Pelé did everything first – his innocence and joy will live forever

The video had existed in its smartphone-packed virality for almost exactly one year. As the 2022 World Cup kicked off in Qatar on November 19, it was a tweet from November 20 of the previous year that resurfaced.

It’s just two minutes and 20 seconds but that says it all. One by one, more modern masters of the beautiful game are shown performing iconic, iconic skills or scoring outrageous, sublime goals, and then the screen fades to black and white to show that Pelé, inevitably, did it first. Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Johan Cruyff, Neymar, Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo… Pelé did it first. All.

It’s a fascinating watch and went viral again at the start of another World Cup, in a way it was the game remembering how it got here. By Thursday evening, when the world learned of Pelé’s death at 82, it had been viewed 25 million times. We dare say there will be millions more in the days to come.

There’s only one problem: the caption that accompanies it. In Portuguese, it starts with “Pelé vinha do futuro…” Pelé came from the future. Except he didn’t. The future came from him.

The Brazilian giant’s poor health had been so long that hundreds of tributes and obituaries had long since been written, organized and updated, eerily ready and awaiting Thursday’s confirmation that he had finally succumbed to colon cancer. , as well as kidney and prostate problems. having wasted his last years. As they flowed free, they rightly paid tribute to the utterly remarkable life of O Rei, the King, a man who had transcended his sport even as he transformed it, then spent the rest of his life watching him try to live up to him.

Soccer, futbol, ​​football. Pelé was all of them, even if you didn’t like any of them. Just like Ali is boxing, Tiger is golf, Michael is basketball, and Serena is tennis. But Pelé did it first and, with the possible exception of Ali, did it in a way that no other has ever matched.

In the rising sea of ​​tributes on Thursday, there was a craving for those who came from the most informed point of view – the first-hand observers. Like most of the living, we ourselves were born long after Pelé’s career ended, his 21-year playing career spanning from 1956 to 1977. Hearing those whose own ears had rang and stung from the cacophony created by the pageantry of Pelé has a unique value.

A video shared by the Football Writers Association of England and Wales provided much of what we were looking for. At a Pele tribute night in 2018, Hugh McIlvanney, the Scottish sportswriting giant, gave the keynote. Suffering from his own ill health at the time, McIlvanney delivers a deep, gritty anthem that is partly an elation but in others an elucidation for the younger generation. McIlvanney pays a rich tribute to Messi and Ronaldo but unequivocally reminds that Pele (and Maradona) are on a higher pedestal in the pantheon.

“What a wonderful and dramatic enrichment of our sporting lives it has been,” McIlvanney concludes. « A trigger of wild enthusiasm across the world. »

By winning three World Cups and becoming arguably the first true global superstar of any genre, Pelé got so fired up. As an inexperienced 17-year-old Willowy on his first world rally in 1958, he lit up a world in black and white. As technology tried to keep pace, he then made it blindingly brilliant in technicolor when he won his third in Mexico in 1970 as part of a Brazilian team widely regarded as the greatest in the history of the game. Along the way, he ensured that football would remain the predominant sport on the planet, cementing its status in the heartland and spreading the gospel in resistant territories, particularly in North America. So, a wild enthusiasm igniter? For sure. But also of innocence and joy.

No part of the world has been spared. Pelé also brought it to Canada, even before his career-ending North American quest with the NASL’s New York Cosmos. In 1968, with the Santos club, he played an exhibition against the Italian team Napoli in Toronto. But three years later, after his exploits on color television in Mexico City 1970, he returned a veritable superstar cutting through traffic on Front Street the day before his Santos side played Bologna at a sold-out Varsity stadium, the Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau giving the ceremonial kick-off. In the twilight of the NASL, he helped break attendance records for the Toronto Metros-Croatia and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

These are all flames that have never been extinguished, even though the sport itself has unwittingly (but very consciously) done its best to extinguish them. Pelé lit his fires in a world that was not yet truly interconnected, let alone hyperconnected. Scorer of nearly 1,300 career goals, less than half of them are even recorded on camera, most of them in black and white. He also did so in an age of sporting self-expression, unbound by commercial constraints. In this 2018 speech, McIlvanney recalls spending days with Pelé in Brazil and even sitting on the national team bench for a game before the 1970 World Cup, the kind of accessibility that would be unheard of. 30 years ago, let alone today.

Look at the world now and football’s place in it and we’re through so many glasses it’s impossible to focus. Savage profiteers and soft power plays form a divisive core of modern sport, with football battling separatist leagues and despotic regimes surging to clear its reputation. The age of innocence is definitely over. Qatar’s World Cup of blood and oil, naked greed and corruption marked a nadir off the pitch for FIFA. Yet on it, and in spite of it, what have we found? Innocence and joy. This is how this great game came to us, packed by Pelé.

In the glorious culmination of Messi’s quest to win that precious World Cup, let alone three, the world found joy in the Argentine maestro and with him, the No.10 was immediately elevated to the rank of greatest of all time. There was innocence. So many of us at Lusail Stadium that night and watching the world over were guilty of it. Call it recency bias or the cult of the present.

Such debates are imperfect and always will be, but the quality of the surfaces on which Pelé weaved his spellbinding magic, the primitive equipment with which he made the ball sing and dance and the defenders swing the wrong way must always be taken into account. Pelé may well be the greatest player of all time, but he is undoubtedly the most transformative. The sport wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t practiced it.

Neymar, arguably a player more shaped by the game’s modern ills than any other, paid one of the most fitting tributes in the hours after the grim news broke about Brazil, a country to which Pelé has given its modern identity. « Before Pele, 10 was just a number, » wrote Neymar, who had equaled the great’s record of 77 national team goals in Qatar. « Before Pelé, football was just a sport. He turned football into art, into entertainment. He gave a voice to the poor, to black people and visibility in Brazil. He is gone, but his magic remains. Pelé is forever.

In these times of today, can anyone be more forever? This is a post-pandemic period where it seems like we haven’t really figured out the weather yet. There’s something about the sporting and cultural losses that continue to pile up this year even as we prepare to ring in the news that shockingly reminds us of the time that passes us by even as we try to straighten it out. new.

Yet there is truth in those last three words from Neymar…because in his innocence and joy, at least, Pele will be forever. O Rei is dead. Long live the king.


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of conduct. The Star does not share these opinions.


Back to top button