For the generation born just after the end of the second world war, the emergence of the teenaged Pelé during the 1958 World Cup opened a door to a new dimension of football. The brief televised highlights of the matches in Sweden were broadcast in a black and white that was actually more like blurred shades of grey but already the Brazilian prodigy seemed to be sharply focused and bathed in a golden glow.
The skinny 17-year-old with the flat-top haircut scored six goals, several of them executed with an impudent wit and a hitherto unimaginable level of technique, and then wept openly on the shoulder of Gilmar, the team’s goalkeeper, when the triumph was secured. For many of his new fans in foreign lands, Edson Arantes do Nascimento was the first complicated foreign name they committed to memory.
Twelve years after that first eruption of genius he won his third World Cup winner’s medal. The 1970 tournament was watched by many viewers on colour television sets, a high proportion of them purchased specially for the occasion. Football has never seemed as splendid as when Pelé – now a mature man of 29 – was at the heart of a team including Tostão, Jairzinho, Gérson, Roberto Rivellino and Carlos Alberto, an ensemble of masters surrounded by their own golden aura as they took the game to a new level of creative interplay, with the No 10 as their conductor.
The handful of footballers generally thought of as Pelé’s peers, including Alfredo Di Stéfano, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff, possessed their own special qualities: a patrician elegance in the first instance, a transcendental cunning in the second, a rare meeting of intellect and athleticism in the third. What Pelé radiated was simpler – and made a more instant appeal to the eye and the heart: it was the quality of joy.
That, perhaps above everything, is the factor that makes him first among equals in the minds of many good judges. No one could be blamed for preferring one of his rival candidates for the top step on the all-time podium; the unique appeal of each one triggers a different set of responses and you would have to include Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in there, too. But there was something about Pelé that made everyone smile as they cheered his exploits, something that spoke of the way the game at its best could illuminate individual lives and the whole world.
He was the first global football superstar. More than that, along with Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley he became one of a select group of black sportsmen and entertainers who transcended their field of expertise and achieved global renown in the 20th century, with a status only half a rung below Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Although he was accused in the 1970s of leftist sympathies by Brazil’s repressive military government, he was no revolutionary; in general his public utterances were as benevolently anodyne as those of a Miss World contestant campaigning for world peace. But the effect of his presence, of his pre-eminence, helped loosen the shackles of ignorant prejudice.
In the eyes of the football public he was pristine, immaculate. He carried with him a kind of innocence: no matter how famous he became, this was somehow always the boy who had grown up the son of a goalscorer of some repute but whose own first matches had been played on the street in Três Corações, his home town, with old shoes for goalposts and a ball made from paper or rags stuffed into a sock and tied with string. The freshness and sheer delight of his play remained those of that small boy, transmitting a message to which other boys playing in the back streets of Belfast or Bolton could readily respond.
No serious scandal stained his image during the 20 years of his playing career. He was not, of course, a perfect human being and he was certainly no softie on the pitch. But he did nothing mean or petty. His tricks with the ball bamboozled opponents but were never designed to diminish or humiliate them. He sought no unfair or illegitimate advantage. In victory he was gracious and modest, as if always profoundly aware of the good fortune that had been bestowed upon him. And he gave the impression of wanting to share his pride and pleasure in it with everyone.
In his prime, between the finals in Sweden in 1958 and those in Mexico in 1970, Pelé resembled the perfect athlete. Balance was the key, in build as well as in movement. Physically, everything about him appeared to be perfectly matched. Neither notably slender nor heavily muscled, he was fast over the ground whether in a sudden dart or a long run. As well as the nimbleness to outfox opponents with a feint or a nutmeg, he had the strength to resist would-be tacklers. He had a powerful shot and a good leap for a header. But most of all he had an imagination free from earthly constraints.
It was there in the first of his goals that made his new international audience sit up and take notice, when he scored the third of Brazil’s five goals in the 1958 final by calling for a pass from Nílton Santos and controlling the ball on his chest, waiting for it to drop and using his thigh to flip it over the head of Julle Gustavsson, the Swedish defender, before running round him and volleying the ball past the goalkeeper.
Here was a signature move, the equivalent of Puskas’s drag-back, the Cruyff turn or Maradona’s gambeta. And it was being accomplished by a teenager, his mind clear of calculation, barely older than the boys who then tried to emulate it in their school playgrounds. It was, he wrote in his autobiography, one of his all-time favourite goals – and, according to his Brazilian club, Santos, he had 1,091 to choose from – “because I was so young but also because no one had seen a goal like that before”.
