The Pelé paradox: football’s greatest celebrity still defines beautiful game | Pelé

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Shortly after his 30th birthday, on the verge of his extended disco-retirement phase, the crimplene jumpsuit years, Pelé was voted the Most Famous Person in the World. By that stage his career as a serious footballer was all but done. A world champion for the third time that summer, Pelé had already become the thing he would remain for the rest of his life: the Pelé identity, the Pelé industrial complex, Big Pelé.

What did he choose to do in 1970 with this superpower, this gift, the status of most famous human? He wore a white suit and waved a lot. He played the guitar. He shouted “love” into a microphone.

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In the years that followed he seemed bent on hanging out on the wrong side of history (Pelé’s 2010 autobiography is dedicated, naturally, to Sepp Blatter). Grandiose business ventures periodically collapsed. The idea of a political career – seriously Pelé? Have you met any politicians? Have you met any Brazilian politicians? – came and went in a hurry.

For a while he hung out with Andy Warhol who announced that Pelé would have “15 centuries” of fame. And maybe Andy was right. Two decades later Pelé could be seen leaping out of a giant birthday cake (he was 50 now) before retiring to a bespoke Pelé plinth to watch a globally televised Pelé tribute match.

Little wonder, in the end, that five decades of this stuff has tended to create its own confusions, to dim the brilliance of one of the great public figures of the 20th century. Perhaps the news of Pelé’s death on Thursday night after a long illness might offer a little clarity now, a chance to find the hard edges once again.

Pelé with Andy Warhol in 1977.
Pelé with Andy Warhol in 1977. Photograph: Claudia Larson/AP

It helps to look back at the images of those golden years: the cheekbones, the wide, guileless eyes, the grace of his movements, a time when Pelé looked like what he was, the kid who rose from extreme poverty to become one of the first black global pop culture superstars; the impossibly handsome 20th-century boy who dazzled Queen Elizabeth II at the Maracanã in 1968 (according to Pelé she asked if he would come and play for Liverpool); and above all a genuinely uplifting figure, an embodiment of the idea of football as a source of joy and emancipation.

First, though, it will be necessary to deal with a little more of the Pelé backlash. This has been a theme of the last few years. Presented with an icon, a cultural fixture, it is only natural to want to tear it down a little.

So we hear that Brazilians prefer Garrincha (who wouldn’t, really? Garrincha is Brazil’s rebel heart). We hear about Pelé as tool of the establishment. Why didn’t he fight the military government? Why didn’t this man who came from poverty and racial apartheid to become a global source of inspiration do more to reflect the politics espoused by my social media account?

This is one way of misunderstanding Pelé. Another is to wrangle over the astonishingly boring goalscoring stats. On one side we have the claim of 1,000 goals (perhaps the Santos museum will in the next few days discover that, in fact Pelé lived to be 113). On the other the counter claims (equally dull) that scoring goals in European tour games is easier than scoring goals against Gent in a team of superstars. Pelé is overrated. Pelé just got there first. Pelé is a pachydermic mega-brand. Pelé is your dad’s record collection.

There are probably two things worth saying about all this. The first is that Pelé was not inevitable. Pelé was not hothoused through some western European academy pathway. This was a triumph over extreme pre-modern adversity. Pelé was born in a shack in Minas Gerais. He grew up in poverty. He stole mangoes from the trees because he was hungry. He worked as a shoeshine boy and as a vendor of stolen peanuts. From his first experience of football to his last he was kicked, punched, tripped and misdiagnosed (one team doctor treated a serious knee injury with “boiling hot towels”).

And of course he was racially abused everywhere he went, by crowds, opposition players and teammates. His birth was greeted with the words “he’s certainly black enough!” from his uncle Jorge. In Sweden in 1958 the teenaged Pelé noticed “all the other teams had only white people. I can remember asking my teammates, is it only in Brazil that there are blacks?”

But Brazil with its steeply graded colour bar was hardly a model society. Pelé walked through this guided by nothing but talent and will. He may not have been political in any coherent modern sense, may not have said the right things. But his entire existence was unavoidably political. He deserves to be respected for this.

The sporting world pays tribute to Pelé after his death at 82 – video

And second there is the issue of his startling brilliance as a player, the only issue really, although even here his reputation seems to have come under assault in recent years. When Pelé emerged Brazilian football was not a place of mobile attackers or creative fluidity. Teams tended to favour powerful centre-forwards, but even as a teenager Pelé demanded the creation of a different kind of role.

Here was a footballer with both the rare physicality of Cristiano Ronaldo and the creative imagination of Lionel Messi. To really get this it is necessary to look back at the old footage and zoom out to watch the players around Pelé. Here he is, this sleek, balanced, utterly compelling figure at the centre, surrounded by other elite footballers who look suddenly like robots made out of scaffolding poles, Daleks on a 10-mile cross-country hike.

Pelé just seems instantly modern. He has different ways of standing, moving, taking the ball. The famous goal in the World Cup final of 1958, where he lifts the ball over Bengt Gustavsson, runs around him and volleys it into the corner can look weirdly easy and cheap in a two-second clip. Watch the whole game and Pelé looks like a hyper-advanced alien visitor toying with a very slow and confused diplodocus.

His greatest moment would come 12 years later in Mexico. Pelé scored or made half of Brazil’s goals in that exhilarating tournament, which seemed at the time like a kind of footballing Woodstock, the triumph of imaginative and free expression, an example of what might be achieved, of the finer human qualities.

Funny how things turn out. Pelé would retire a year later, safely enthroned as the World’s Most Famous Person. And his 1970 team did create a model of the sport as Technicolor global obsession, a product that would be violently retailed by every governing body over the 50 years that followed, culminating in this winter’s Carbon Wars World Cup.

There is a paradox here. Corporate Pelé-ism, the cult of celebrity, the commodification of that image helped provide a model for this. Pelé the footballer helped to define the beauty at its heart. He remains, in more ways than one, the father of the modern game.

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