(Football icon Pele, who won three World Cups with Brazil, passed away on 29 December 2022. The Quint pays tribute to one of the greatest champions the beautiful game has ever produced.)
Decades before it became ‘trendy’ for fans to carry such elucidative posters to matches, hoping that the cameras will be considerate enough to fall on them, football fans in Mexico devised a unique way of promulgating their intentions loud and clear.
The socio-economic backgrounds of the workers, their work profiles and deadlines could not combine to prove one bit significant, as something far more important was on the horizon. Pele, the footballer who was more of a myth than a man, was going to play football.
The 1970 FIFA World Cup was special for several reasons. In the history of football’s greatest competition, it was the first edition to be broadcasted internationally – in colour.
Electronic devices fitting in palms and uniting the world were still an alien concept, but the gigantic boxed televisions and obnoxious-looking antennas did manage to provide a sense of universal unity, as it seemed that the world had unequivocally stopped spinning and magically transformed itself into a football, which now lay at the feet of a Brazilian.
There he was, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, in flesh and blood, shimmering in the yellow Brazilian shirt for the world to witness, alongside the 100,000+ spectators who were fortunate enough to find an inch of space in what was a packed Estadio Azteca.
Against Italy in the final match, Pele made history in more ways than one. Scoring once and assisting twice, he not only played his part in a 4-1 for the Selecao, but also became the first player in the history of the game to become a three-time world champion.
Such is his greatness, that the record has not been equalled even after five decades, let alone being eclipsed.
The Kid With Three Hearts
Pele’s birthplace, Tres Coracoes was first utilised to explore gold when Portuguese traveller Tome Martins da Costa settled in the region in 1760. He built a chapel and named it ‘Three Hearts’, and subsequently, the city also had the same name.
For all of its natural splendour, the place would yield its most precious variant of gold 180 years later, and the residents of the city, mesmerised by what the kid could do when he had the ball at his feet, would call him ‘the boy with three hearts.’
Quite simply, there was not a better, and more logical explanation they could conjure.
Study the case of any Brazilian child, and chances are, you will find a couple of common underlying themes across all stories – football and poverty. While he certainly was an exceptional talent, Pele was not an exception in this regard.
He would grow up loving football, but would also work in tea stalls to make ends meet.
On days when fortune smiled on him, there would be a ball at his feet. On other days, he would simply roll up old newspapers into a ragged sock and tie them up. Those who experience deprivation in youth know well that choice is a luxury few can afford.
The Promise Fulfilled
At 10, it was Pele’s turn to be a first-hand witness of the nation’s frenzy for football. The World Cup was held in Brazil for the first time, and they also made it to the finals. There was but only any favourite, but silencing the crowd at the Maracana Stadium, Uruguay won the match 2-1.
He would see his father, former footballer Dondinho, cry for the first time, and societal standards of yesteryears made his shock much bigger than it might possibly have been today. Growing up with the anachronistic perspective which inculcated in him the belief that men, under any given circumstance, are not allowed to cry, Pele knew well the defeat must have sparked incredible grief for his father to defy all standards and end up in tears like a child.
A promise was made – to avenge the defeat and become the world champions. The promise was fulfilled – only eight years later.
The then-Brazil manager, Vicente Fiola was not particularly keen on playing the youngster, and he had reasons stacked to support his argument. Pele was still only 17, with very little international experience, and had just recovered from a knee injury.
But having seen what the wonderkid could do in training sessions, the senior members of the squad pleaded with the coach to let him play. Fiola agreed, and perhaps unknowingly, he not only did his team a favour, but presented the world with a gem that they would cherish forever.
Youngest player to appear in the World Cup, youngest player to get an assist in the World Cup, youngest player to score in the World Cup, and most importantly, youngest player to win the World Cup – you name it, and Pele had achieved it on that Sweden trip.
Becoming a National Treasure, at Some Personal Cost
Brazil, a poverty-ridden nation trapped in a tempestuous political fracas, finally had an escape, a window of hope. They were the world champions for the first time, and it was only the beginning.
But as if to inject lime into the nationwide intoxication, European giants with deep pockets came circling, with pay cheques that could lure any and every athlete into leaving their nation.
However, for a country that did not have much else to look forward to, Pele was much more than just a footballer.
His skills would work as a tranquillizer, and his goals – analeptic. To shun European interest once and for all, Brazilian president Janio Quadros declared the player an ‘official national treasure.’ It would literally be a crime to take him out of Brazil.
But with connectivity not being a cakewalk, and the player’s realm almost forcibly restricted, another strategy came into action – his team, Santos, would tour all over the world to let the world catch a glimpse of the magician.
Little could the player have predicted back then, it also allowed those who did not witness his wizardry to question his legacy. Of his 1,279 goals, 504 came in unofficial friendlies and hence did not receive official recognition by the RSSSF, an international organisation dedicated to collecting statistics about association football.
Having snubbed a move to Manchester United, Pele eventually arrived in England for the 1966 World Cup, but got the shock of his life. Brazil, who looked almost certain to win their third consecutive title, were eliminated from the first round.
While he witnessed his father going through a breakdown post the 1950 edition, Pele now experienced heartbreak for the first time in his playing career and took an impulsive decision – to never play in the World Cup again.
The Return of the King
In 1970, when he was already approaching the dusk of his career, Brazil needed him more than they ever did. The likes of Garrincha, Gilmar and Nilton Santos had all retired, and the nation cried for a saviour.
Another 17-year-old prodigy was nowhere to be seen on the horizon, so the one from 12 years prior had no other option but to rejuvenate himself and play his heart out.
The fans in the stadium, those listening on the radios and watching on television sets, were left stunned.
So were the commentators. Working for ITV, football pundit Malcolm Allison asked his colleague “How do you spell Pele?” Pat Crerand replied “Easy. G-O-D.”
If football is a religion, it does not have a place for atheists, for to be a football atheist will be denying the legacy of Pele.
The player, for whom Michel Platini said “To play like Pele is to play like God.” For whom, Brazilians proudly claim till date – ‘Everything your favourite player does today, Pele did it first.’
With his demise on 29 December 2022, we bid farewell to the boy with three hearts, who stole ours several times over.