After Pele made his international debut in 1957, Brazil was third in South America’s pecking order behind Argentina and Uruguay. Fourteen years later, when Pele removed the yellow shirt for the last time after winning three World Cups in four tournaments, the ranking had shifted.
Brazil was the undoubted kings of soccer, revered not only for their own triumphs but also for the fashionable swagger with which they were achieved. And Pele was the chief of the bunch, an ambassador for the worldwide game whose exploits had helped flip the World Cup into one of the world’s great TV events.
All this implies that Pele’s 80th birthday on Friday is a landmark to be celebrated, along with a chance for today’s footballers to live on the indisputable fact they are standing on the shoulders of a giant who came to the world as Edson Arantes do Nascimento on Oct. 23, 1940. Not even he is entirely sure of the way he picked up his nickname of Pele along the way. It is a mark of Pele’s genius that he’s so synonymous with the World Cup, even though the tournament likely did not see him at his absolute finest.
In Sweden 1958, he was an extraordinarily talented 17-year-old, joyful and precocious. But he was still a skinny kid who had yet to fill out. Twelve decades after at Mexico 1970, he defied arguments he was too old to glow using a campaign of wonderful maturity, working as the assaulting fulcrum of a fantastic side. But he was beyond his physical peak. He had bulked up, and there were few indications of the participant who, at his best in 1962 and’63, used to run with the ball as if it had been an obedient pup; charging through the world’s finest defenses as though they were pub sides.
The Chile World Cup in 1962 might have been his definitive statement. The goal he scored in the opening match against Mexico ranks among the biggest of his World Cup career, but he was hurt within the next game and played no further part in the championship. The very best Pele, in his estimation, came later that season — as well as so frequently in his career, on the big occasion. The yearly two-legged competition between the champions of Europe and South America started to fizzle out in the late’60s amid excesses of controversy and violence.
Briefly, though, it had been the highlight of this club game — which surely implemented in 1962, when Santos of Brazil fulfilled Benfica of Portugal. After moving down to a narrow 3-2 defeat in Rio de Janeiro, Benfica was very confident they had come out on top in Lisbon. However, on an October night, Pele ran riot. It was there — speed, balance, strength, eyesight, two-footed talent, cool decision-making. He scored three and made one as Santos won 5-2, using a couple of late Benfica goals making the score look more respectable.
Pele was — on that night and on a lot of during his playing days — a system for playing football. It is hard to think of any participant who has ever been more technically complete; Brazil’s coaches would even state that he had been the squad’s best goalkeeper. In addition, he comes across as a psychological phenomenon, a blend of different facets of his parents synthesized into athletic excellence.
His father, called Dondinho, was a skilled and smart footballer with an easygoing character and a ready grin. His mother had ferocious strength of character which, with girls denied an outlet for their abilities at the time, might be channeled into the anxiety of being unable to provide for her family. Dondinho’s football dreams ended in serious harm, plunging the family into poverty and making Pele’s mother dead set against the concept of a career in football for her own son.
Those maternal reservations were overcome, but the lessons remained with him. He was entering an insecure profession, full of dangers. He must take nothing for granted and make sure to look after himself financially. Pele was spurred on by the two most powerful motivating forces. There was also the pride in his career that he took out of his dad, along with the fear of failure placed in him by his mom. Working collectively, pride and anxiety pushed him harder — to think quicker, run harder, jump higher, train better, react better to stress.
The often tiresome arguments regarding the greatest of all time can turn out to be even more tiresome when Pele’s advocates start talking about the over 1,000 goals that he scored. Many came in friendlies; Santos played lots of them because in the time it was a lot more lucrative than taking part in the South American equivalent of the Champions League, and it would have been impossible otherwise for a relatively small club to pay Pele and his brilliant supporting cast.
However, Pele’s genius didn’t lay in only statistical accumulation, in calculating how many goals he scored when playing for the Brazilian Army. Mere numbers cannot do him justice. His greatness lies in the manner he bestrode the big occasions, and in the quality of the memories, his career leaves behind.
In 1970, his assaulting spouse was Tostao, probably the brightest of his teammates. Tostao remembers introducing Pele to his dad — and visiting his dad break down in tears:”It was like he was facing his God!”Before the 1958 World Cup that the playwright Nelson Rodrigues, an eccentric but brilliant and influential observer of Brazilian soccer, identified Pele as a genius. He had been the first to call him that the king of football. While Pele was still a teenager, Rodrigues was arguing that he could greet Michelangelo, Homer or Dante on equivalent terms, which” he belongs more to the mythology of football than to football itself.”There’s a price to be paid for this adulation.
In a meeting with the Jornal do Brasil in June of 2004, Pele put himself in a category with different 1960s figures — The Beatles and The Stones, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, and Muhammad Ali — and declared himself”superior” to them all, possibly for their links with drugs or with politics. It came as an unwise announcement, but that aggressive drive did not switch off at the moment when he hung his boots up. His body has also taken a tollfree. Hip replacements imply that he is not as portable as he would like and the cautious curator of his image and heritage, he had become more reluctant to be seen in public even before the COVID-19 pandemic set him into isolation.
However, he will surely feel and love the tide of affection to him from all over the planet on Friday. Pele gave immense pleasure to millions and helped to set up a structure that has given pleasure to countless more in the decades since he murdered. And by the marvels of social networking, his footballing variations of the Sistine Chapel can be found for all to watch, love, and join the chorus of happy birthday.