Pelé revolutionized soccer, but that did not make him a revolutionary figure

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In the 73rd minute of Brazil’s 2022 World Cup opener against Serbia, its 25-year-old forward Richarlison, a son of the Nova Venécia favela in the state of Espírito Santo, took a crossing pass into the box with his left foot. He then lofted the ball above his head, inverted his body, nearly heels overhead, and booted it out of the air with his right foot past a would-be defender and the outstretched arms of the goalkeeper.

Of the 172 goals scored in 64 matches over 29 days, none was more spectacular.

Thanks to Pelé, who died Thursday at 82.

For when Edson Arantes do Nascimento, as Pelé’s parents named him, was called up by Brazil’s national team at 16 in 1957, soccer — or futebol, as it’s called in Portuguese-colonized Brazil — was rarely played with the panache Richarlison displayed. It was largely still constricted by the European aesthetics and sensibilities of the British expatriates who imported the game to Brazil in the late 19th century and reserved it for the settler colonial class that excluded working-poor Black Brazilians who were descendants of the transatlantic slave trade.

As the lauded and criticized Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre observed about the 1938 World Cup, in which Brazil finished third in a field that consisted of 12 European countries, Cuba and Indonesia: “Our football style seems to contrast with the European one due to an amount of qualities such as surprise, skill, cleverness, speed and, at the same time, individual brilliance and spontaneity. … Our passes, our catches, our misleads, our floridness with the ball … there is something that reminds one of dancing and capoeira [an Afro-Brazilian martial art]making the Brazilian way of playing football a trademark, which sophisticates and often sweetens the game invented by the English and played so stiffly by them.”

Pelé started playing in America in 1975. Nothing was the same after that.

And no one perfected and personified “futebol-arte,” as Freyre called it, more than Pelé. Pelé dribbled the ball off his opponents’ shins rather than around them, as Brazilian sports broadcaster Marcelo Barreto reminded. Pele developed as strong a left foot as his dominant right foot. He was a pioneer of the acrobatic bicycle kick and scissor kick that Richarlison unleashed on soccer’s greatest stage last month. And like Negro League players who added the excitement of speed to Major League Baseball when they were finally allowed to play, Pelé was a faster footballer than soccer had seen.

Pelé revolutionized the way soccer is played and its popularity. But that did not make him a revolutionary figure, no matter how many photos have been shared of him pictured with Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela and other icons of his time. Most of his life di lui off the pitch disputes those synonymic comparisons.

Pelé, unlike Ali, served required time in his country’s military, a year after winning his first World Cup in 1958. And he didn’t dare sacrifice his career like Ali did, by standing up to his country’s government when many of his countrymen thought it was righteous to do so and did. He’d all but accepted indentured servitude to the government when President Jânio Quadros in the early 1960s declared Pelé a “national treasure.” The president did so to quell public fears that a European club would whisk Pelé away, and Pelé acquiesced.

And when the government turned on Brazilians in the mid-1960s, Pelé didn’t turn away from it. The recent Netflix documentary “Pele,” which opens with a halting entry of an age-ridden Pelé using a walker, reminds the viewer of Pelé’s embrace of his country’s brutal military dictatorship from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, particularly during the presidency of Gen. Emílio Garrastazu Médici from 1969 to 1974, when the regime was at its most repressive. There is a photo of Pelé hugging Médici and his successor, Gen. Ernesto Geisel. The filmmakers asked Pelé if he knew about the torture of political dissidents, the disappearances of Médici’s opponents, the murders the state had allegedly conducted. Pele answered ambiguously.

In fact, Pelé was all but an extension of Médici’s regime. Médici used Brazil’s run-up to and eventual capturing of the 1970 World Cup, behind Pelé’s brilliance di lui, to sportswash criticisms against his government di lui with the national fervor surrounding the team.

“I love Pelé, but that won’t stop me criticizing him,” Pelé’s former teammate Caju said in the documentary. “I thought his behavior was that of a Black man who says, ‘Yes sir.’ A submissive Black man. … It’s a criticism I hold against him to this day, because just one statement from Pelé would have gone a long way.”

Pelé did, however, instill a new sense of pride in Black Brazilians. He was, for example, one of the first Black Brazilian soccer stars to embrace his Africanness rather than reject it. He didn’t whiten his face with rice powder, as Mario Filho, in his seminal text “The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer,” recounted some of the first Black players in Brazil’s pro league doing in hope of earning the good graces of the elite class that supported their sport. That was not a quality of Pelé’s that appears to have worn off on his most recent embodiment of him, Neymar, who to the dismay of many Black Brazilians has Europeanized his looks as his career has blossomed.

But what Pelé did in appearance for Black Brazilians, he rarely followed up with performative politics, action or words. He did not emblazon his body with tattoos of revolutionary personalities Che Guevara and Fidel Castro like a great footballer who came after him, the Argentine, Diego Maradona. As a superstar Black athlete, he was more comparable in the United States to Willie Mays or Michael Jordan, whose responses to questions about racial inequity rarely rise to tepid. When a goalkeeper for Pelé’s former club Santos confronted opposing fans for harassing him with monkey calls, Pelé dismissed the player rather than the abusers. “If I had to stop or shout every time I was racially abused,” Pelé told a television station, “every game would have to be stopped.”

So we should remember Pelé for who he was, the greatest soccer player to date. A global athletic icon. And one who smiled even for those for whom he shouldn’t.

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