Twenty years ago, a gang of armed thieves stopped a car at a red light in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As they were in the process of evicting its occupants, they recognized one of them – Pele. The crooks apologized and sent the car on its way.
A year later, Ronaldo – at that time, arguably the best player in the world – was stopped in the same city in a similar fashion. He was also too famous to miss. The thieves took the car. Ronaldo ended up hitchhiking to a police station.
A few people are above the law, but how many are above crime?
Pele wasn’t just the best soccer player in history. Decades after he’d stopped playing, he remained a perfect avatar of the game – bright, brilliant and ageless. When you think of pure joy in sports, no other face leaps so readily to mind.
Pele died Thursday after a long bout with cancer. He was 82.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, called Pele, was born in a small Brazilian town in 1940. For years, the origin of his nom de joueur were kept mysterious. Pele finally revealed its prosaic roots – a childhood mispronunciation of his favourite player, Bile.
His family couldn’t afford a soccer ball. So Pele grew up playing with grapefruits and socks stuffed with newspaper. At 15, a local coach took him to try out for the closest big club, Santos. He was signed on the spot.
Pele would spend his best years at Santos. Just in case, Brazil’s government declared him a national treasure. That prevented him from being sold to foreign teams.
His style could best be described as everything. Pele did everything you could do with a soccer ball as well or better than anyone else. He was preposterously fast, agile, powerful, as good without the ball as he was with it, two-footed and lethal anywhere within 30 yards in front of goal, and probably behind it. Great players have a special instinct that tells them where to be. Pele knew when to be. The bigger the game, the better he was.
At 16, Pele was the Brazilian league’s top scorer. At 17, he was an intriguing addition to a national team about to take part in the first World Cup widely viewed on global television.
Brazil beat the hosts, Sweden, 5-2 in the final. Pele scored two goals. One of them was an all-timer. Pele flicked the ball over a defender, ran around him to receive his own pass, then picked it out of the air before it could touch ground.
“Even I wanted to cheer for him,” Sweden’s Sigge Parling said afterward, capturing the worldwide consensus.
After the final whistle went, Pele burst into heaving sobs. He was consoled on live TV by his older teammates. How could you not fall in love?
This was to be a star-crossed romance. Pele would pop up for a month at World Cups and make everyone swoon. Then he’d vanish off home for the next four years, where no non-Brazilian could see him. This irregularity of visibility only fed his legend.
Throughout the 1960s, Brazil was ascendant and Pele was the consensus king of the sport. By that point, he didn’t need to pump his own tires. European colleagues did that for him.
“The greatest player in history was [Argentina’s Alfredo] di Stefano,” the remarkable Hungarian, Ferenc Puskas, once said. “I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that.”
Brazil won a second World Cup in 1962, and a third in 1970. In that last major outing, Pele scored a headed goal in the final over Italy’s Tarcisio Burgnich.
Afterward, Mr. Burgnich said, “I told myself before the game, he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else. But I was wrong.”
Pele quit international soccer the next year. The glory days were ending. The cash-in days were beginning.
In 1975, he came out of quasi-retirement to join the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. He agreed to a three-year, US$7-million contract – reported at the time to be the highest annual wage in the history of sport.
Though he was past his prime, the United States loved Pele, just as he was loved everywhere else. They were less interested in his sport. After Pele left, the league faltered and then went into terminal decline.
The next phase of Pele’s life was as a pitchman. He was raised with nothing and didn’t finish grade school. Though always rich, he chased money like a man terrified of being poor again.
His relationship with his home country grew complicated. Pele had many public opinions, not all of which endeared him to fellow Brazilians. He was a famous philanderer – another knock on him at home.
Brazilian sentiment was encapsulated by another of the country’s soccer gods, Romario: “Pele is a poet, when his mouth’s shut.”
But his love affair with the rest of the world was uncomplicated and everlasting. Along with Muhammad Ali, he continued to shape perception of what a global icon should look like long past his playing days. No world leader stopped traffic in more countries than he did. Wherever Pele went, they lined the streets.
I met him once in Toronto, one of those 15-minute journalistic car washes they do in the ballroom of a downtown hotel. He came waddling into the room, small and bowlegged, smiling as if this was the most exciting part of his day. I don’t know what I expected, but for the first and only time in my career I was star-struck.
I stuck out my hand for a shake. Pele blew past it and hugged me. They had two chairs set up facing each other, about six feet apart. Pele scooched his over so that he was in touching distance. For most of the conversation, he rested a hand on my knee. When he wanted to emphasize a point, he squeezed. I can’t remember anything he said. It was like talking to Jesus.
Lots of people are great at their jobs, but perishingly few of those are also gifted at human interaction. Pele had that. You can see it in photos and on film. Though this was the millionth person who’d stood in front of him, slightly aquiver, Pele was delighted to meet them. Always and without exception.
There will be better players. There may already have been. By virtue of winning the World Cup in Qatar, many have already passed the “best ever” crown to Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
But Pele’s magic was a function of his time. His eminence was heightened by involuntary reticence. Nobody saw him enough to get bored of him. That isn’t possible any more.
Because of that, it’s hard to imagine any present or future athlete being more universally, uncritically and passionately admired.
Most great athletes are complicated figures. Their greatness inspires interest. Interest encourages journalism. Journalism ruins a story that’s too good to be true, and all stories are.
Pele was complicated, but he was also above journalism. He emblemized pure, uncomplicated joy. Speaking a universal language, he reached out to everyone everywhere and connected with them all.
When Pele retired in New York, J.B. Pinheiro, Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations, valorized him in that global assembly.
He pointed out that Pele played professionally for 22 years, but that that was the lesser part of his accomplishment: “In that time, he has done more for goodwill and friendship than all of the ambassadors ever appointed.”
Editor’s note: (Jan. 4, 2023): An earlier version incorrectly suggested in brackets that Alfredo di Stefano was from Spain. In fact, he was from Argentina.
Pele, the legendary Brazilian soccer player who rose from barefoot poverty to become one of the greatest and best-known athletes in modern history, died on Thursday at the age of 82. This report produced by Freddie Joyner.