Ashraf Ali Siddiqui pays tribute to a sporting legend
Pele’s era in football arrived into a world game in 1958 that was on the cusp of enormous change and by the time he retired, he was global football’s first true superstar. Pele who passed away at the age of 82 was global football’s first true superstar. From his debut at the 1958 World Cup finals through to his glorious send-off in Mexico City twelve years later Pele’s international career coincided with great leaps forward in terms of the technology that delivered the game to the world. Of all the other sporting superstars of this era, only Muhammad Ali could match his fame.
Pele is in a way associated with the TV presentation of football as he arrived four years after the first World Cup to be televised in Europe was in 1954. The first exposure of the 17 year-old Pele came during Brazil’s quarter-final match against Wales. Midway through the second half, he flicked the ball past Mel Charles of Wales and shot into the corner of the goal for his first ever World Cup final goal that proved to be the only goal of the game. The interest of media in Pele was a moment that set the tone for much of his international career. Five days later, he scored a hat-trick as Brazil demolished France 5-2 in the semi-finals. Five days after that, he scored twice as Brazil beat the host nation Sweden by the same score to lift their first World Cup.
In 1966, Pele ran headlong into the cynicism that had started to engulf European football over the previous decade. With little protection from referees, he was kicked all over the pitch in their opening match against Bulgaria. Despite scoring in that match – becoming the first player to score in three consecutive World Cup finals in the process – he was sufficiently injured to have to miss their next game against Hungary, which they lost 3-1. Hurriedly brought back into the team for their final game against Portugal the kicking resumed and with Pele limping on the touchline – 1966 was the last World Cup at which no substitutes were allowed – Brazil were beaten 3-1 again and eliminated from the tournament in the group stages for only the second – and to date last – time. After that tournament, Pele vowed that he would never play in a World Cup again.
It took some persuading to get him to play in Mexico four years later. After the uncovering of a plot to kidnap him Brazil team trained in a fortified camp, patrolled day and night by police and armed guards with Pele himself hidden behind a circle of protection wherever he went. With Brazil’s military government desperate to avoid the early elimination of 1966, the Brazil squad had three and half months of dedicated preparation ahead of the 1970 tournament including 21 days spent training at altitude. By this time Pele was considered a national treasure in Brazil by 1962 and that his transfer abroad would never have been permitted. And regardless, South American club football was very different then to now and his club team Santos toured Europe regularly. In 130 games for Santos against European club opposition, Pele scored 144 goals.
Pele occupies a completely unique place in the history of the game and that is before one even touches on the subject that players of that era were playing a very different game to now. To truly understand the impact that he had on the global game, it is instructive to look at the way in which he was regarded by his contemporaries. He brought out the poet in those who played against him. And his cultural importance matters. After retiring from the international game he headed to the USA to play for New York Cosmos and ended up effectively an ambassador of the North American Soccer League. When it rained during his final appearance it elicited one Brazilian newspaper’s headline: ‘Even The Sky Was Crying’.
Pele as the game’s first global superstar blazed a trail for everyone that followed and became a cultural icon the likes of which people will almost certainly never see again. He arrived in a game that was still played in black and white and left it being played in colour. This was not entirely down to technological developments. Pele was the truest link between the game of the dim and distant past and the game that is still played today. His contribution is incontrovertible and his memory will never fade away. TW