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Is Pelé Underrated?

Posted By Brian Phillips On August 10, 2010 @ 5:41 pm In Featured | 34 Comments

I have a piece in Slate today about the Pelé-Maradona feud and how it’s the index of all meaning in soccer. The short version is that for all the old-mannish ego-nostalgia and general crappiness of its discourse, their rivalry is irresistible because the two players represent radically opposed imaginative possibilities:

Think of how you approach sports at different stages of your life. Pelé, the best player on the best team who scored the most goals and won the most trophies and was the happiest and the most famous and most beloved, offers the child’s narrative of sports heroism, an exuberant conquest of a just and welcoming world. Maradona, who railed against authority and sabotaged himself and, in 1986, dragged an inferior Argentina team to the World Cup title by sheer force of will, represents the adolescent narrative: an unjust world forced to yield to a superior ego.

One question that I didn’t address in the piece, but which I keep circling back to in my mind, is whether this means that Pelé is now underrated. As absurd as that probably sounds, I think there’s a case to be made that the kind of star Pelé was, combined with the figure he’s cut in his retirement, have created a situation in which he just isn’t interesting compared to certain other players, with the result that he makes a strangely hollow shell: Infinite acclaim surrounding a career that it’s easy not to care about.

I realize, obviously, that to call Pelé underrated in any context is to make a pretty weird charge against the dictionary—the man is the honorary king of about half the world’s governments and knows the feel of ermine on every continent on Earth. I should probably limit this discussion to smart youngish fans who hang out online, or to bloggers currently sitting at my desk. But in another sense, the ubiquity of the honors he’s accorded is exactly the point. He’s won everything, been driven in slow-moving convertibles through fainting throngs everywhere, and been handed gold trophies atop impromptu ziggurats by everyone, to such a perfect degree that there seems to be nothing else to him. He’s had his moments of tragedy and scandal (the drug-addicted son, the corrupt business partners), but they don’t seem to have disrupted his basic identity, at least as it appears in the culture at large. He’s the player who wins, and smiles, and wins, and smiles, and is untroubled, and dances with confidence, and sits in on board meetings.

After all, even if the “child” narrative retains its appeal after a person grows up, there’s a good chance that it will never feel as immediate or as dramatic as the “adolescent” narrative. You smile at fairy tales, but the songs you loved at 16 are with you for life. And in the aftermath of their playing careers, it’s not just Maradona but also Cruyff, Best, Garrincha, Zidane, and a lot of other great players who seem more complex and compelling than Pelé. If a player’s style is of interest in part as a window into his personality—into a corner of human character—then doesn’t it stand to reason that we’d read an athlete’s later life back into his playing career and promote him or demote him accordingly? That is, if Maradona has revealed himself to be utterly defiant and insane, doesn’t his game start to seem like an insight into a fascinatingly disturbed psyche, and doesn’t it gain in excitement from that? And the same with Cruyff’s edgy brilliance, Best’s decadent sweetness, Zizou’s ambiguous pride, etc.? What does Pelé gain from that sort of reading? Thinking back, I realize that I’ve spent less time watching Pelé clips on YouTube than highlights of countless other players, even players who were nowhere near his level. Is that because there’s something a little dull about the prospect of taking in a style whose practitioner evolved into a minor businessman and institutional figurehead?

The question matters, because—this is the most obvious thing I’ve ever written, but there’s something liberating about writing it, too—Pelé was amazing. I mean, toss out every accolade, toss out the obligatory nature of the homage, and he will do things to the way you see light. He was stronger, faster, more balanced, quicker thinking, more intuitive, subtler, more ruthless, and more flexible than you remember, especially if you haven’t seen him for a while. Again, nothing could be less original than pointing out that Pelé was good, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it at any length before, and that’s probably true of more writers who match my basic description, as opposed to Sepp Blatter’s basic description, than you’d think. Pelé is just so omnipresent that praising him feels superfluous: There’s so much to be said about Puskás, or Sócrates, or Eusébio, and liking those players says so much more about you. (This is one sense in which Pelé is correct when he compares himself to Beethoven.) Whether he represents some kind of psychic triumph of the well-adjusted mind, or whether the public image conceals a deeper, stranger self, he ought to be loved by the living as well as honored by the dead. Instead, he may be the only player in history who was ever lost by being so completely found.


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