He was the man known throughout world of football and well, sport, as the Black Pearl. Partab Ramchand describes why Pele is without peer in what is called the ‘beautiful game’
The career of the man known across the sporting world as Black Pearl or O Rei (The King) could be almost impossible to sum up succinctly. But in its own poignant way, the statement on Pele’s death at the age of 82 on December 29 following colon cancer put it aptly. “Inspiration and love marked the journey of King Pele, who peacefully passed away,” adding he had “enchanted the world with his genius in sport, stopped a war, carried out social works all over the world and spread what he most believed to be the cure for all our problems: Love.”
Pele rose from barefoot poverty to become one of the greatest and best-known athletes in modern history and the tributes that poured in from across the worlds of sport, politics and popular culture were for a figure who epitomised Brazil’s dominance of the beautiful game. The Brazilian Government while declaring three days of mourning said that Pele was “a great citizen and patriot, raising the name of Brazil wherever he went.” Indeed, it can be said that no Brazilian has carried the name of the country as far as he did.
Like Muhammad Ali, Pele was an instantly recognisable personality the world over. The story goes that when he visited Washington to help popularise the game in North America, it was the US President who put out his hand first. “My name is Ronald Reagan. I am the president of the USA,” the host said to his visitor. “But you don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pele is.”
Yes, Pele transcended soccer, like no player before or since, and he became one of the first global icons of the 20th Century. With his winning smile and an aw-shucks humility that charmed legions of fans, he was better known than many Hollywood stars, popes or presidents – many, if not most of whom he met during a six-decade-long career as player and ambassador for the sport. Pele credited his one-of-a-kind mix of talent, creative genius and technical skill to a youth spent playing pick-up games in small-town Brazil, often using grapefruit or wrapped-up rags because his family could not afford a real ball.
Pele believed that his talent was a divine gift, and he spoke movingly about how soccer allowed him to travel the world, bring cheer to cancer patients and survivors of wars and famine, and provide for a family that, growing up, often did not know the source of their next meal. “God gave me this ability for one reason: To make people happy,” he said during a 2013 interview. “No matter what I did, I tried not to forget that.”
Before Pele made his debut for Brazil, the South American Nation had never won the World Cup. By the time he retired, they had won three – more than any other team. Since then, they have added two more titles. Arguably Pele’s greatest contribution to both football and Brazil was to transform his under-achieving nation into a ‘footballing’ superpower. Pre-1958, Brazil had a rich football heritage but it was not the country of football. Post-1970, the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind when they think of Brazil is football. And while there is a wildly talented double generation of players responsible for that, the unifying figure remains Pele.
Pele is the only player to figure in three World Cup winning teams, although his experiences in the tournament varied greatly. He burst on to the scene at the age of 17 in 1958, scoring six goals in the knock-out stages, including two in the final against Sweden, as Brazil recorded their first triumph. Four years later, in Chile, he was injured in Brazil’s second match, and Garrincha stepped up to play the starring role in Brazil’s second consecutive win. Pele hoped to make it three-in-a-row in England in 1966 but Brazil were knocked out in the group stage, partly because he was closely marked. His greatness was such that more than one defender was placed to keep a close watch on his movements. He was also repeatedly fouled and this reduced his effectiveness. At the end of the tournament he was in tears.
Pele was adept at striking the ball with either foot, in addition to anticipating his opponents’ movements on the field. While predominantly a striker, he could also drop deep and take on a playmaking role, providing assists with his vision and passing ability, and he would also use his dribbling skills to go past opponents.
After retiring from international football for two years, he returned in time for Mexico 1970, determined to win the Jules Rimet Trophy and go out on a high. His performances in what is often called the greatest team of all-time capped his international career. He was supported by an ensemble cast but it was Pele, already widely held to be the greatest player of all time, who truly captured the imagination.
Even when he didn’t score, his invention shone through, cementing the image of the Brazilian footballer as the world’s most creative player and Brazil as the spiritual home of what would forever be called “the beautiful game”. Indeed Brazil’s performance in the World Cup final has been hailed as a master class. From that day onwards, Brazil firmly planted their flag on the summit of world football, a peak to which all other teams strove to aspire.
Pele was among the most successful and popular sports figures of the 20th Century. In 1999, he was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and was included in the Time Magazine list of 100 most influential people of the 20th Century. In 2000, Pele was voted Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics and was one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the 20th Century, along with Diego Maradona.
Pelé is acknowledged with connecting the phrase, The Beautiful Game, with football. His electrifying play and penchant for spectacular goals made him a superstar around the world and his teams toured internationally to take full advantage of his popularity. During his playing days, he was for a period the best-paid athlete in the world.
In Brazil, Pele was hailed as a national hero for his accomplishments in football and for his outspoken support of policies that improved the social conditions of the poor. His emergence at the 1958 World Cup, where he became the first Black global sporting star, was a source of inspiration. Throughout his career and in his retirement, Pele received numerous individual and team awards for his performance in the field, his record-breaking achievements, and his legacy in the sport.
Known for his genius with the ball, Pele epitomised the sublime style of play called Samba Football in Brazil where he was declared a “national treasure”. But beyond the records, he will be remembered for revolutionising the sport, his ever present No. 10 on his back. The first global football superstar, Pele played a leading role in the game’s transformation into a sporting and commercial powerhouse. More than anyone else, he helped make football the world’s most popular sport and such was his presence that he once managed to bring about a 48-hour ceasefire between two warring factions during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, just so that they could watch him play in an exhibition game in Lagos.