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.
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.
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.