Jogo Bonito. When a certain Brazilian player used this phrase to describe football and how it should be played, he not only started a cultural revolution, which culminated in the sport being globally renowned as ‘the Beautiful Game’, he also molded the playing style of the nation he represented to fit the phrase. And boy, did it reap rewards.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born in Tres Coracoes in 1940. Neither that name nor the place would sound familiar. His father had played professional football with Fluminense FC, so the love for the game was in his genes. But due to poverty, little Edson had to work odd shifts in tea shops or shine shoes to save money for kits and balls.
In primary school, he mispronounced the name of his favorite football player, the CR Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Bilé. The other kids, keen not to let it slide by, nicknamed him Pele. The name stuck. Soon after, he was playing youth football for local clubs, leading Bauru Atletico juniors to Sao Paulo youth championships. His performances earned him a trial with Santos FC, who signed him at the tender age of 15. The rest is history.
He scored his first goal on his debut, then ended up as the top scorer in his first full season the following year, which earned him a call-up to the Brazilian national team. He scored his first international goal on debut too, remaining Brazil’s youngest goal scorer to date.
Remembering Pele, football’s first global superstar, who epitomized ‘the Beautiful Game’ and who passed away December 29 …
Soon afterwards the FIFA World Cup returned for its sixth edition in Sweden, where a 17-year-old Pele announced himself on the global stage, scoring six goals over the course of the tournament, despite sitting out the first two matches.
He scored twice in the final, as Brazil beat the hosts to secure their first World Cup title, and remained the only teenager to score in a final till a certain Kylian Mbappe did it in 2018. He also remains the youngest hat-trick scorer in World Cups for the treble he put past France in the semi-finals.
Now we could go on and on about his footballing achievements: the two Copa Libertadores successes, the multiple league and cup wins in between, the 1962 World Cup triumph in which he was injured … But that is all supplementary, in a way. It was the matter in which he did all of it which mattered.
Pele played with a type of grace and intelligence which was decades ahead of his time. And he had everything in his locker: two strong feet, close control, balance and poise, strength, which belied his 5’8“ frame, an explosive burst of pace and an impeccable reading of the game.
His first goal in the 1958 World Cup final encompasses all these qualities, flicking the ball over a defender, running around him before volleying it into the corner. He personified Jogo Bonito before he introduced it to the world.
So good was Pele that opposition players would feel like they ought to applaud him. So good was Pele that Benfica’s 1962 European Cup-winning goalkeeper would say he wasn’t born on the same planet as everyone else after conceding a hat-trick. So good was Pele that Brazil’s president had to issue a decree declaring him a national treasure so he couldn’t be signed by affluent European clubs.
So good was Pele that he transcended the boundaries of sport to become football’s first global superstar. To this date, he’s synonymous with football, like the Jordans and Alis and Ruths and Bolts and Phelps and Bradmans of other sports; in some ways, even like Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 landing.
One of the best yardsticks for greatness is longevity. Brian Lara isn’t great because he broke the record for the highest individual score in Test cricket twice, it’s because he did it 10 years apart.
Think Sergey Bubka, whose first and last world record pole vaults were 10 years apart; think Rafael Nadal, whose first and most recent Grand Slam triumphs are separated by 17 years. Even the two current footballing greats, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, have been going strong for well over 15 years now. It is precisely this reason that makes Pele’s third World Cup triumph in 1970 so special.
The year 1958 was his announcement to the world as a teenager. The year 1962 saw him injured, with Garrincha taking the spotlight. The year 1966 saw him not fulfilling his promise. But 1970 was Pele’s tournament.
The first tournament to be broadcast across the world via satellite. Pele spearheaded not just Brazil’s third World Cup win, he led the world into colored television in the trademark canary and cobalt of the Selecao. And he did it with the flair, appeal and joy befitting of being remembered as Jogo Bonito.
Pele scored once and assisted Carlos Alberto’s wonderful goal in the final as Brazil beat Italy in a performance widely labeled as the most beautiful in football history.
In 1975, Pele came out of semi-retirement and signed for the New York Cosmos. Along with other high-profile inductees, such as Franz Beckenbauer and George Best, he popularized the game in the United States.
He officially retired from football in 1977, closing out his career with a friendly between the only two clubs he played for, playing half each for Santos and Cosmos. He scored the last of his 1,279 goals in the same game, a disputed record which stands to this day.
After retirement, Pele dabbled in politics and entertainment, famously starring alongside Sylvester Stallone in the movie Escape to Victory. He was the global ambassador of everything from Pepsi to a certain type of diamond made from his hair. And, of course, the public eye followed him wherever he went.
He was, according to most accounts, the most famous person in the world in the 1960s and ’70s, characterized by his meeting with President Reagan, who introduced himself before saying, “You don’t have to introduce yourself, everyone knows who Pele is.“
Pele was a Unesco Goodwill Ambassador and a UN ambassador for ecology and the environment, while also being knighted honorarily by the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Despite all the fame and glory, Pele was renowned to be a modest and gracious personality. It was almost as if he never grew out of the little boy playing on the streets of Minas Gerais. He embodied sportsmanship, he never cheated or manipulated, and he was always very careful not to give the impression that he was humiliating his opponents.
Yes, he wasn’t perfect. His extra-marital children, his sometimes controversial political views, his alleged involvement of him in a Unesco corruption case and his unwillingness to speak out against the crimes of FIFA evidence that. But none of those take away from the person he was on the field.
Alfredo di Stefano had this pure elegance, Diego Maradona this sheer guile, Johan Cruyff a revolutionary intelligence, Ronaldo the explosive pace and ridiculous tricks, Zidane the outstanding poise and technique, Cristiano the will to be the best and Messi the otherworldly skill. Pele, however, offered something which was simultaneously simpler and yet a combination of all these.
He was, in simple terms, the footballer of the common man. And if our generation regards him as the greatest of all time without ever having seen him play, his legacy will live on forever.
Pele passed away on December 29. After three days of national mourning in Brazil, he was put to rest in a cemetery overlooking Santos’ home stadium on January 3. Rest in peace, O Rei.
The writer is a sports enthusiast with a background in supply chain management. He tweets @tahagoheer
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 8th, 2023
Header photo: Pelé kicks a ball over his head in 1968 in an acrobatic move. Off-balance or not, he could power the ball accurately with either foot.—AP