In fact the quarter-final against Wales had featured a more earthbound version of the same trick, when he controlled a short pass on his chest inside the penalty area, turned past the bewildered Mel Charles, the Welsh No 5, and nudged the ball past goalkeeper Jack Kelsey to produce the only goal of the match. Five days later the second-half hat-trick with which he led Brazil past France and into the final contained nothing as memorable: he was saving that up for the main event, which he sealed with a looping header that sailed inside the post in the 90th minute. He promptly fainted from the excitement, waking to find Garrincha holding his legs in the air to allow the blood to flow back to his brain.
He had worn the No 10 shirt for the first time during the tournament, doing more than anyone to give that magic number its lustre and its association with creativity of the most exalted kind. Many years later it was claimed that the Brazilian team management had submitted their list of players without designating individual numbers; apparently they had been allocated by a Fifa functionary.
A year later, at 18, he and his teammates faced England in a friendly at the Maracanà. Bobby Charlton remembered the tingle of anticipation he felt when Pelé came towards him with the ball for the first time. Expecting the Brazilian to pass and move, as was already his most characteristic gambit, Charlton found himself the victim of a sudden and devastatingly effective dummy. “It was as if I’d been foolish enough to try and catch a gust of wind,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Those enthralled by the exploits of 1958 looked forward to the next World Cup finals partly because it would offer a rare chance to see Pelé in action again. This was long before foreign teams and players became a familiar sight in Britain, although the desire of Santos to retain his services ensured that they made regular trips for lucrative fixtures in Europe. In that way they kept him out of the clutches of the teams against whom they appeared in exhibition matches – such as Juventus, on whose behalf Umberto Agnelli took him to lunch in Turin and offered to start negotiations for his signature at $1m, an unimaginable sum in 1961.
From that perspective, the 1962 finals in Chile would be a severe disappointment. In Brazil’s opening match, against Mexico in Viña del Mar, he beat two men before crossing for Mário Zagallo to head the first goal and then unhinged another four defenders before shooting home with his left foot to complete the scoring. But in the same stadium three days later, against Czechoslovakia, a lurking groin injury worsened when he took a pass from Garrincha, dribbled towards goal, hit a shot against the post and felt a twinge as he stretched to reach the rebound.
In the era before substitutions, he remained on the field, a limping passenger of no functional value. Later he would credit the Czechs, and Jan Lala and Jan Popluhar in particular, for refusing to take advantage by inflicting further punishment. Knowing that he was unable to do them real damage, they gave him room whenever he had the ball. “It was one of the finest things that would happen in my football career,” he wrote.
Things were very different in 1966. English fans who had looked forward to seeing him at first-hand were dismayed when he succumbed to the close attentions of Dobromir Zhechev of Bulgaria and Portugal’s João Morais, the two butchers whose relentless tripping and hacking in the group stage resulted in him finally being carried from the Goodison Park pitch by the team’s doctor and masseur, a vision of intense sadness. It may have been an illusion created by the television pictures, still in black and white, but the industrial gloom of northern England seemed completely the wrong stage for him and his compatriots, as incongruous as staging Look Back in Anger in the sunshine of Copacabana beach. Brazil, with one win and two defeats, went out of the competition and Pelé vowed never to play in a World Cup again.
His resolution crumbled as the Seleção prepared for the 1970 tournament. After he scored his much-anticipated thousandth goal in 1969 – a penalty against Vasco da Gama – he wanted to make another mark on the competition, and there had been significant changes at the top of the CBF, the Brazilian football association. The role of head coach was taken over by Zagallo, his old teammate and friend, who assembled a group of assistants to take care of the fine details of preparation in a way that would prefigure the marginal gains philosophy of Britain’s Olympic cycling squad three and a half decades later.
Pelé was the figurehead but Zagallo also empowered other senior players – notably Carlos Alberto and Gérson – to offer their opinions on selection and tactics. A devout Catholic since childhood, Pelé helped instigate a daily meeting at which almost the entire party assembled for prayers: not to win the tournament but for others, such as the sick or those enduring the war in Vietnam. He spoke to the younger players about their duty to take the business of football seriously and not to waste the opportunity offered by a World Cup.
