In September Brian Phillips, founder and editor of the glorious Run of Play, wrote one of the greatest sporting essays I have ever read. Never mind the ‘blogosphere’, this made even some of Brian Glanville and Hugh McIlvanney’s efforts look tame. I really mean that. It was entitled ‘Pelé as a Comedian’ and dealt with the sheer aesthetic poetry of the great Brazilian, the disbelieving laughter his transcendent genius brings to our lips. Pelé, Brian argued, is a comedian, a man who creates chaos out of peace and thrills us by restoring that peace with dizzying ease.
A few weeks ago I sat and mused over what I wanted to cover for 1950s month and, along with a tribute to the Mighty Magyars, the emergence of Pelé on the world stage was very much at the forefront of my mind. The problem is, how is one supposed to pay effective and at least partially unique homage to a player who dealt almost solely in perfection? A footballer who materialises the impossible is simple to appreciate visually, but committing those happy synapse twinges to paper is an altogether more daunting prospect.
Of course, the summer of 1958 was the moment of Pelé’s genesis in the eyes of those outside of Brazil. Having scored on his international debut twelve months earlier against Argentina at the age of just sixteen years and nine months, the young man with the magical feet from Minas Gerais had played his way into favour with national team coach Vicente Feola and was bound for Sweden where Brazil sought their first world title.
The youngest player to have ever represented his country in a World Cup, Pelé found himself in illustrious company in 1958. Surrounded by the mystical legends of Garrincha, Zito and Vavá, the boy and his teammates arrived in Scandinavia arguably better prepared than any previous Brazilian side. With the agonising spectre of 1950 still to be laid to rest, the pressure on the shoulders of the seleção was acute and potentially crushing; not that one would have realised that by watching Pelé’s energetically expressive displays.
Watching footage of him from 1958, I am reminded of something Norman Mailer wrote about Muhammad Ali in his book The Fight:
“There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded of their lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven – so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.”
He may not have been as physically impressive as Ali, but the extent of Pelé’s perfection is enough to make one question the legitimacy of one’s own existence. His first goal in the 1958 tournament came against Wales in the quarter-finals, the striker chesting the ball down before waiting just long enough to make the Welsh defender commit to an unsubtle movement of limbs. In a flurry of precision the ball is quickly lifted over an outstretched leg, Pelé turns while the orb hangs in the air and nonchalantly prods it beyond the goalkeeper. A leap of joy, a moment of fleeting ecstasy amidst the tranquillity of flawlessness.
Brazil comfortably advanced to the semi-finals where they faced the France of Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa, two swaggering giants of the international game going toe-to-toe in Solna. On this great occasion it was the youngest player on the field who made the biggest impression, Pelé’s inevitable genius searing itself across the field from the first minute to the last.
A simple tap-in to make it 3-1 to Brazil on 52 minutes was his first, a fine outside-of-the-boot effort his second twelve minutes later, O Rei completing his hat-trick with a sumptuous low finish fifteen minutes from time after nonchalantly collecting a majestic through ball. The phenomenon of ‘Pelé’ had been given life; the comedian, the troubadour, the artisan without blemish had forced the world to take notice of his gifts. Just Sweden now stood between Brazil and their first ever world title, Pelé the architect-in-chief.
The pressure and intensity of a World Cup final are nigh on unimaginable for us mere mortals, but Pelé – at the age of 17 years and 249 days – made it look as though it were his natural environment. Glistening with the courage of early adulthood and blessed with a fixation to his task induced by an indomitable spirit, his excellence bemused the Swedes and became the catalyst for a comprehensive 5-2 victory.
The demons of 1950 had been exorcised and, with two beautiful goals scored by the boy in the number ten shirt, a new king had been anointed. Tears of joy fell from the exhausted champion’s face; David crouched over Goliath and looked into his lifeless eyes.
Appreciating Pelé will never be a simple task. He makes us laugh, he makes us cry, but his unique brand of individual indefectibility seems to defy expression through words alone. Too good, too fit for purpose, too at ease with his surroundings; Pelé is less a person and more an idealistic state of unobtainable sublimity for the vast majority of us. Pelé is an emotional state, a chemical imbalance in our minds that was born on Swedish fields in 1958 and forever destined to defy comprehension.