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.

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Pelé v. the Animals

Why do you watch ESPN instead of Animal Planet? Cute uniforms aside, bears are stronger, giraffes are faster, and kangaroos can jumpPainting of a gentleman with the head of a lion much higher. Why watch a species that struggles to lift over 300 pounds or run a mile in under four minutes? More intriguingly, how did such a feeble runt of a species come to rule the planet? Luckily, two classic moments from Pelé provide answers.

Opposable thumb theorists, grin and bear with me. First, for our soft skin, lack of claws, and vegetable-friendly mandibles, humans possess a cerebral capacity beyond our animal peers in many respects. When we watch sport, often we reserve plaudits for the cleverest of players. A head-fake, a dropped shoulder, a no look pass—the art of deception and scheming allowed our forefathers to slay beasts with only stones and sticks at their disposal. In that vain, Pelé’s greatest goal never scored illustrates why he deserves praise. Watch.

For all our SAT scores, GPAs, and IQ’s, the human mind must focus on one simple task at a time to successfully complete it. While the brain regulates rudimentary activities, such as breathing, stopping Pelé requires a slightly higher plane of thought, reaction, and instinct. In the greatest goal never scored, Pelé deceives the Uruguayan goalkeeper not with a head-fake or stepover, but by forcing an immediate decision—stop Pelé, or stop the ball. In the game of chicken, the goalie chose neither, and only a slightly wide finishing shot spared him eternal infamy.

From the viewer’s perspective, soccer is the sport of anticipation and trepidation. If you team’s offense strokes the ball around the opposition’s eighteen yard box, it’s like watching Rambo plow through Communist Nazi soldier after Communist Nazi soldier. The adrenaline takes over and a smile forms on your face before the net begins to ripple. Conversely, when your team’s defense bunkers into its own half, the dread is akin to a horror film. You’ve seen a knife-wielding intruder walk down the hallway a thousand times, but the hair on the back of your neck still stands on end. By the time the ball enters the back of the net, you’ve covered your face with your hands. Pelé’s near goal puts you on edge with a robbery, split pass and perfectly timed run. Then it throws you for a loop with the divergence of movement. Could you have thought of that? Have you ever seen anything like it since? Nada.

For all our brains, the capacity for coordination also has elevated humankind to the top of the animal kingdom. Sport exemplifies the language without words, what Paolo Coehlo calls “the Soul of the World.” Like two lovers in a tango, the movement, coordination, and understanding draw your eyes to the invisible bond between persons. Soccer, with its eleven players, lack of timeouts, single interval, and merciless clock, requires perhaps the highest degree of sustained comprehension in any sport.

Of course, it also requires a sustained appreciation of context. Pelé’s most overrated goal exemplifies the beauty of collective thought, but it also exemplifies the dramatic significance of the context in which that thought takes place:

From the Brazilian’s own box to Pelé’s hesitation to Carlos Alberto’s perfectly placed and timed low volley, the assembly line of human interactions could have fallen apart at any single moment. A misplaced wheel, an unoiled lever, and the machine would have ceased in a fuss of smoke and sparks. Yet Pelé delivered the penultimate touch with precision and care, using his peripheral vision to see Carlos Alberto and his gaze to freeze the defense. So why did I call this the most overrated goal?

Well, by the time Brazil scored this goal, soccer historians will note that the verdeamarehla had already built a sizable lead based on proficient set pieces. Thus, rather then putting the Italians to the sword, this goal falls into the realm of “cherry on top.” For those who love sundaes and abhor functional relevance, yes, the goal was pretty. But the dramatic lies only in the intricate buildup, not in that sequence’s relevance to the game’s outcome. Unlike the Iniesta strikes of recent times, Carlos Alberto could have skied his effort with little effect on the outcome.

So there you have it—Pelé explains why you watch ESPN instead of Animal Planet, and why you are not mopping the habitat of a chimpanzee. The least you can do is thank him for it, even if some of his goals are a tad overrated, while some of his most brilliant efforts ended up sliding into side netting.

Elliott writes for

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Pelé v. the Animals

by Elliott · August 19, 2010

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