniforms and little Pele's first club was born, the 7 September team. It would be his first tiny step towards superstardom. And always his father was there to impart coaching and tips.

It was when he was 12 that the club — now renamed Ameriquinha (Little America) — was entered in its first tournament — which they won. And Pele was the leading scorer.

Now all his dreams centred round the `Beautiful Game' and the idea of flying planes was forgotten. But within a year the club fell apart and around the same time so did Pele's education. Many of his former teammates now joined him in the junior club of the city they were living in, Bauru. Their big break came when it was announced that one of the legends of Brazilian football, Valdemar de Brito would be coaching them. For the teenaged Pele it was perhaps the turning point of his fledgling career as the coach introduced discipline and radical ideas that transformed the boys and the club.

A year later de Brito left to coach a professional team and once again Pele's young career appeared to be at the crossroads. But just as de Brito's appearance in his life changed things for the better, it was another veteran player, known as Senior Tim, who brought good tidings for Pele.

AP

Tim was coach of the Bangu club in Rio de Janeiro, where word of the young man's skills had by now reached. He offered Pele his first contract with a top professional side. It came like a bolt from the blue for Pele and his family — finally his chance to make it in the big league, something that fate had always denied his father.

However, Pele's protective mother would have nothing of it. No way would she allow her son, just 14, to move to the big bad city of Rio where he would be separated from the protective shield of his family.

The dream would be put on hold for another year and this time it was de Brito who once again played a decisive role. This time the offer was to join Santos, one of Brazil's most famous clubs.

Initially Pele was too small and light for play for the senior pro side and was kept in the juniors till he put on weight. For months he was fed on the kind of food he had rarely experienced at home. But the teenager was terribly homesick and beginning to wonder if he would ever reach the physical standards required of a top player. Within a week he even packed his bags and tried to slip away back to home, only to be persuaded to stay on.

Eventually Pele did make the first team thanks to an injury suffered by one of its top players and it was in his second match that he scored his first professional goal. That was against the Corinthians of Santo Andre and was played on 7 September (Brazil's Independence Day) 1956. He was just 15 years old. A year later he signed his first official contract and was on his way.

He soon fitted into the scheme of things and scored consistently. In fact, he was the top scorer for Santos and within a year was playing for a Brazilian selection team against selected players of Argentina. It was a great honour and one step away from full national colours. And the World Cup was rapidly approaching.

Despite making a mark so early, it still came as a shock when Pele heard over the radio that he had been selected to represent Brazil in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. This after just one full year of professional football.

Brazil had never won the World Cup before. Many felt they finally had the team to do it this time. And the name Pele — still a few months away from his 18th birthday — was on everybody's lips back home.

He did not disappoint. Though he did not score till the quarterfinals against Wales, the whole of Sweden was fascinated by the prodigal's skills. Pele considers his first goal against Wales — the only one of the match — the most important and unforgettable of his career.

In the semifinals against France which Brazil won 5-2, Pele became the youngest player to score a hat-trick. Brazil were the hot favourites for the final against the hosts. Poor Sweden did not know what had hit them. The semifinal scoreline was repeated and once again football's new star was in the thick of things. Brazil became world champions at last and Pele was the toast of the football world.

Back home, their fanatical supporters were delirious with joy. The triumphant team received tumultuous welcome wherever they went. The whole country indulged in wild celebrations.

Pele would become the first man to be part of three World Cup winning squads as Brazil retained their title in Chile in 1962 and then won again in Mexico in 1970.

But for that scrawny, impoverished lad who learnt his skills in the back streets of Bauru, nothing could ever match the magic of Sweden.