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.
Science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock has written an enormous sequence of novels about the Eternal Champion, the same hero reborn in dozens of different persons. Whether the Eternal Champion is named Elric of Melniboné, Oswald Bastable or Ulrich von Bek, he is always first and foremost the Eternal Champion. The particularities of each champion’s life and personality are different, but their role is the same every time, to restore balance to an off-kilter world.
The World’s Greatest Player is similarly reborn over and over again, though whole eras of football can pass without a player of that stature: 1990-98 is a recent example. It is questionable whether we have such a player among us today. Messi is pretty close to clinching that title, but his disappointing World Cup this summer kept him from stepping up onto the pedestal, this year at least. It is, of course, ridiculous to consider any single player to be clearly better than all the other players, yet there is wide consensus that Pelé was the greatest player from the late fifties to the early seventies. It’s hard to argue with his World Cup tally, and I wouldn’t (though, to be technical, he had little to do with Brazil’s 1962 win, being sidelined with a torn muscle after the 2nd group match). His transcendent skill is evident from the many videos one can watch online. Before his time you get into the hazy era before every major game of football was recorded for television, so it is hard to compare the skill of previous contenders. After Pelé’s day you have Cruyff, whose claim to the role is sadly marred by not winning the World Cup, a cruel but crucial prerequisite. Maradona followed Cruyff and then you have Zidane.
It has been a long while since I’ve been stunned by an advertisement, let alone one for fashionable suitcases, but the Louis Vuitton ad featuring Pelé, Maradona and Zidane did just that. There’s nothing that striking about the image itself, three men standing around a foosball table, but I suppose that when you’re photographing what might well be the three most iconic living sportsmen there’s no need to go crazy. The people whose attention this image was meant to captivate would’ve stopped and looked at anything featuring those three. Playing frisbee golf, watching American Idol on a ratty sofa, drinking tomato juice out of clown shoes, all would’ve made me cease whatever I was doing to stare. I’ll admit that part of what shocked me was that there now was, apparently, a third person who could stand alongside Pelé and Maradona. Growing up it was incontestable that the greatest football players of all time were Pelé and Maradona. I may be reading too much into a single ad, but it genuinely shocked me to see Pelé and Maradona joined by a third. On reflection, it’s not that surprising, given that these three are the same player reborn.
Watching videos of these players what strikes the eye aren’t the differences but the similarities. If anything defines their superhuman quality, it’s how they can cut through a gaggle of defenders like an industrial laser through a car door. The manner in which they do that is similar. They appear to be on the verge of falling over, but somehow they stay upright as they stumble through the men heaped around them, the ball staying at their feet like a lovestruck puppy. At other times, when not unlocking defenses like a supercomputer unscrambling a Rubik’s Cube, they epitomize economy of movement, seeming not to do much until suddenly one action leads to the winning moment: Pelé’s sideways pass to Jairzinho who then scored the single goal of the 1970 game against England, Zidane’s two late goals against England at the 2004 European Championships, and Maradona’s flat-footing of the entire Brazilian team in 1990 before setting Caniggia up for the lone goal of the match.
Those aren’t the only similarities, of course. They also have incredible vision, finding weakness in their opponents where none was suspected, finding passes where none appear feasible. They were leaders of their teams, got their teammates to play at a higher level than they were previously thought capable of and, conversely, left their nations bereft of ideas after retirement. Argentina and France are both lost in a search for replacements and Brazil suffered 24 years in the World Cup wilderness (even the Copa América eluded them until 1989). All three grew up poor and made the most of their talent, working tirelessly at becoming the best. And all seem to move with instinctual ease, making decisions with the kind of speed which makes one suspect they can see a few seconds into the future. Sure, there are differences between them, but the differences are small compared to the totality.
All three embody what we want out of football players, ball control, success, proletarian upbringing, flair, attack-mindedness, vision, leadership and a penchant for winning games in dramatic fashion. That is no accident. Collective fandom has an ideal player and these three fulfill it to a tee. Pelé, Maradona and Zidane all had defects, none were anything special defensively, for instance, but if they had been that might actually have sullied them. Beckenbauer was as complete a player as they were but spent too much time defending to live up to the role of World’s Greatest Player. Players in the mold of Juan Sebastian Verón and Gunther Netzer, slow deliberate players, can’t be the World’s Greatest Player because they seem to put too much thought into their game, taking their time to find the perfect pass. And those who appear to work too hard, Jürgen Klinsmann, for example, are never considered.
Pelé seized the moment when football globalized. People were no longer limited to watching their local matches and he became arguably the first ever World’s Greatest Player. The unanswered question is whether he set the mold or if he epitomized an already existing ideal. Do we collectively seek out this particular type of player because they’re intrinsically more pleasurable to watch than any other kind, or did Pelé imprint himself on the global fandom like some ball-dribbling Konrad Lorenz causing us, even those who never saw him play live, to seek out his image on the field? Either way, we await the next incarnation of The World’s Greatest Player, bringing beauty to a game that always exists in a fallen state, biding our time till the return of the Golden-Shirted Age of Pelé.
Kári Tulinius is an Icelandic poet and novelist. His first novel, Píslarvottar án hæfileika (Martyrs Without Talent), was published this spring in Reykjavík. He currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island.
Read More: Pelé
by Kári Tulinius · August 17, 2010