Pelé – The Artist

Luděk Mádl

Sportovní novinář

Sometimes chance pulls many into a tight time loop. On December 18th in Qatar, Argentine midfielder Lionel Messi lifted the World Cup over his head and a wave of social media linked him to the acronym GOAT, Greatest Of All Time.

And debates on the subject were everywhere: “Messi? Ronaldo! Maradona for me. Gentlemen, forever and without discussion, Pelé!”

On the twenty-ninth of December, even all the heated debaters fell silent out of piety. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, nicknamed Pelé, died at the Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo. A Brazilian whose extraordinary talent transcended generations. And a man so intelligent, with a functional value system, that he was able not only to endure his fame, but even to work effectively with it and develop it.

At the very least, consideration of the combination with this factor brings back that overused acronym GOAT to him.

According to the International Olympic Committee, Pelé was the best athlete in the world in the 20th century. His reach was so vast that even the IOC, usually keen on marketing around its events held under five interlocking colourful circles, named the most amazing athlete of them all as the guy who, at the same time, did not appear at the Olympics as part of his active career.

In his sport and in his time, the World Cup was a clearly defined platform for quality and success. Pelé is the only person in the history of the sport to have won this tournament three times. In that he is, and quite possibly will remain, absolutely unique. That is, unless FIFA succumbs to commercial temptations and degrades the tournament by shortening its hitherto traditional four-year cycle.

Pelé’s hands raised the Golden Nike three times over his head, the original trophy for world champions, which, after that third triumph, FIFA awarded to Brazil in perpetuity, and another statuette called the World Cup came into play. By the way, the “forever” with the Golden Nike ended in December 1983, when the statuette was stolen and then supposedly melted down.

Fortunately, memories cannot be destroyed and melted. And all memorials of Pelé’s glory days will agree on the sheer magnificence of his footballing ability. And that includes all his potential competitors.

“There is no room for any discussion here at all. The king of football is Pelé,” knocked Franz Beckenbauer, whose German marketers have therefore cleverly created the brand Emperor.

“The best player in the world was Alfredo di Stefano,” remarked Ferenc Puskás at another time. He added: “But Pelé was much higher. That was not a player, that was a whole other dimension.”

Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich told how he mentally prepared for the final against Brazil in 1970: “I told myself before the game that Pelé was a man of flesh and blood like everyone else. But I was wrong.”

Pelé’s greatest fame came from the 1958 and 1970 World Cups. He shone in Sweden as a 17-year-old. Twelve years later, he capped his greatness with a triumphant tournament campaign, forever framing his image as a footballing genius.

He did not finish the tournaments in Chile 1962 and in England four years later due to injuries.

Considering that Pelé never played for any European club team, it seems practically unbelievable in the standards of the current marketing world what kind of world fame Pelé was able to earn “just” through his performances at the World Cup.

For one thing, it was truly spectacular. Secondly, it created a story line about a child genius who then also faced hardship and hardship when he was miraculously killed on the pitch by Bulgarian and Portuguese grinders in 1966. And then, under the Aztec sun, Pelé’s greatness shone in full brightness.

And thirdly, Pelé was helped by the development of the media, because in his era it was becoming common for World Cup matches to be broadcast by television stations in virtually every country. And on that stage, Pelé managed to charm the planet. Even if his matches in a Santos jersey or later in the colours of the New York Cosmos saw only some spots in a newsreel.

It’s not that the big European clubs aren’t interested in Pelé’s services. But at the time, the football route from South America to Europe was not as clearly and straightforwardly defined as it is today, and in Brazil, Pelé’s football career has become political.

In 1961, President Janio Quadros designated Pelé a national treasure, essentially creating legislation that prevented the player’s transfer to Europe.

This alone makes it clear that there must have been a “circus” going on around Pelé virtually all his life in Brazil, the scale of which we probably cannot even begin to imagine.

Pelé took even this weight of the world on his shoulders and yet continued to dance to the rhythm of the samba, his face lit up with a broad smile.

But it was not the disarming smile of an idiot. It happens to many football stars that their life after an active playing career becomes a futile ramble. Garrincha, for example, one of Pelé’s most famous teammates, didn’t even live to be 50. He literally drank himself to death. By the way: when Pelé and Garrincha played together in the starting line-up of the national team, Brazil never lost. And there were almost 50 games.

Pelé followed up his football career with a role as an ambassador for football, working closely with UNICEF and not shying away from pop culture.

As well as recording several music albums, Pelé has appeared in films. The most famous is Escape to Victory (1981), which tells the World War II story of a fatal football match between prisoners of war and fascists. In addition to Pelé, other football stars such as Osvaldo Ardilles, Bobby Moore, Paul van Himst and Kazimierz Deyna appear in the film. Among the traditional actors, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Sylvester Stallone are also featured.

In 1995, Pelé became Minister of Sport in Brazil. He pushed through legislation against corruption in the sporting environment. In previous years, he had repeatedly spoken out against the Havelange-Teixeira family clan, which controls world and Brazilian football.

Pelé really hasn’t wasted his life. And not just because he was part of an ad campaign breaking down the shame barrier of erectile dysfunction while promoting Viagra.

The current star striker Neymar, or perhaps whoever manages his Instagram account and press statements, said a fond farewell to Pelé: “Before Pelé, 10 was just a number. I read this sentence somewhere. It’s beautiful, but incomplete. I would say that before Pele, football was just a sport. Pelé changed all that. He made football an art, a pastime. He gave a voice to the poor and the black. And above all, he made Brazil visible. The King raised the status of football and Brazil. He’s gone, but his magic is here to stay. Pelé is eternal!”

This article was translated from the original published at online magazine Přítomnost.

published: 6. 2. 2023

Datum publikace:
6. 2. 2023
Autor článku:
Luděk Mádl