KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY ** —- Pele, just turned 80, remains one of those great examples and inspirations of world sport: a poor boy whose talent lifted him to the peaks of achievement, fame and fortune … yet who, amidst all that, retained his innate sense of sportsmanship, his love of his calling and the respect of team-mates and opponents alike.
His father Dondinho had been a useful footballer in the 1940s, but his career had been ended prematurely by injury. He was his son’s first coach and his first supporter.
Most Brazilian footballers are known by nicknames. Pele does not know the origin of his own tag. He recalled only that he did not like it and was in trouble at school for fighting with class-mates who called him Pele. Later, of course, it became the most familiar name in world sport.
Pele’s teenage exploits as a player with his local club, Bauru, earned him a transfer to Santos at the age of 15. Rapidly he earned national and then international recognition. At 16 he was playing for Brazil; at 17 he was winning the World Cup.
Yet it took pressure from his team-mates to persuade national manager Vicente Feola to throw him into the action in Sweden in 1958.
Santos were not slow to recognize the potential offered their club by Pele. The directors created a sort of circus, touring the world, playing two and three times a week for lucrative match fees.
The income from this gave the club the financial leverage to buy a supporting cast which helped turn Santos into World Club Champions in 1962 and 1963.
The pressure on Pele was reflected in injuries, one of which restricted him to only a peripheral role at the 1962 World Cup finals. He scored a marvellous solo goal against Mexico in the first round, but pulled a muscle and missed the rest of the tournament. Brazil, even without him, went on to retain the Jules Rimet Trophy.
In 1966 Pele led Brazil in England. But referees were unprepared to give players of skill and creativity the necessary protection. One of the saddest images of the tournament was Pele, a raincoat around his shoulders, leaving the pitch after being kicked out of the tournament by Portugal. Brazil, this time, did not possess the same strength in depth as in 1962, and crashed out.
Four years later Pele took his revenge in the most glorious way. As long as the game is played, the 1970 World Cup finals will be revered as the apotheosis of a great player, not only at his very best, but achieving the rewards his talent deserved.
As a 17-year-old Pele had scored one of the unforgettable World Cup goals in the Final against Sweden – in 1970 he twice nearly surpassed it. First, against Czechoslovakia, he just missed scoring with a shot from his own half of the field, and against Uruguay he sold an outrageous dummy to the goalkeeper and just missed again.
It says everything about Pele’s transcending genius that he was the one man able to set light to soccer in the United States in the 1970s. Although the North American Soccer League eventually collapsed amid financial confusion, soccer was by that stage firmly established as a grass-roots American sport.
Without Pele’s original allure that could never have happened and the capture of host rights for the 1994 finals would never have been possible.
1940 Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 21 in Tres Coracoes
1950 Began playing with local club Bauru, where his father was a coach
1956 Transferred to big-city club Santos and made his league debut at 15
1957 Made his debut for Brazil, at 16, against Argentina
1958 Became the youngest-ever World Cup winner, scoring two goals in the Final as Brazil beat Sweden 5-2
1962 Missed the 1962 World Cup win because of injury in the first round … but compensated by winning the World Club Cup with Santos
1970 Inspired Brazil to complete their historic World Cup hat-trick in Mexico
1975 Ended an 18-month retirement to play for Cosmos of New York in the dramatic, short-lived North American Soccer League
1977 Retired again after lifting Cosmos to their third NASL championship
1982 Presented with FIFA’s Gold Medal Award for outstanding service to the worldwide game
1994 Appointed Brazil’s Minister for Sport
** Keir Radnedge was Engish-language ghost writer for Pele at World Cups and European Championships.