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Pelé as a Human Being

Pele taking it easy on the couch

At the end of the episode entitled “Brazil” in the excellent documentary series The History of Football, Pelé offers the interviewer a few comments on his own footballing genius. He declares that just as there can only ever be one Michaelangelo and one Beethoven, so can there only ever be one Pelé. Why? Because, he says in Portuguese, “my father is a closed shop.” When the female interviewer fails to laugh, he repeats his words in English, and adds a snipping motion with his finger. “Do you understand?” he says, now staring at the camera with his world famous grin. “My father is a closed machine.”

Pelé’s reference to Beethoven as an exceptional equal is apt. In serious classical music circles, discussion of Beethoven’s compositional influence has long gone out of vogue. Not through any fault of his own, mind you; the sheer scope of his importance in the development of modern Romantic music, and the ubiquity of the more well-known symphonies among American middle-class (and -brow) classical music collections, meant talk of Beethoven eventually fell silent during the Mozart-soaked, “period performance” eighties. While some critics did make laughable attempts at revisionism—Beethoven as a failed classical/Romantic hybrid—the truth was the A Beethoven record cover featuring several bustsmagnitude of Beethoven’s contemporary influence simply grew too big. You could no longer get a grasp of the whole.

In recent years, Pelé has fared little better. His popular fame as football’s official “Best Player Ever,” especially in America; his contribution to some of the most iconic images in soccer history; and his relatively anodyne personal life have all acted as deterrents to serious recognition of Pelé’s influence. Easier to sing paeans to the more troubled genius strikers of the analog age—Sindelar, Cruyff, Best, Garrincha, Maradona—than a smiling naïf who eagerly sports his own FIFA-approved brand and makes sycophantic pre-World Cup predictions.

It’s a common problem for the pre-digital, pre-satellite genius striker—because so few of us today can claim to have seen them play outside a grab bag of edited film reels on YouTube, we’ve lazily come to rely on their personal vices as a sort of shorthand for their essential greatness. Praising Pelé (or Rossi, or Platini for that matter)—what’s the point? At best, post-football, Pelé’s been a bumbling dad who makes bad jokes; at worst, he’s been a corporate stooge for a ruthless, post-Havelange “Fan Zone” FIFA. He is immune to any “tortured genius” psychoanalyzing. He looks way too good selling soda. Behind that smile, Pelé is a “closed machine.”

It’s all nonsense, of course, and the clues lie outside of the famed images from the World Cups in 1958 and 1970. You have to look at his club career, particularly with Santos, to get a sense of a footballing genius far removed from his later reputation in wider circles as “invulnerable.” Perhaps the best example is O Milésimo, Pelé’s thousandth goal scored in all competitions. It came in 1969, the dying days of Santos and Pelé’s glory period. As this clip lays out, such was the intensity of the build up that a Vasco da Gama fullback preferred to head the ball in his own net than let O Rei near it.

When the goal finally came, it wasn’t the sort of sublime over-the-head volley, or dancing, side-stepping bit of trickery we’ve come to associate with Pelé. It came from the penalty spot after a clumsy tackle by a Vasco fullback, the sort of goal he scored countless times in smaller stadiums throughout Brazil during unremarkable encounters that didn’t make the film reels. The sort of games with garbage goals, missed chances, or occasional bad performances that pre-modern strikers endured long before the global panopticon of digital satellite TV.

In fact, from an aesthetic perspective, the Thousandth is probably the least interesting Pelé goal captured on film. A weak, side-footed penalty that the keeper gets a hand to but just sort of plops in the net anyway. After the goal, Pelé lazily jogs over to pick up the ball, seemingly unaware of the surrounding mayhem, as if all he wanted to do was take it back to the centre circle so he could keep playing. And in a brief moment before cataclysmic crowds converge and sweep Pelé up into history, you get a sense of Edson the human being, whose thousandth goal came in an almost banal, Sunday-league moment of the kind we rarely got to see.

In many ways, the absence on film of the older, legendary strikers’ occasional journeyman moments works as a curse, and none more so than for Pelé. His influence, reduced to an epic Wikipedia entry and some kick-ass clips, seems almost banal in its brilliance. Pelé has no inner seething rage or libidinal insatiability or alcoholic abandon against which we can hold him in relief. That doesn’t mean should succumb to the cheap stance that his earnest kindness, his affability, somehow reflect poorly on his legacy. Genius is not always marked by inner pain.

Nor is it a series of YouTube clips. Pelé—one of the greatest players the game has and will have ever seen—played football in real life. The surprising drabness of O Milésimo stands as a rare, but much-needed reminder that genius like Pelé’s couldn’t be conjured up on a whim. It cannot be captured in a Wikipedia entry or romanticized by a drug addiction. It isn’t an ineffable Platonic form. It came in the lived moments of a man content to play a game he loved while still insisting on being his embarrassing, affable self, always that weeping seventeen-year-old kid the world fell in love with in Sweden some fifty-two years ago. And regardless if there is never another Pelé Week, never another book, another blog post about his legacy, his genius will still sit there as fat, stubborn and inscrutable as ever.

Richard Whittall blogs at A More Splendid Life.

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Pelé as a Human Being

by Richard Whittall · August 20, 2010

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