The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
By 1977, the disco starship of the NASL had already blasted off pretty far into its groovy cartoon orbit—that was the year the New York Cosmos dropped the “New York” from their name. It was a league of John Oates mustaches—half the players looked like mellow plumbers—and haystack man-perms, a green festivity of daffy-eyed showmen in 100% cotton shorts. Pelé was in his third season with the Cosmos, deep in his “Black Pearl” phase and now officially representing not only Studio 54 and Andy Warhol’s eight bzillionth Factory, but the glittering expanse of all creation, everywhere: Henry Kissinger went to his games. Pelé had been the MVP of the league the season before, but he was 36 and now he was going to retire.
Star-studded as they were, the Cosmos finished second in the Eastern Division behind the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, with (and here’s a classic NASL line) 144 points off 15 wins and 11 losses. Well, they’d been coasting: when they met the Strikers’ vaunted defense in the playoffs, they thwacked eight goals past it in the first leg and won by an aggregate score of 11-5. This was the Cosmos of Pelé, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, and the rest. They had their tensions, Chinaglia and Pelé didn’t always get along—but Batman and Superman were bound to squabble sometimes, weren’t they? This was the Cosmos, the team that made soccer cool and then made cool look like the Village People, and as they crested into the Soccer Bowl against the upstart Seattle Sounders—coached by player-manager Harry Redknapp!—they were one rainbow backdrop away from being the real-life Super Friends.
The championship game was played at the Portland Civic Center on August 28, three months after Star Wars opened. TVS aired it, with a young Jon Miller providing commentary and occasionally appearing to understand the offside rule. It wasn’t Pelé’s last game in a Cosmos uniform; he had yet to play the famous goodbye exhibition with Santos, the one where he asked the crowd to say “love” with him three times and then loped around the field streaming a Brazilian flag from one hand and an American flag from the other. But it was his last competitive game, and Miller’s commentary is obsessively fixed on the idea that the NASL title is “the one championship he has yet to win,” that his teammates were determined to “win this trophy for him,” as though after three World Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, two Copa Libertadores titles, 10 state championships in Brazil, and somewhere in the vicinity of 1300 goals, he just needed that last Soccer Bowl win to really lock in his legacy.
Watching the game today, what’s striking is how little Pelé has to do with it. He’s there, and he’s everyone’s focus—the Sounders double-team him, the camera seeks him out—but he’s bouncing around the game rather than channeling it. He moves as intelligently as ever, and he still shows signs of the ludicrous sense of balance that was always his best asset, but he’s slower, and he’s gone a little soft. Pelé’s game had a killer edge at times, but his default style was something like “I’ll just go get the ball and do something with it.” Looking dense and igneous in the crowd of shaggy gazelles (as a league, the NASL was willowy; everyone looks like they’re auditioning to play George Harrison in the movie of All Things Must Pass), he just has a harder time getting the ball. The game’s most memorable moment, Steve Hunt scoring after stealing the ball from Seattle keeper Tony Chursky, has nothing to do with him.
That’s not to say he’s not important to the event. He’s playing a vital role, it’s just a role that’s only loosely connected to the action in the soccer game. He’s there to be a focal point, to give the match a historic significance—Pelé’s last competitive game—and, in a slightly bizarre fashion, to commemorate a career whose important moments all occurred thousands of miles away and before an entirely different set of fans. Miller tries to rise to the occasion, calling him “the most fabled athlete in the history of sports…perhaps the most loved athlete in the history of sports.” But Miller’s a guidebook rather than a spokesman: he’s explaining how other people feel. After “the most loved athlete in the history of sports” he trails off, then finishes apologetically, “throughout the world.” There’s a sense that the NASL, with its gold-chains-and-cologne imperialism, has imported someone else’s moment, as if Pelé’s retirement were an Elgin marble, or maybe London Bridge.
But Pelé knew what he was getting into when he got into it, and he plays the role with good grace. Before the match even kicks off, he trots out of the tunnel with one arm in the air and does a victory jog around the center circle. The Cosmos win 2-1, and after the match is over, just after we’re told that Steve Hunt has been named the Copenhagen/Skoal Player of the Game, he trades shirts with Jim McAllister, the NASL Rookie of the Year, symbolically handing the league over to its young American stars. Then he trots off to join the group hug. It’s a mild goodbye, but a conscientious, statesmanlike one: Pelé as the Good Child, even in his last moments on a contested pitch.
What can we make of this gaudy time capsule now? Two quick thoughts. First, for anyone who’s argued that Pelé’s “perfection” as a player is what makes him hard to love—that styles flourish around flaws, and that Pelé’s game was too objectively flawless to be interesting—this should be a deeply humanizing moment: Pelé playing on the fumes of his ability, no longer the best player on the pitch, essentially in the last gasp of a years-long confrontation with mortality. But somehow, it doesn’t work that way, because Pelé has been the best player on the pitch for so long that there’s an overriding agreement to pretend he’s still the best player on the pitch. It’s as if he’s always due the honor of being treated as the center of the occasion, even when he isn’t; he just has to smile and wave.
And that’s part of the problem, too, because, to borrow the terms of Alan’s post from this morning, it’s not clear, in 1977, that Pelé can still see himself. He’s been an icon for so long, has played the part of soccer’s good child for so long (“I think the thing that makes you sad to see him leave,” Miller says, “is not only the great talent, it’s the fact of the kind of a man that he is”), that it’s entirely plausible that his own sense of himself has disappeared into a black hole of representations. For 20 years, there has been no place on earth where he could step outside without causing mass hysteria; his arrival utterly changes the character of any situation into which he arrives. And yet he’s determined to do what’s expected of him, to stay relatively modest, to stay sane. Given those conditions, isn’t he more or less duty-bound to become a sightseer of his own experience—to become, in Alan’s sense, the Grand Canyon of himself? And while that probably can’t be a context in which a style becomes approachable, surely it can be a context in which a career becomes fascinating, or reflects back on culture in a weird and compelling way. There’s more to Pelé than this, but there’s something to Pelé as an emblem of an idea so genuine that it gradually robbed his own life of all genuineness.
My second thought is: Did Pelé’s stint in the NASL have anything to do with the indifference toward him that we’ve been exploring for the last few days? Yes, the NASL is a lot of breezy fun in its outsize Charlie’s Angels cheerleaderiness, but is it fun in a way that you want the greatest player ever to be mixed up in? Is the cheerful hustle of this Portland farewell something you want to imagine for the player who more than anyone else is supposed to be the soul of the game? I don’t know how cultural memory works, but I wonder if some minor trickle of That 70s Sideshow has mingled with the rest of his career and cheapened it in a way that can’t be circumvented by saying he “brought soccer to America.” Had he stayed in Brazil, and gone down finally as the player who made Santos the best club in the world and then never left Santos, I wonder if his legacy would seem more accessible than it can now, attached to this cool, late, brazen footnote.
by Brian Phillips · August 16, 2010