by Thomas Liekens · August 18, 2010
When People Who Don’t Like Football ask me why I do, I invariably answer: ‘You know Pelé? Well, it’s not because of him.’ Then I launch straight into the tragic story that is Garrincha’s life. I explain how he was Pelé’s direct opposite in so many ways. I’ve gotten pretty good at telling that story over the years. I try to make the game tangible for those poor lost souls. Lots of passion. Lots of Alegria do povo.
If they’re still not convinced, I throw in some Puskás. Magic Magyars, 1954, Communism, exile, fraternising with Hungarian hobos in the streets of Madrid. The narrative of football.
Garrincha. Puskás. Bendy-legs and the Fat Man. I get lyrical just thinking about them.
And yet. What is the first name out of my mouth when the subject of football is brought up? Who do I use to define the sport, even if only through a negative? Pelé. No wonder they call him The King. I need the light, reflected from his regalia, to bring my shadow puppets Garrincha and Puskás to life. There’s some Plato back there somewhere, but I fear I’d get thoroughly lost in that cave.
In a way Pelé is football. People who heartily hate the game, people who wouldn’t recognise an off-side trap if it came up to them and gave them a cheeky haircut, they all know Pelé. They’ve heard of him, briefly seen some documentary about him. Nice smile. Quite important. It’s as if Pelé as a person ceased to exist, what remains is a walking icon, the institute Edison Arantes do Nascimento. He even talks about the player he used to be in the third person, as if the man who did those wonderful things no longer exists. As if what’s left is a shell. The Idea of Football. The Game Incarnate. The Grand Canyon, if you will…
I love the game of football. Not only the stories, not just the drama, but the simple, pure, undiluted game. The sheer cheek of a dribble, an impossible rush, some dreamy lob hitting the back of the net. But if I accept that Pelé is the physical embodiment of the game, I shouldn’t just admire him, I should love him, the same way I love the game. If I’m in it for more than just Garrincha’s human tragedy and Puskas’s geo-political significance, I should love the man from Santos, who played the game better than anyone else who ever lived. So that when somebody asks me the next time why I love that strange game, I can say: ‘You know Pelé? Because of him.’
Well, I’ll try, Edison. I promise.
Thomas Liekens is a football journalist and commentator for Prime Sport TV in Belgium.
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