Pelé: The Essential

By accepting the game for what it was, Pelé showed us sport at its full, idyllic potential.

When I think of Michael Jordan, it’s the up-and-under layup against the Lakers. For Maradona, it’s the goal he didn’t score with his hand against England. For Babe Ruth, the called shot. But for Pelé, I just think of soccer—no more, no less.

And it’s not for a lack of signature moments. After all, we’re talking about freaking Pelé. There’s the goal: a 17-year-old in the ’58 World Cup final against Sweden, controls with his chest, lobs the ball over a defender’s head, and smashes it into the bottom corner. Seventeen.

Or the famous miss, where his feint tilted the world, sending everyone—spectators and players alike—the wrong way.

The moments are there; they’re just not enough.


Pelé what? What’s his last name? He didn’t have one? Why not? No one ever answered with anything more than “He just doesn’t.”

He had no last name, and I didn’t want mine. That was freaking cool.

Brazil is cool. They dance and laugh around the field. Their jerseys are yellow. They pretend to put babies to sleep when they score. Pelé must be awesome.

Pelé was the beginning and the end of pop soccer culture as I started playing the game—mainly because my coaches were cops, lawyers, and carpenters—dads who didn’t know the first thing about the sport other than the Cosmos, toe-balls, and no-hands. Pelé was the only name they knew. They remembered him as the best, so he was.

Then Brazil won the World Cup in ’94—the first games I can remember watching. I was 6. I ran out into my backyard, screaming, when Roberto Baggio’s beautiful mullet sent his penalty kick over the crossbar. I expected screams from around the neighborhood, but I found silence. I put two stolen traffic cones up against our fence, kicked a ball against it, ran around, and watched myself do the “rock the baby” celebration in our kitchen window.

At the time, it just made true all this Pelé stuff I’d heard: Brazil is cool. They dance and laugh around the field. Their jerseys are yellow. They pretend to put babies to sleep when they score. Pelé must be awesome.

Pelé wasn’t even involved—well, not directly at least—with the ’94 team. They played a decidedly unattractive, un-Brazilian game, but I didn’t realize that. And I didn’t give a shit. Their win only bolstered the legend. Pelé is from Brazil. Brazil won the World Cup. That’s all I needed to know. They were the Bulls and he was a really old Michael Jordan—except I loved Pelé.


But Jordan isn’t Pelé.

Think of the greatest athletes—Jordan, Maradona, Ruth, even Usain Bolt. They’re all interlopers. None of them belong. They trespassed into their sports and blew them apart. They ripped to pieces the conceptions about how the game should be played, creating unseen angles and outcomes that should’ve been impossible. They existed outside of their sports, forcing the game to mold to their abilities or risk being left behind.

They were all ascendant, rising above everyone else. Pelé was transcendent—extending in and out of every generation.

Not a physical freak, Pelé was physically ideal. Five-eight with hulking thighs and calves: a body seemingly made to play soccer. He didn’t flip the game upside down or break it open. Rather, he made it his by being a part of it. No one, in any sport, read the flow of the game as well as he did, gently moving into dangerous positions or shifting a defender’s momentum before he’d taken a step.

Tommy Craggs has written about basketball players who “excel within the game’s given parameters, who master its angles rather than invent new ones.” Pelé did this, but he took it a step further. So fully immersed within the game’s parameters, he created new angles by using the game against itself. By accepting the game for what it was, he showed us sport at its full, idyllic potential. He didn’t react to what he was given or make the game react to him. He reacted with the game, simultaneously moving to its rhythm.


Brian Phillips at the Run of Play writes, “Pelé is just so omnipresent that praising him feels superfluous.” And it does seem that way. Am I really writing about Pelé? The Pelé? What’s there to say that hasn’t been said? It’s so obvious, that it’s hard to explain.

I wasn’t sure why I thought Pelé was so important back when I was picking my nose, eating flowers and boogers, and occasionally kicking the ball if it rolled by. I heard the name and let my mind run with it. But thinking back, there’s a reason why a long-retired Brazilian soccer player meant so much to a 6-year-old kid living on Long Island.

He is the game. Even if I had never heard of Pelé and never recreated the ’94 World Cup against a fence, he still would’ve been just as important to me. The most complete example of what the game can be, Pelé influences anyone who plays, whether they know it or not. He’s lived in the game since he first touched a ball, and he has ever since.

