There was a man called Edson Arantes do Nascimento who died a few days ago at the age of 82 years. That name is strange to many except football aficionados who know him as that iconic footballer called Pele.
Some new generation lovers of football have laboured in vain to compare Pele with Lionel Messi of Argentina or Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal but truly and frankly none of them comes near to Pele whether in football accomplishments or in global popularity and acceptability. Pele is just that: Pele, the world’s football icon known across continents and generations.
To compare Pele with any of the two significant footballers or any other for that matter is to make a joke of a serious matter. When Pele played football there was no Internet so there was no live streaming of football matches. Football matches were only covered on radio, television and newspapers. But the stadiums were full anywhere Pele played. And his football career was mainly in Brazil. He never played for any of the European or other big leagues but his name has been a household name because in the FIFA World Cup matches where he displayed his incomparable skills the world stood up to salute him.
In every profession there is someone who is truly immortal, who stands out head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In football Pele is the man. In boxing Mohammed Ali picks the diadem; in pop music Michael Jackson wears the crown; in Reggae music it is Bob Marley; in Afro beat Fela is the fellow; in basketball Michael Jordan is the master; in athletics no name is bigger than Usain Bolt’s. These are people who in their various callings had not only exceptional skills but also charisma, talisman and the magic of hypnotism. For them skills were not enough. They had that extra ability that can be loosely called drawing power.
Pele was a man of many firsts. Some of these are documented in his book titled: “Pele, my life and the beautiful game,” jointly written by him and Robert L. Fish. Pele’s first international match was a 2-1 defeat against Argentina on July 7, 1957 at the Maracana. In that match, he scored his first goal for Brazil aged 16 years and nine months and he remains the youngest goal scorer for his country.
On June 29, 1958 Pele became the youngest player to play in a World Cup final match at 17 years 249 days. He scored two goals in that match. Pele began playing for Santos Football Club when he was only 15. He won three FIFA World Cups in 1958, 1962 and 1970, the only player to do so. He scored a total of 1,279 goals in 1,363 games and is recognised as A Guinness World Record.
His outstanding football qualities are excellent dribbling skills, ability to score spectacular goals with either foot, precise passing of the ball and exceptional vision and anticipation and being at the right place at the right time. In all his matches there was an abundant display of physical power, stamina, balance, agility and athleticism. In his playing days the Brazilian President, Janio Quadros, passed a law through parliament declaring Pele a “national treasure,” forbidding him from being transferred from Brazil to any other country. He was only allowed to play in the United States after his retirement.
In 1999 he was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee. He was also included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. In 2000 he was voted the World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics.
Pele was the toast of world leaders. He visited 88 countries, met with 15 Kings, six Emperors, 72 Presidents and 40 other Heads of State. He is an honorary citizen of more cities and countries than any other person in history. Queen Elizabeth II conferred the knighthood on him. The Shah of Iran decided to wait for three hours at an international airport just to be able to speak to and shake hands with Pele. Pele also signed a football for United States President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1973. And when he met another United States President, Ronald Reagan, Reagan introduced himself “I am Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States” and turning to Pele he said: “Please don’t introduce yourself. Everybody knows Pele.”
Pele’s influence was beyond borders. In Colombia when Pele was sent off the field in a game for disputing a referee’s decision the crowd stormed the field. The referee had to be rescued by the police and a linesman was hastily appointed referee and Pele was forced to come back into the game.
Even Nigeria appreciated the enormous influence and drawing power of the football icon. In 1967, the Biafran War was raging in Nigeria. There was going to be a football match between Nigeria and Brazil in which Pele was to feature. The soldiers on both sides of the war agreed to have a 48-hour ceasefire so that people on both sides of the war could watch Pele play. Infact, the two warring groups of soldiers provided security at the match. The soldiers on both sides waited for Pele and his teammates to leave the country before they resumed hostilities. Such was Pele’s influence around the world, influence that clearly went beyond Brazil and football.
Everywhere he went he was treated like royalty and the title of King Pele was pinned on him by his admirers. Over 90 songs have been written in which Pele’s name featured but the man remained largely humble and personable. He also appeared in movies and of course graced the front pages and covers of global newspapers and magazines respectively.
I have no intention of getting into the sterile debate as to who is the Greatest of all Time (GOAT). No one can truly be regarded as the greatest of all time because we have not yet reached the end of time, but Pele’s opponents and contemporaries have crowned him as the indisputable King of Football. Dutch Star Johan Cruyff said: “Pele was the only player who surpassed the boundaries of logic.” His Brazilian teammate Clodoaldo commented on the adulation he witnessed anywhere he went with Pele. “In some countries they wanted to touch him; in some they wanted to kiss him. In others they even kissed the ground he walked on.”
Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany’s 1974 World Cup winning captain, said of his rival “Pele is the greatest player of all time. He reigned supreme for 20 years. There is no one to compare with him.” England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore also put his views of Pele on record. He said: “Pele was the most complete player I’ve ever seen. He had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only five feet eight inches tall, yet he seemed a giant of an athlete on the pitch. Perfect balance and impossible vision. He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch.”
Pele could speak his native Portuguese, English, Italian, French and Spanish, which shows that on or off the football pitch the man was a genius.
It is true that it is football that gave Pele to the world but Pele in turn gave the world the desire to make football a global game, to watch it, to love it, to be crazy for it and to respect those who make us happy by chasing the round object on the pitch. Today, football has been elevated not just to high art but also to a brutal sport because the fees paid to footballers are humongous and the penalty for failure to play well severe. Coaches rise and fall with the rise and fall of their teams. For them, too, failure is met with a red card that brings their career in one club or country to a temporary closure.
Then the search for a new job begins. Football will remain the world’s most cherished social enterprise for a long time for the joy that it brings to the world thanks to the magic that Pele brought to the game. Football is being taken very seriously by most countries, both rich and poor, because of its unifying attributes and the global acclaim that it has acquired by the exploits of people like King Pele.
Africa has produced many good footballers but no one has risen to the stature of Pele because African governments have not paid exceptional attention to the development of the beautiful game. No African team has won the World Cup. At the Qatar World Cup only Morocco of the five African teams got to the semi final for the first time. Africans broke into song and dance for the achievement. Will the high adulation heaped on Pele make African countries to pay more serious attention to football than hitherto? I don’t know.