Things were not going well for Vicente Feola, Brazil’s manager, on 11 June 1958. His team was playing its second group stage game of the 1958 World Cup against England at the Ullevi stadium in Sweden. Both teams were the biggest underachievers in the previous editions of the World Cup, but Brazil’s exits from five preceding competitions were most heartbreaking. Unlike England, the South American nation participated in the three World Cups organised before WW2 (and remains the only national team to have played at every World Cup up to this day).
Although a third-place finish in the 1938 edition with Leônidas, Brazil’s first star striker, seemed more of a failure than a stepping stone, the 1:2 loss against Uruguay at Maracanã before 200,000 home fans in the 1950 World Cup decisive fixture was a national disaster and, undoubtedly, one of the darkest days in Brazil’s history. The match against England ended in a dull 0:0 draw as Feola’s 4-2-4 formation did not work, questioning Brazil’s chances of qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament. It wasn’t England who was challenging Brazil’s hopes of qualification but the Soviet Union who made its first appearance in the World Cups and also drew against England in its opening game, surprising many.
Feola risked it all and started Garrincha against the Soviet side, as well as a 17-year-old promising striker Edson from Santos FC who did not even feature in the team’s two-legged World Cup qualifier against Peru a year earlier and played but a couple of friendlies for Brazil. He assisted his attacking partner Vavá in the second half of the game that ended with 2:0 on the scoreboard, staking out a claim for a striker position in Brazil’s XI for the next 13 years and becoming known to the entire world as Pelé.
Far beyond accolades
Pelé’s place in the history of The Game is questioned by many individuals nowadays who claim to know something about football but consider achievements of any player from the past unworthy, believing that the sport was way easier back then and that “the dinosaurs” are no match for the 21st century stars. Although ridiculous claims that there was no offside rule in Pelé’s days (which is, of course, not true, but is mentioned by people on the Internet so often that it has become a common misconception for millions of football fans), there is, unfortunately, some reasoning in favour of diminishing the Brazilian’s importance to the football history.
The most popular points are: Pelé never played for any European club and only had a multitude of goals worth virtually nothing to his name since those were scored against “farmers teams” in Brazil. Indeed, the King of Football spent almost his entire career at Santos FC so he never got to play any official fixtures against the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool, or Bayern Munich, and there are zero European Cups in his trophy cabinet. Let us put aside the obvious things like the fact that football was not as global as it is now, or that Europe did not enjoy its current overwhelming monopoly on club football back in the day, or that it was simply uncommon for Brazilians to leave for European clubs at that time, given that international transfers of players was still a rare thing. In fact, Pelé’s legacy is far more important than any calculable achievement possible.
People often say this as an excuse about players that showed brilliant skills and were hard-working but did not enjoy any major trophy success. This is not Pelé’s case, of course: he does not need any excuses, and one needs to be totally insane to call him trophyless. His three World Cup wins is a mind-blowing achievement that will hardly ever be repeated by anyone, let alone beaten, and his enormous contribution to the greatest era in the history of Santos, including two Copa Libertadores victories, cannot be overemphasised. However, this isn’t the reason Pelé is often referred to as the greatest football player in history (although it is completely pointless to pick just one person). It was his legacy and his influence on players and ordinary people all over the globe that made him immortal.
A celestial body
Despite television becoming an available experimental technology in the 1920s, it took decades for football to hit the screens around the world and charm all sorts of people: the poor and the rich, men and women, kids and elders. Although footage recorded at the first five World Cups exists, the 1958 edition of the tournament was the first one to be broadcasted globally. It was at that time when Pelé made his World Cup debut against the Soviet Union, a game that was only a curtain-raiser of his terrific display in the competition. The young Brazilian scored the only goal in the quarter-final win over Wales (becoming the youngest goalscorer in the World Cup history, a record that is still unbeaten) and went on to add a hat-trick to his name in the semi-final game against France. This was incredible enough for a player of his age, but it was his two goals in the final against the hosting nation Sweden that made Pelé football’s biggest (and earliest) superstar. ’
Brazil won the game 5:2, and Pelé’s first goal became one of the most recognisable parts of his career. Having received a cross with his chest near the penalty spot, he flicked the ball over the head of the defender and ran past him, striking the ball against the back of the net. This goal is the essence of Pelé’s manner of playing football: aesthetically admirable, acrobatic, and flexible. He didn’t make things look easy but rather made people on the other side of the screen gasp in amazement: many can do that at a beach party in São Paulo, but how dare he do so in a World Cup game?!
