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How Pelé embodied the 'beautiful game' of football

Pelé was the greatest footballer, a great black athlete who broke barriers and the one player who embodied the magic of football

Pelé in action for Brazil. (Getty Images)

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For more than a month now, around the time that Pelé was moved to end-of-life care, a video has been doing the rounds on social media. Pelé did it first. It showcases the signature moves of some of the best footballers to ever play the game, then transitions to blurry footage of Pelé doing it. The Johan Cryuff turn? Pelé did it first. The Cristiano Ronaldo chop? Pelé did it first. Lionel Messi’s mesmerising dribbles? Pelé did it first. Zinedine Zidane’s trickery? Pelé did it first. Neymar’s sombrero flicks? Pelé did it first. Ronaldinho’s flip-flap ‘elastico’? Pelé did it first.

Pelé was the pioneer, including conjuring these tricks and feints almost 50 years before they became YouTube staples. He may not have been the one to originate the moves, but he brought them into football’s popular lexicon. Just like he may not have coined the term ‘the beautiful game’, but was the living, breathing manifestation of it.

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The light died out on Thursday, 29 December. Pelé, at the age of 82, lost a long battle with cancer to plunge the football world into mourning.

Simply known as The King, Pelé was the first among equals. He is the only player to have won three World Cups, the first player to score over a 1,000 career goals, the most famous No. 10 and football’s first millionaire. His death has given the football world a moment of reflection, a look back at his extraordinary story. Of how the boy genius from Três Corações, Sao Paulo went on to become the greatest player in history against the backdrop of racism and political turmoil in his country.

Brazil fans pay tribute to Pele during the Fifa World Cup 2022.
Brazil fans pay tribute to Pele during the Fifa World Cup 2022. (Getty Images)

Pelé was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, named after the American inventor Thomas Edison, because according to legend, electricity arrived in his village just a few days before he did. But in the tradition of Brazilian greats, it was the one-word nickname, Pelé, given to him by one of his schoolmates, was the one that stuck, that made him a household name.

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His first football was nothing more than a sock stuffed with rags or newspapers, as Pelé learnt his football smarts on the narrow streets in the neighbourhood. Even in a country bursting at the seams with football talent, his ingenuity and precocious genius stood out. When Pele signed for Santos FC in 1956, he was just 15; when he appeared for Brazil at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, he was 17.

Even before the World Cup began, Pelé was a standout. In the Netflix documentary, Pelé, he recalls of how a little girl kept wiping his face because she thought he had coloured it black. “They had never seen a black person before,” he recalled.

But none of that mattered when Pelé had the football at his feet. The teenager took the 1958 World Cup by storm, bewildering opponents and bewitching stadium audiences with his range of skills and tricks. After missing the first two matches of the group phase due to injury, his World Cup career began with a neat assist—for Vava—against the USSR. In the semi-final against France, he scored a hat-trick. In the final against Sweden, he scored two as Brazil won 5-2 and became world champions. Pelé had turned the most daunting stage in the sport into his playground. The perfect example was his first goal against Sweden, when he casually flicked and lifted the ball over a defender and then volleyed into goal.

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Pelé, who had consoled his father eight years earlier when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final at the Maracana Stadium with a promise that he would one day win a World Cup for him, wept with joy after the match. The tournament launched the teenager into stardom.

He was undoubtedly football’s first superstar. He was also the first black icon in Brazil, the last Latin American country to abolish slavery. Football holds a special place in Brazil’s national conscience, and Pelé soon became the symbol of hope and inspiration. He earned another moniker, the Black Pearl.

“Pelé is the first person who made me love Brazil,” prominent black intellectual Silvio Almeida tweeted after Pelé's death. “Seeing a Brazilian black man like me become the uncontested greatest at what he did made me think we could believe in something.” Though overwhelmingly popular, Pelé, was seen by many, especially in Brazil, as politically ambiguous. When Brazil was under a military dictatorship (1964-1985), Pele openly met with General Emilio Medici. During his playing days, he rarely spoke up against racism. “I preferred to set an example for my family and fans,” he told Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2020. “That was my fight.”

Pelé holds a special place in the story of football—he was the pre-eminent figure in football when global telecast of the game went from black-and-white to colour, from individual, open play to regimented defence, and from a celebration to a commercial colossus. He was denied a chance to play his trade in the biggest clubs in Europe as he was declared a ‘national treasure’ and Santos declared he was not for sale.

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The highs and lows of his career were tied to that holy grail, the World Cup. With injury sidelining him, Pelé played only a bit part in Brazil’s 1962 World Cup triumph. In 1966, they arrived in England as the favourites but left after the group stages. Football, as Pelé described, had become “ugly”. He was heavily marked, brutally tackled. Pelé limped out of the World Cup almost certain he would never return to the tournament again.

Under pressure to play from Brazil’s military regime, Pelé returned to the team reluctantly for the 1970 World Cup. It was the first football tournament to be telecast in colour. With the world’s eyes on him, he gave a performance to remember. In the match against Czechoslovakia, he attempted to lob over the goalkeeper from close to the halfway line but just missed the mark.

It was the famous non-goal that got him going. A bending free kick against Romania and the feint of the century against Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, as Pelé helped Brazil to a 3-1 win over Uruguay, followed. In the final, he scored the opening goal against Italy with a header. That photo of him, jumping into the arms of Jairzinho, punching the air is etched in history. Brazil won the match 4-1 for their third World Cup, Pele’s third World Cup.

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“I told myself before the game, he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else,” said the Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich, who marked Pele in the final. “But I was wrong.” Pele’s is the only name that inspires reverence though there are a few challengers to his throne—namely Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi of Argentina. In 2000, FIFA created the ‘Player of the Century’ award, hoping to find a definitive answer to the Pelé vs. Maradona debate. But while Maradona swept the popularity polls, Pelé won an overwhelming 72.75 % of the Grand Jury vote.

For most football followers of this generation, Pelé remains an enigma. We have never seen him play live. All we have is snippets and anecdotes of his genius: Videos dating back to black and white times, of his masterful plays. Those who have seen him play in the flesh—as audience, or opponents, or teammates—talk of his burst of speed, athleticism, creative flair and sheer love for the game. Nelson Mandela said he played the game with, “the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full.” Pelé was beauty, he was joy, he was football. That’s how he will live on in collective memory.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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