Announcing Pelé Week
by Brian Phillips · August 13, 2010
The Premier League season starts in about six minutes, so you’re probably expecting this site to revert back to blanket coverage of the tiny crinkle above Arsène Wenger’s nose. (“It’s looking world-weary, Jim.”) But first, we’re going to make room for something else, because I keep thinking about the last post, and I’m convinced that this sad neglect of Pelé has to end.
Just about everyone who responded to “Is Pelé Underrated?” agreed with the basic premise that Pelé was a completely wonderful player, but one who’s bizarrely hard to care about because his combination of near-perfection on the pitch and the institutional adulation he’s received off it offers nothing for the football connoisseur to take hold of. As Alan wrote:
The perfectly symmetrical face—when generated as an artificial image, which is the only way perfect symmetry happens—is less interesting, less attractive, than the face that bears, however subtly, the asymmetries of ordinary human physiognomy. Pelé is just too damned symmetrical. What did he do excellently?—well, everything. His heading was as accurate as his dribbling was dextrous as his vision was acute as his shot was powerful. Contrast Maradona, who, in addition to his many physical eccentricities, on that astonishing run through the English defense in the ’86 Cup never touched the ball with his right foot. (Can’t recall who pointed this out to me.) Or Garrincha with his curved spine and oddly twisted legs. Even Cruyff, who substantively was as complete a player as Pelé, looked a little odd for most of his career because he was so skinny—plus he went out of his way to do the unexpected, which I don’t think Pelé ever did. (Pelé just did what was right, which wouldn’t have been good enough for Cruyff.)
And when you add the “perfectly symmetrical face” problem to the nine hundred million FIFA-certified writs of approval and the nine hundred and three million Crestfield Wax Paper commercials, you have—or this was the general conclusion—a sort of living ™ symbol that nobody wants to endorse.
Is that right, though? I can’t shake the sense that we’re missing the boat on Pelé, that, like the Hot Fives and Sevens or The Godfather, he’s become invisible through repetition and influence. We’ve all known his name since the day the atom was split, and I wonder whether what we’re seeing when we watch him is dulled by what we already know and expect. I want to shake that off and make an effort to look at him with fresh eyes. I could be wrong about this, but I have a feeling that if we could see him as, say, a 23-year-old at a specific moment in time, and not the concept of exalted predestination, he might as cool a player to like as Cruyff, or Garrincha, or anyone.
Thus, I’m announcing the first-ever Pelé Week on The Run of Play. Next week—even if it means not writing much about Liverpool-Arsenal, A Game So Vast We Shall Never Again See Its Like—we’re going to be all Pelé, all the time, with the hope of peeling away some of the layers of familiarity and, if this is even possible, recontextualizing O Rei as a human being.
Writers, if you have a fresh angle on Pelé, I’ll be very receptive to Pelé-related submissions for the next few days, so torpedoes, by which I mean email attachments, at the ready, please. Readers, pour yourselves a brandy and prepare to be YouTubed at. If you hate this idea, or if it seems like Mostly Mozart, you might be able to find Premier League coverage somewhere else online. I’m not sure about that, but I’m optimistic.
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