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Pelé in Brazil

Close-up of a globe turned to Brazil

When I asked to interview Pablo and Dennis about Pelé they both responded with furrowed brows. Neither one liked Pelé, they explained. Pablo called him an idiot. “Perfect!” I said. I chose Dennis and Pablo because they are both Brazilian. That’s it. Just being Brazilian may not seem like much to go on, but it’s a start. If we are really going to figure this Pelé thing out, we need to explore as many perspectives as possible. This is the perspective of two regular dudes that happen to be from Brazil.

I decided to cut right to the heart of the issue and asked Pablo why Pelé was his “favorite soccer player ever.” This was sort of a joke—as you may recall, Pablo is partial to Garrincha—but instead of being reproached for putting words in his mouth, Pablo became serious. A sociologist might have found it interesting just how serious Pablo became. When I turned on my voice recorder the conversation went from gentle joking and to meaning-of-life serious. He thought about his response carefully. “He’s not my favorite soccer player ever,” he said. He explained that Pelé was important because no player has ever been as dominant as he was, relative to that player’s respective era. “Today it is hard to have a player [as dominant as] Pelé because physically the players are very even. In Pelé’s time the players were not as professional and soccer was different; there was not as much money surrounding soccer and players of that time didn’t take care of their bodies properly.”

Pablo has just demystified Pelé. It came as a bit of a relief to me. Pelé’s legacy is so legend-based it is nice to bring some reason into the mix. His greatness is as much an expression of his genius as a reflection of a changed sport. It’s not just fairy dust and mystique; there’s something more concrete, too. This is non-fiction. Professionalism has increased parity among players. When everyone is similarly fast, technically gifted, and tactically disciplined, genius has less wiggle room. While Pelé was a visionary in his time—Pablo has profound respect for his ability to “solve problems” on the field—the game’s evolution, not necessarily his genius, makes his position as The Greatest of All Time impossible to usurp.

As it turns out, Pelé’s stewardship of his own position as The Greatest of All Time is what Pablo and Dennis dislike about him the most. They see him as too premeditated. He is a man who has spent his entire life protecting his image and his place in the pantheon of sport. Through Pablo and Dennis, I now view him as an artist who created something so beautiful that he put down his brush, afraid to ever paint or even touch art again. Instead he just talks about it from a distance. Pelé has never coached, as many retired players do. Dennis even argued that when Pelé played for the Cosmos he was motivated as much by his desire to protect his legacy—not wanting to test himself at a high level in his old age—as he was motivated to bring soccer to America. Denis and Pablo argued that, when he finally retired completely, Pelé could have done much more to give back. They noted that he was careful to avoid testimonials and charity matches.

“In Brazil, in December, when the summer is starting, the older players get together and play in charity matches. They give the money to some foundation,” explained Pablo. “Pelé has never participated.”

“But he did that a lot in England. He did that in the United States but not in Brazil,” said Dennis. Dennis seemed suddenly mad, like Pelé had turned his back on Brazil.

“He did it for power, not to be good. That is my criticism,” said Pablo.

Both Pablo and Dennis acknowledged Pelé’s titles and records, the happiness he brought to Brazilians during a time of military dictatorship, but they dislike him as a person and resent him as a politician. Pablo said that Pelé often “stuck his nose” into business when he had no right. Unsolicited. That he often criticized Brazil’s underprivileged players for being driven by money. Just last week he encouraged Neymar, the eighteen-year-old phenomenon, not to move to Chelsea and to stay in Brazil. To Pablo and Dennis this is comical.

“In the 1990s Pelé was the Minister of Sport in Brazil and it was a disaster,” said Dennis. “He made gambling part of a soccer clubs’ income. You know, Brazil has a problem with corruption and mixing casinos with soccer became a great disaster. Lots of problems with money laundering came out of it all. I’m not saying he created it but…”

Pablo leaned over and whispered to Denis, “Ley de Pelé.”

“Oh,” said Dennis. “I forgot about that!”

According to Pablo and Dennis, Pelé’s largest contribution as Minister of Sport was what they call the Pelé Law. The law changed the way players were contracted to clubs, making it easier for them to leave a club. Players might view the law in a positive light but Pablo and Dennis, who live and die by the Campeonato Brasileiro, see it as the beginning of the end of Brazilian soccer.

“A lot of great teams lost a lot of great players, like Ronaldinho, who played for Grêmio, in my city,” said Pablo. “After this law, Grêmio lost Ronaldinho and the team got paid very little.”

Dennis said players used to have to pay a lot of money to leave their contracts. “In the 1980s, great players didn’t do that. The great Brazilian players, they were in Brazil. They were not as famous.” Dennis explained that Brazilians are jealous of European soccer. That if Brazil could keep some of their players they would have the world’s best league, “like the NBA.” As one of the first players to leave and the person responsible for the easy exportation of contemporary footballers, Pelé represents both the tip of the iceberg and the warming of the earth itself. Dennis thought for a moment and then his voice softened. “I wish that Brazil was not so corrupt,” he said. “For the sake of soccer.”

The Brazilian Pelé is not the American Pelé. He is not the English Pelé or the Icelandic or Indian Pelé, either. In many ways his legend may be similar. It seems just as self-fulfilling and culturally heavy in Brazil as anywhere. But it is more than that, too. In Brazil, the legend Pelé once earned on the soccer field is today carefully maintained and nurtured. To my friends he is insecure and self-important. He is The Greatest of All Time.

Brian Blickenstaff blogs at Touch and Tactics. You can also find him on Twitter.

I’ve had a similar argument about the impossibility of comparing Kobe and Jordan: All the players are bigger now.

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Pelé in Brazil

by Brian Blickenstaff · August 23, 2010

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