—Photo whiper/Flickr, gabriel.bitar/Flickr

About Ryan O'Hanlon

Ryan O'Hanlon is the managing editor of the Good Men Project. He used to play soccer and go to college. He's still trying to get over it. You can follow him on Twitter @rwohan.


  1. michael jordan did the same thing in basketball that Pele did in soccer, just mj did it better and basketball is a harder sport to do it in.

  2. Say what you want about Pele but Maradona was better. And whilst you can bring up Pele was a supreme or the ultimate athlete, Ronaldo the Phenomenon, his countryman was an even better athlete. No one was faster or stronger with a ball, the guy didn’t run around defenders, he ran through them. And not just any defenders but the best defensive generation there has ever been.

    • Would you classify Ben Johnson as one of the greatest runners of all time? No because he is a cheat. Same for Maradona. He cheated with performance enhancing drugs and bribes off the pitch, and cheated with handballs and dives on the pitch. He is a disgrace.

      And by the way the Univeristy Of Coruna found that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two fastest players with the ball in the history of the game. Maradona isn’t close to them.

    • Dude, u need to buy “Pele Eterno”….Pele was untouchable…Maradona was a failure after 1986…didnt score ag oal in 1990 WC..was disgraced in 1994..cant shoot with right leg…cant head ball..his left leg was devastating though but cmon are comparing him to the god of the game!!!

      You know what, I hear about Ronaldo..he to me is the 2nd greatest player I have ever seen! The phenomenon was powerful and brilliant…wish he didnt get hurt. Hey, he has a ring at least (2)…Pele was all of that in one. He was only 5ft 8 but had power, skill, speed etc….He could play in any era. Afterall, he won a world cup in each decade he played soccer (58, 62 and 70). No one else has done that!

    • Ronaldo was never a better athlete than Pele! Ronaldo had a couple of extremely good years, especially in 96-97 with Barcelona, when he was really young but his body collapsed after that. Three serious injuries in his knees. Ronaldo collapsed also right before the most important game, the world cup final in 1998.
      Ronaldos skills in the air are average at best. How many bicycle goals did he score? None from what I remember. How many headers? very few, although he was 1,83m(6 feet) a lot taller than Pele.
      Pele managed to play over 1300 career games, always under a lot of pressure already since he was 17 years old and world champion in 1958.
      Obviously it was not just that the athletic skills that made Pele the bst. He just had everything. left foot as good as his right, scoring ability, header, dribbling, imagination, passing, vision, speed, free kicks, powerful shot, finesse shot, he was even good as a goalkeeper and even was santos goalkeeper for a few games, and also a reserve goalkeeper for the national team!!!

  3. Number of players with one World Cup Winners Medal – 126
    Number of players with two World Cup Winners Medals – 20
    Number of players with three World Cup Winners Medals -1 (Pele)


  4. I would like to add to the two points made above. I think they both make great discussions, but I tend to agree very much with Ted.
    Pele, much like Wayne Gretzky did for hockey, is the poster boy, but not just for football. Much more so for an era (much like Gretzky). An era when the game was played for many more reasons than signing bonuses and contracts.
    People watched and played for the love of the game. Pele (TM) symbolizes that for the greatest number of people. Yeah, Garrincha, Rivelino, Maradona were great players, but you’d be hard pressed to find any one outside of football (and their countries) who recognizes those names.

  5. I travelled to south america and africa for over 20years on business. Lived there for some time too.
    My wife is asian and we go see her famly every 2years.
    So I only know the post maradona era.

    That said, the Maradona name is magical. Pele is just a name like Santa and the tooth fairy.
    People have heard of him but honestly, many arent even sure if he is real and the majority have never seen him play, even if its just a clip on TV.
    He is an idea but not something concrete.
    And in Dakar, the myth of Maradona is amazingly strong. Many more are aware of Pele but prefer Maradona because he is a sorcerer with the ball, a small man who can carry his whole team and country on his large back.

    This isnt to debate the merits of either of the players but just to tell you that its an unfair comparison.

    Most people today have never seen Pele play. Most older people only saw clips of him.
    Maradona’s career tailed off as satellite TV really took off.

    Was Pele better? Thats an idiotic proposition that belongs more in bars.

    Was he more important tofootball? That is an interesting one but would take a much more detaiiled effort.

    Of course, your own views are regional ones and happen to be off an old Pele playing in the NASL.
    Pele was an atfterthought to most of europe and you happen to live in the country which kept the legend alive.
    Go around the world a bit and you will see that Pele name rings of something…. buts its more like a ghost….something they never saw and arent sure even existed.

