The called him 'O Rei' for a reason: Pelé's impact will long be felt
What Darwin was to biology, Edson Arantes do Nascimento was to soccer
Prior to this year’s World Cup, I did the fanboy thing and got myself one of those sticker books published by Panini. I bought my first set of stickers and saw that I had one for Mexican player Edson Álvarez. He hadn’t played in the Mexican league for a while so he hadn’t been on my mind for a few seasons. My first thought was about how much pressure that name would put on a guy in the game.
Edson, of course, was the actual first name of Pelé, the Brazilian soccer superstar whose death was announced Thursday. It isn’t the most common name, so in all likelihood, Álvarez’s father, who made his living making soccer jerseys, named him after the most famous number 10 in the sport.
Álvarez was born a full 20 years after the last time Pelé played a competitive match, and yet the legacy was enough for his father to bestow the name on him.
I never got to see him play live. Pelé’s last match was played at Portland’s Civic Stadium (now Providence Park) in 1977 before network TV was interested in broadcasting matches. Instead, you had to be in one of the few markets that had a station that bought the North American Soccer League’s syndication package.
Still, the hype around this guy Pelé playing in our country somehow filtered down to us as grade schoolers in Tucson. Someone in my second grade class bought a soccer ball and we would talk up Pelé. We’d play rather sloppy games on the playground at Corbett Elementary. I don’t know if any of us knew why Pelé was so good, but we knew he was. The comics page in either the Star or the Citizen, I can’t remember which, ran a one panel cartoon that profiled a player or some technique. That was how we learned the game: from a newspaper strip and we knew that somewhere in the world, there was a guy named Pelé that wore green and did stuff.
It was only years later that I found out what offside was.
Apparently, my little group at elementary school wasn’t the only one. Soccer existed in this country before Pelé. The first pro teams emerged here in the 1890s, after all. Those early teams had little impact before the signing of Pelé by a U.S. side in 1975. For all the grief that the NASL and the Cosmos get for being a business disaster, a whole generation of American soccer players, Pelé was the inspiration. Mia Hamm, Claudio Reyna, Michael Windischmann and Brandi Chastain all tell stories about watching him play when they were young.
There’s a story about the immediate impact he had in the US that’s related in the documentary "Once in a Lifetime." The Cosmos held a press conference to announce Pelé’s signing. A reporter named Dick Young, who had a reputation for being both acerbic and boorish, showed up to heckle Pelé and to complain that this foreign sport was going to ruin baseball. I’m unsure how that was supposed to work, but that’s what he said.
Young decided that he could show this upstart up by taking him to a New York Mets game. Young, Pelé and their group didn’t get announced, but it didn’t take long before people in the crowd started to recognize America’s newest sports star. They had caused such a disturbance in the crowd that by the third inning, umpires called a break in the game so that Pelé could take to the field and get introduced.
Even Young had to admit that there might be something to the hype.
So, what made him so great? Well, everything. He had speed (he could reportedly do a 100-yard dash in 12 seconds), incredible ball control, a physique that was incredible even by the standards of a sport that expects one to run for 90 minutes at a time and, most importantly, creativity. He would explain to teammates to think of the game like chess, think two moves ahead. He’d dart one way after a defender could swear he was about to dart another. He could hang back and pounce into an empty space that no one else quite knew was there.
In 1981, he tried to take on acting and starred in a John Houston directed film called "Escape to Victory." In one scene in the movie, team manager Michael Caine is trying to break down tactics. Pelé pops up from his seat and grabs the chalk away to explain “I get the ball here then,” and he draws a back and forth wave down the chalkboard, “I go like this, this, this, then goal…easy.”
Easy for him, I suppose.
The great Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich had the unenviable task of organizing a back line against Pelé in 1970. He famously said “I told myself before the game: ‘He’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else,’ but I was wrong.”
My old biology teacher and soccer coach said that what Darwin was to biology, Pelé was to soccer. It’s hard to imagine how the game would have evolved had he not played.
He didn’t invent the bicycle kick, but he made what was mostly a showy move into an important part of his arsenal. As much as Johann Cruyff deserves to be on a world football Mt. Rushmore next to him, it was Pelé and not him that invented the famous Cruyff Turn. Aside from tricky moves, he played with an absolute joy that is a big part of the reason why so many of us love this game.
His opponents saw this too. Guillermo Sepúlveda, the Mexican defender that Pelé got by for a goal in a 2 - 0 loss in the 1962 World Cup, said this: “He never complained about his teammates, he always encouraged them. I played a number of times against him. He was always a gentleman. Apart from being a great football player, he was also very educated… I am honored to have shared a field with him.”
His impact worldwide is hard to overestimate. The story about his presence in Nigeria prompting a cease fire in the brutal war in Biafra is, to put it very charitably, exaggerated. The fact that such a story is so believable says a lot about what he means in every corner of the globe. No one is making up stories about Cristiano Ronaldo bringing peace to Ukraine. The closest comparison is Muhammed Ali, whose career as a globally important athlete of color corresponded with Pelé’s. Both of them would have had trouble walking through a public square without being mobbed by fans, admirers really, for decades after their heydays.
Although he had a brief time as Brazil’s minister of Sport (one in which he made some attempts to clean up corruption in the Brazilian game), his post soccer career didn’t include long stretches as an administrator like former teammate Franz Beckenbauer or a storied time as a coach like Cruyff. Still, he was very visible as a retired player: popping up at matches, visiting locker rooms. He remains an inspiration for coaches, fans and players, even the ones that were born long after he took to the field in that final match in 1977. In an era where an athlete wins one regional championship and the internet attaches the phrase “G.O.A.T.” to his or her name for as long as it takes for fans to move on to the next shiny object, there is no sign that the admiration for Pelé will go away any time soon.
It shouldn’t, really.