“We lived as a real family,” he remembered and the team responded with a series of incandescent performances that bestowed upon them the title, still unchallenged, of the best international team ever seen. Pelé himself left memories of his wonderfully audacious attempts to score by dummying the Uruguayan goalkeeper and by shooting from 60 yards against Czechoslovakia – neither was successful but both left an indelible imprint. In the pulsating 1-0 group-stage defeat of England, his no-look sideways tap for Jairzinho to shoot home came at the end of a matchless example of interplay. The final against Italy yielded his last World Cup goal – a snap of the neck muscles to meet a cross at the far post, then a leap into the arms of Jairzinho for an image that defined goal celebration – and another selfless short square pass at the end of an intricate passing movement, this time cueing up the rumble of thunder with which Carlos Alberto scored Brazil’s fourth.
With Santos he continued to roam the world, refilling the club’s coffers while allowing hundreds of thousands to glimpse his brilliance at first-hand. Finally, at the end of the 1974 season, he called it a day. At 34, his career in first-class football was over. But one new and unexpected challenge remained.
The following season he signed for the New York Cosmos, bankrolled by Warner Brothers, to compete in the North American Soccer League. The US had been the one place in the world he could walk the streets without being mobbed. That would change as, joined in this new adventure by Franz Beckenbauer, he briefly made attendance at a Cosmos game as fashionable as a visit to Studio 54. He was paid $7m, more than he had earned in his entire career with Santos, in a contract negotiated with the record company executives who had founded the club, and who included a recording contract as part of the deal, alongside various tax-minimising measures.
Now we can look at the images from those years, at the groovy Cosmos badge and the modest semi-afro and sideburns, and immediately hear the disco-funk soundtrack: Lady Marmalade, The Hustle, Jive Talkin’, You Sexy Thing, Love Hangover, Shake Your Booty, That’s the Way (I Like It). Maybe the football produced by the Cosmos at their successive homes – Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island (where the pitch had to be sprayed with green paint to disguise the absence of grass), Yankee Stadium in the Bronx or the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey – had no more substance than the music but it similarly promised and often attained a good time, including the 1977 NASL championship. His retirement at the end of that season, celebrated with a match between his two clubs, in which he scored for both sides, prefaced the collapse of the league’s fragile popularity.
Away from the pitch, his romantic life was a complicated matter of three marriages, half a dozen children and the odd paternity claim. His business ventures, too, often ended unhappily, largely thanks to a poor choice of associates. But his life remained eventful and fulfilling, whether he was starring in Escape to Victory or visiting Buckingham Palace to receive an honour.
Although there were spats with the notorious Brazilian football administrator Ricardo Teixeira over the rejection of a bid for television rights by Pelé’s company, in general he was not the one to take issue with the game’s rulers – Sepp Blatter and Jérôme Champagne of Fifa were the first to be thanked in the acknowledgments page of his autobiography. He became a goodwill ambassador for Fifa but had no desire to embark on a coaching career, although for a while he helped his old teammate Clodoaldo with Santos’s junior teams, in whose ranks he spotted the talents of Robinho and Diego. Basically, however, he was now a professional diplomat, and a well-remunerated one, travelling from one tournament or commemorative event to another, smiling and shaking hands everywhere. At least this allowed him to operate at a level above cynicism and to remain a symbol of the idealised jogo bonito.
In 1994, having rebuffed approaches from previous Brazilian presidents, he accepted a request from Fernando Henrique Cardoso to become the country’s minister for sport. He campaigned for clubs to be run in a more ethical and transparent way, for players in Brazil to enjoy a Bosman-style freedom of movement, and for the separation of the league and the CBF, as had happened in England with the creation of the Premier League. He met less resistance when he instituted a programme of “Olympic villages” in cities around Brazil, intended to give the kids of the shantytowns a chance to play organised sport. “I did not realise that being in politics is one battle after another,” he reflected and in 1998 he stepped down in order to be able to commentate on the World Cup in France.
As a spokesman for a credit card company, he continued to give interviews and press conferences in which he sometimes seemed too eager to say things that would please his audience. Speaking to the English press, for example, he would invariably single out an England player for favourable comment. Sometimes his judgments bemused his audience, as when, while addressing a meeting of the international football press, he lavished praise on Nicky Butt as the best player at the 2002 World Cup.
But he retained his aura. Like Stirling Moss or Arnold Palmer, he turned the business of being himself into his life’s work, while never making the task seem onerous. For all that he had been through, all the hurtful injuries and the business humiliations, no lasting shadow fell on an ability to embody and project the essence of the simple game to which he had given new beauty and meaning. And, most of all, the joy that will continue to radiate whenever his name is spoken.