TV was becoming more and more widespread as Pelé developed his career, and although it wasn’t available to any household until the end of the century, people would gather around each TV set to see players they could only read about in newspapers before: in cafes and bars, houses and community clubs, vacation homes and children’s summer camps. The catchpenny phrase “football unites the world” was an actual thing back then in some sense as people from various parts of the world, be it South America, Europe, or Australia, New York City, Manchester or Kyiv, were watching the same fixtures and saw the same players bang goals and score headers hundreds or thousands of miles away. Think of this: people watching football on TV in the late 1950s or early 1960s must have thought of this the same way we think of the same stars being visible from anywhere on Earth during night, a simple but mind-blowing thing. There was a day when two moons, Pelé and Earth’s actual natural satellite, met together. On 19 November 1969, the King of Football scored his 1000th professional goal, and the Apollo 12 mission landed on the moon, hitting the headlines of newspapers across the globe together.
Unlike now, huge football clubs (Santos FC being one) or even national teams would collect their main income by touring across different countries as some sort of a roving circus, and Pelé’s career wasn’t an exception. Any country hosting an exhibition fixture with him in the squad would welcome Pelé with an enormous crowd of spectators who, unlike their fathers or grandfathers, could boast about seeing Pelé even before he came into town, thanks to the TV. And he duly delivered, always showing his best despite the lack of competitiveness in such friendlies.
Yes, the world was different back then, and an arrival of a world-renown chess player from abroad could attract attention that would be unimaginable these days, but Pelé was something else. Media loved him not just for his incredible footballing skills but also for his good temper: unlike many football legends of the past, Pelé was a Mr Nice Guy who never got into any ugly situations and was also a personality role model for millions.
Footballers of his era did not enjoy even a small fraction of wealth available to pretty mediocre players of today, but Pelé managed to capitalise on his success, and, unlike numerous grand athletes of the 20th century, showed the entire world that football is not just a beautiful and spectacular sport, but also a fabulous means of social mobility, allowing a black guy from a poor São Paulo family to attract love and respect from people anywhere in the world and to become a wealthy individual by just using his incredibly good skills and hard work.
Against all odds
Interestingly enough, Pelé’s biography is not just a path per aspera ad astra, but also the way of combating one’s own inner conflicts. The image of Pelé that we have now could be totally different or could not appear at all should he have made different decisions throughout his life. To start with, Edson’s nickname, Pelé, was something he totally did not like when he was a child, and he even confronted his classmates calling him so at first, proud of being named after Thomas Edison, the famous inventor.
“In Portuguese, when you kick the ball with the foot we say ‘Pe’, and maybe I made some mistakes, I don’t know, but my teammates started to say ‘Pe-lé’ more and more,” the Brazilian said. “I didn’t like it because my name was Edson, but it started and here I am. Anyway, my family and the ones [who] are close to me still call me Dico. That’s what they call me at home.”
Pelé’s unwillingness to move to a huge European club (Real Madrid, for instance, was known for attracting star players from overseas at the time) puzzles people nowadays, but who knows what turn his career would have taken if he had moved to play his club football across the Atlantic? Shortly before retirement, he joined New York Cosmos in the US, a club that attracted another major player of the era, Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer. No doubt that this trip had nothing to do with competitive football and was but the first step of Pelé becoming a commercial trademark, something that his contemporaries hardly knew how to do, often losing themselves in the world without football after retirement. He never attempted to go into coaching as many expected from him, becoming FIFA’s living symbol of football and a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO.
His success on the international stage could have not been that legendary, too: after an astonishing performance at the 1958 World Cup, he became an incontestable starter for his national team, unsurprisingly making the 1962 World Cup squad. This time, however, the competition that was held in Chile ended up horribly for him as after scoring a goal in the 2:0 opening win over Mexico, he tore his hamstring in the next game against Czechoslovakia which ruled him out for the rest of the tournament.
Brazil went on to win the World Cup anyway, becoming the second team in history to secure two consecutive World Cup triumphs after Italy’s success in the 1930s. The 1966 World Cup hosted by England welcomed Pelé at 25 years old, a prime age for any footballer. The competition turned out to be a major disappointment, however, as Brazil had to travel home after two shocking defeats against Hungary and Portugal that prevented them from passing the group stage. At this point, Pelé was considering retiring from the national team and declared that he would not go to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico since he became exhausted by opponents playing dirty against him, attempting to injure the Brazilian star and force him out of the pitch. It was the Brazilian FA that eventually persuaded him to join the 1970 World Cup squad, and it turned out to be just the right thing to do: Brazil won the competition pushing every opponent out of the way. Pelé provided six assists for his teammates and scored four goals, including the opening one in the final against Italy, heading the ball into the net after a lob from Roberto Rivelino despite being only 5 foot 8 tall.
Pelé’s outstanding World Cup record has carved him a place in the history of football for eternity, and his passing is a great loss to the entire world that is now mourning the King of Football. Despite being long-predicted — Pelé had been fighting colon cancer for several years, and it was revealed earlier in December that he was only receiving palliative care to that moment — his death is also a major tragedy for the most football-loving nation in the world, perhaps comparable only to the 1950 Maracanã disaster.
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