    • Dude some of ur words make sense (about the word Pele to players after the post Maradona era who rely on clips)..other than that the rest of your words are uncivilized…Pele has no match..Diego carried Argentina, true but with great help. He just happened to excel against England and Belgium. If he didnt use his hand against England, who knows what woulda happened. In the final of the 86 WC, he was shut down by Mathaues. In 1990, he was absent and didnt score a single goal. He was disgraced in 1994. If a man’s track record gets worse by each world cup, how in the world do you compare him to a god like Pele who no man could catch. Maradona was not complete despite his brilliance. He had no right leg and couldn’t head to save his life. Pele was everything to soccer. So much that people think he created the bicycle kick. Im Nigerian and i know that as much as we love Maradona, we know who the greatest is and it’s PELE. If Messi had won this wc in 2010, i would have ranked him over Diego. Lotta people are saying he is better than Diego (I think that’s blasphemy but that kinda convo just tells you something). No one is close to the immortal Pele!

  6. Now I don’t want to be a disser of Pele, because I really like the guy, but I think he is just the ‘poster boy’ of the sport. He was very good, but he was surrounded by a bunch of other really good guys on those Brazilian teams such as: Mario Zagallo, Garrincha (The Little Bird), Vava, Nilton Santos, Rivelino, and Jairzinho (who is the only person to score in every game in a given World Cup). Also, the popularity of Television can also be attributed to Pele’s popularity.

    As a true football fan I would appreciate recognition given to players such as Sir Stanley Matthews. A man who played his last competitive match when he was 70 years old, never received a yellow or red card during his 700 plus matches he played in, and was even recognized by Pele as “The man who taught us the way football should be played.”

    There are many others who can be put on a list of the best footballers ever. Hell, you can pick a bunch off of Pele’s list he put out a few years ago. Unfortunately Americans will only know about a few names related to football: Pele, Maradona, and Zidane (known in America more for his head-butt than his wonderful skills). Oh, and Beckham, but he’s just as famous for marrying a Spice Girl as he is for any football skills he may have had.

    • Sean, if you really knew the game, u wouldnt have said what u said…all the guys u mentioned (Rivelino, Jairzinho etc) fed off Pele’s greatness…when a guy like Pele leads, others follow and work as hard..Jairzinho who scored in every game was brilliant, but go watch the games and see how many assists Pele gave him..his goal vs Peru..his banger vs England and finally, his nearly missed kick which he sorta just tapped after a brilliant Pele header feed…players were open to be creative because Pele was so feared that defenders watched him constantly and sometimes were non chalant marking the rest of the team. After Brazil won the WC in ’70, Pele retired. Jairzinho and Rivelino were LOST in the ’74 World Cup. They did reach semis but luckily after playing so poorly and then getting whooped by Holland. You have to remember that Pele excelled in 3 decades (50s, 60s, 70s). He won a world cup in each decade! He scored 1281 goals in 1364 matches..the toll of those games was ridiculous…imagine expectations in each of those games..his club team Santos hawked him around the world just to play competitive games (Italy, France etc).

      People cry about why Pele didnt play in Europe. Hilarious, because in 1957, Pele was so large that Brazil’s minister declared him a “national treasure”. He couldnt go anywhere! Better yet, in 1962 and 1963, his club were south american champs and then became world club cup champs by beating the winner of the uefa champions league. Pele is a living icon. The most complete player i ever watched. he could use every part of his body to be effective with the ball. I saw the Brazil vs rest of the world tape done in 1990 when Pele was 50. OMG, dude was fantastic! at 50!!!

      Stan Matthews was a great winger, period. Pele he is not. NOt even close. He is not even the greatest English player of all time. That says a lot. You know u are that good when a ref gives you a RED card and then because he almost got killed by the fans, they had to bring the player back to the roar of the fans. Guess who that player was….you guessed right!

  7. I grew up in Brazil to the age of 15 (1990) and man, you brought back some good memories.
    I live in the States now, but I remember WC 1994 very vividly; trading players cards with my friends, filling out brackets (of course everyone picked Brazil to go all the way… ALWAYS!), and decorating our streets with banners and chalk drawings on the streets and sidewalks and walls. When Brazil lost to France in a shootout, people were devastated! I think I cried that whole day. I remember the silence down my street (businesses close for games).

    Nothing like it.

    Thanks for the great article.


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