Pele: The shooting star who redefined the beautiful game
The current generation of Brazilian footballers is very good but they have to prove themselves, says Pele
New Delhi: The date was 16 July, 1950. Close to 200,000 spectators filled up the newly constructed Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to witness history. The congratulatory speech had been written, in Portuguese. When striker Friaça scored in the 47th minute, all the signs were there.
Brazil were going to win their maiden World Cup. There could be no other way.
Then attacking midfielder Juan Alberto Schiaffino scored an equalizer for Uruguay in the 66th minute. When winger Alcides Ghiggia scored a second with only 11 minutes left, the Maracanã fell silent. The congratulatory speech was scrapped and the goalpost burnt, so that goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa could get rid of the ghosts of the defeat.
About 750km west of the stadium, in a small household in Bauru, Sao Paolo, men were sitting around the radio, in pin drop silence, tears rolling down their cheeks. A nine-year-old boy found it funny and asked his father what the matter was.
“Brazil lost the cup today,” the father said.
“So why are you crying? Don’t cry father. I’m gonna win that World Cup one day for you,” said the child.
“I did not know what to say then to them. That was the only thing I could say,” recalls Pele, during an exclusive interaction on the sidelines of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi.
He went on to win the World Cup for Brazil eight years later, on his tournament debut—it was Brazil’s first World Cup win too—and became the youngest player ever do so.
However, when he lifted the trophy in Stockholm in 1958, “I looked around and realized my father was not there to see me play. I went around to see if I could find a telephone and call home to ask my father if he saw me play. But I couldn’t find one,” he recalls.
“My father (João Ramos do Nascimento, nicknamed Dondinho) was a centre forward and he was my inspiration,” he says. “When my friends told me I was selected for the World Cup, I thought they were joking. I came home and asked my father and he confirmed that the team was looking for five young players and I was one. I was surprised, and said: ‘But I can’t speak Swedish.’ And he said I didn’t need to. I knew football and that was enough.”
Pele, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, turned professional when he was 15. By the time he retired in 1977, he had won three World Cups and two Intercontinental Cups with Santos and scored 1,283 goals. Despite his small 5ft-8inch frame, Pele excelled in the air and scored freely. He could play with his right foot
and suddenly change direction with the left, stop, and move the ball back to his right again. His technique, flair and accuracy won him many accolades, including the greatest footballer of the 20th century award along with Argentinian Diego Maradona.
But at 77, and in a wheelchair, Pele, the man who redefined flair, is the personification of how relentless running and hours of playing takes a toll on the body of an athlete.
In a recent piece for The Guardian, the basketball icon Karim Abdul Jabbar compared professional athletes to shooting stars. “They burn bright as they flame across the sky, then suddenly fade into quiet darkness...years of physical abuse of our bodies through training and competing wears down athletes—and our importance—to stiff, aching, Advil-popping appendages.”
But Pele has no regrets. “I loved to play football. And I was grateful I could play. It changed my life,” he said.
Footballers have become more flamboyant and they get paid astronomical amounts. But on the pitch, Pele says, the game is still the same as before. “Only the facilities, the support system has evolved a lot. If the support system existed in my time, I would have scored 2,000 goals,” he says.
Pele’s favourite player is George Best and he “would love to pay to watch Sócrates and Zico play”. Both these players were part of the 1982 Seleção team, widely considered the best Brazilian team to have never won the coveted trophy. “The current generation of the Brazilian footballers are very good but they have to prove themselves,” says Pele.
He also put an end to the GOAT debate when he picked Lionel Messi over Cristiano Ronaldo in his team. “It is difficult to compare Messi and Ronaldo. Messi has a completely different style than Ronaldo. Ronaldo is more of a centre forward while Messi is more organized,” he said.
The jury is still out on whether the expansion of the World Cup to include 48 teams from the 2022 edition onwards will be good or bad for the game but Pele says it is too early to decide. “More countries playing means more people are getting serious about the game,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are several places where there are political problems and when you mix political issues with football, in my opinion, that is the worst thing that can happen to football.”
And why did he never play in Europe? “Because Santos was then the best place to play football. They won two-three club world cups,” Pele says. “I had offers from Italy, Germany but I was okay in Brazil.”
After he retired from the Brazilian team and left Santos, Pele went to the US to play for the New York Cosmos “to promote the game in the States”.
For his final game, over 75,000 people jammed the Giants Stadium in New York to bid farewell to the man considered to be the greatest footballer of all time. Forty one years later, as the crowd in Delhi’s Taj Palace hotel cheered and hung on to his every word, the magic still seemed to be going strong.
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