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The scintillating legend of Pelé was forged in the heat of the 1970 World Cup final | Pele

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Football is rarely just football and footballers are rarely just footballers. Pele was a brilliant striker, a player of grace and imagination, of explosive pace and extraordinary poise, but that’s not why his death on Thursday caused such a widespread sense of loss. Nor are they the three World Cups or the two Copa Libertadores he has won. To answer the question of why Pelé counted with a list of attributes or medals is to miss the point: he counted because of what he represented.

But defining what he stood for is nearly impossible, not least because, especially once his playing career was over, his ability to portray almost anything made him a publicist’s dream. He existed in a perfect commercial space, someone of stature and charisma who was also sort of a blank canvas, able to promote almost anything from Puma to Pepsi, from Viagra to diamonds made by heating his own hair. under extreme pressure.

This quality means that Pelé meant almost everything anyone needed him to. For my generation, a little too young to have seen him play, he was always the reference, the name that defined the greatness of football. “Pelé” was the player your grandmother who had never watched football had heard of, the inevitable hero of Escape to victorythe name that would be shouted across the schoolyard if someone did something particularly brilliant.

And of course, the name itself in this regard is extremely significant. Would we have been so eager to shout his name if he had remained Edson? “Pele” is memorable. It may be a distortion of “Bile”, a goalkeeper that Pelé idolized as a child (his own name is said to be derived from an incantation used by the wise women of his village when they gathered around his cradle in the moonlight, trying to rouse him from silence) but it’s a perfect brand image. Pelé sounds like a more exotic form of “game”. It starts with a burst of energy before quickly transitioning into something more flexible and alluring.

It is perhaps saying too much that with his death also went a lingering fragment of childhood innocence, but the passing of such a constant, of the world’s first footballing superstar, of the most elder of what, after Qatar, it seems appropriate to think of as the Great Trinity, is an important step towards mortality.

A mural depicting Pelé lifting the Jules Rimet trophy is seen during a tribute event for the Brazilian legend at a Fan Zone in Qatar during the 2022 World Cup. Images)
A mural depicting Pelé lifting the Jules Rimet trophy is seen during a tribute event for the Brazilian legend at a Fan Zone in Qatar during the 2022 World Cup. Images) Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Fifa/Getty Images

But you didn’t have to be born near the end of your career at the New York Cosmos to see Pele as the representative of something purer. He was probably at his best in the two-legged 1963 Libertadores final, when he overcame brutal tackles to inspire Santos’ 5-3 aggregate win over Boca Juniors. But his most memorable performances, the displays that confirmed him in the affections of the world, came at the 1970 World Cup, a tournament which itself occupies a mythical area in the collective memory of football.

The legend Pelé needed this tournament. In 1958, he had been a 17-year-old entering the team in the third group game and scoring six goals for the remainder of the World Cup, including two in the final. He was youth, he was joy, he was marvelous promise, but Didi and Vavá were the stars. In 1962 he was injured out of the tournament in the second match. He may have helped win two World Cups, but neither was his World Cup.

In 1966, images of him being taken off the pitch at Goodison Park, an overcoat draped over his shoulders, battered and battered, kicked out of the World Cup by first Bulgaria and then Portugal, have become emblematic of the turn taken by football. After the individualism that had characterized the Brazilian successes of 1958 and 1962 (backed by the sweeping innovations of zonal marking and back four as it was), England’s victory was rooted in physicality and systematization. The era of pressing was born.

Mexico in 1970 opposed it. It was the first World Cup broadcast by satellite and in color. There was magic in the yellow shirts and cobalt shorts, shimmering in the Mexican heat. Everything looked incredibly modern: the ball, the Telstar, was named after the satellite, its black and white panels still the default for generic depictions of a soccer ball.

Brazil had prepared by undertaking a NASA training course. But tactically, Mexico was a throwback. The heat and altitude meant that the constant running demanded by pressing had to be tempered. Individualism, a team consisting of indeed five No. 10s, the largest of which actually wears the 10, for the last time, could flourish. 1970 was Pelé’s tournament.

The feeling of innocence was not only tactical. In 1974, João Havelange succeeded Stanley Rous as FIFA president and football entered its era of commercialism. There was a naivety about 1970, when little was smooth and not everything was for sale, it would become more and more appealing.

But it was a strange innocence. the Observer‘s Hugh McIlvanney wrote of Brazil’s late performance against Italy in the 1970 final as representing “a distillation of their football, its beauty and momentum and an almost undiluted joy… It was not hard to believe they were eager to say something about the game as well as themselves.

Brazil's Pelé causes problems for the England defense with Martin Peters trying to tackle, as Bobby Charlton (left), Alan Ball, referee Abraham Klein and Bobby Moore (right) look on during their match team of the 1970 world cup at the Jalisco stadium in Guadalajara.
Pelé caused problems for the England defense at the 1970 World Cup, one of the three he won as a player. Photography: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

However, there was a Brazilian team there which, although it had nothing to do with it, ended up being used for propaganda purposes by the dictatorship of General Emílio Médici. “Mexico 1970” has become shorthand for this footballing ideal, but Mexico in 1970 was led by the Partido Revolucionario Institutional, which practiced torture and extrajudicial executions as a matter of course, and carried out massacres of student protesters in 1968 and 1971. The dark backdrop was largely ignored; there was an innocence even in the blanket.

And at the heart of these contradictions stood Pelé, the greatest player in perhaps the greatest World Cup, an emblem of something wholesome but otherworldly, a powerful brand that would in fact become a traveling billboard, for products and, less intentionally, for a dictatorship.

The real Pelé? As his 1970 teammate Tostão observed, the real Pelé has been the public Pelé, the long-refined private Edson. He was many things to many people but above all, perhaps, Pelé represents innocence lost.

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