• U.S.

PELE: The Phenomenon

7 minute read
Henry Kissinger

Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us. For those who love soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, generally known as Pele, is a hero.

Performance at a high level in any sport is to exceed the ordinary human scale. But Pele’s performance transcended that of the ordinary star by as much as the star exceeds ordinary performance. He scored an average of a goal in every international game he played–the equivalent of a baseball player’s hitting a home run in every World Series game over 15 years. Between 1956 and 1974, Pele scored a total of 1,220 goals–not unlike hitting an average of 70 home runs every year for a decade and a half.

While he played, Brazil won the World Cup, staged quadrennially, three times in 12 years. He scored five goals in a game six times, four goals 30 times and three goals 90 times. And he did so not aloofly or disdainfully–as do many modern stars–but with an infectious joy that caused even the teams over which he triumphed to share in his pleasure, for it is no disgrace to be defeated by a phenomenon defying emulation.

He was born across the mountains from the great coastal cities of Brazil, in the impoverished town of Tres Coracoes. Nicknamed Dico by his family, he was called Pele by soccer friends, a word whose origins escape him. Dico shined shoes until he was discovered at the age of 11 by one of the country’s premier players, Waldemar de Brito. Four years later, De Brito brought Pele to Sao Paulo and declared to the disbelieving directors of the professional team in Santos, “This boy will be the greatest soccer player in the world.” He was quickly legend. By the next season, he was the top scorer in his league. As the Times of London would later say, “How do you spell Pele? G-O-D.” He has been known to stop war: both sides in Nigeria’s civil war called a 48-hour cease-fire in 1967 so Pele could play an exhibition match in the capital of Lagos.

To understand Pele’s role in soccer, some discussion of the nature of the game is necessary. No team sport evokes the same sort of primal, universal passion as soccer. During the World Cup, the matches of the national football teams impose television schedules on the rhythm of life. Last year I attended a dinner for leading members of the British establishment and distinguished guests from all over the world at the staid Spencer House in London. The hosts had the bad luck to have chosen the night of the match between England and Argentina–always a blood feud, compounded on this occasion by the memory of the Falklands crisis. The impeccable audience (or at least enough of it to influence the hosts) insisted that television sets be set up at strategic locations, during both the reception and the dinner. The match went into overtime and required a penalty shoot-out afterward, so the main speaker did not get to deliver his message until 11 p.m. And since England lost, the audience was not precisely in a mood for anything but mourning.

When France finally won the World Cup, Paris was paralyzed with joy for nearly 48 hours, Brazil by dejection for a similar period of time. I was in Brazil in 1962 when the national team won the World Cup in Chile. Everything stopped for two days while Rio celebrated a premature carnival.

There is no comparable phenomenon in the U.S. Our fans do not identify with their teams in such a way partly because American team sports are more cerebral and require a degree of skill that is beyond the reach of the layman. Baseball, for instance, requires a bundle of disparate skills: hitting a ball thrown at 90 m.p.h., catching a ball flying at the speed of a bullet, and throwing long distances with great accuracy. Football requires a different set of skills for each of its 11 positions. The U.S. spectator thus finds himself viewing two discrete events: what is actually taking place on the playing field and the translation of it into detailed and minute statistics. He wants his team to win, but he is also committed to the statistical triumph of the star he admires. The American sports hero is like Joe DiMaggio–a kind of Lone Ranger who walks in solitude beyond the reach of common experience, lifting us beyond ourselves.

Soccer is an altogether different sort of game. All 11 players must possess the same type of skills–especially in modern soccer, where the distinction between offensive and defensive players has dissolved. Being continuous, the game does not lend itself to being broken down into a series of component plays that, as in football or baseball, can be practiced. Baseball and football thrill by the perfection of their repetitions, soccer by the improvisation of solutions to ever changing strategic necessities. Soccer requires little equipment, other than a pair of shoes. Everybody believes he can play soccer. And it can be played by any number of players as a pickup game. Thus soccer outside North America is truly a game for the masses, which can identify with its passions, its sudden triumphs and its inevitable disillusionments. Baseball and football are an exaltation of the human experience; soccer is its incarnation.

Pele is therefore a different phenomenon from the baseball or football star. Soccer stars are dependent on their teams even while transcending them. To achieve mythic status as a soccer player is especially difficult because the peak performance is generally quite short–only the fewest players perform at the top of their game for more than five years. Incredibly, Pele performed at the highest level for 18 years, scoring 52 goals in 1973, his 17th year. Contemporary soccer superstars never reach even 50 goals a season. For Pele, who had thrice scored more than 100 goals a year, it signaled retirement.

The mythic status of Pele derives as well from the way he incarnated the character of Brazil’s national team. Its style affirms that virtue without joy is a contradiction in terms. Its players are the most acrobatic, if not always the most proficient. Brazilian teams play with a contagious exuberance. When those yellow shirts go on the attack–which is most of the time–and their fans cheer to the intoxicating beat of samba bands, soccer becomes a ritual of fluidity and grace. In Pele’s day, the Brazilians epitomized soccer as fantasy.

I saw Pele at his peak only once, at the final of the World Cup in 1970. Brazil’s opponent was Italy, which played its tough defense coupled with sudden thrusts to tie the game 1-1, demoralizing the Brazilians. Italy could very easily have massed its defense even more, until its frantic opponent began making the mistakes that would encompass its ruin. But, led by Pele, Brazil paid no attention. Attacking as if the Italians were a practice team, the Brazilians ran them into the ground, 4-1.

I saw Pele a few times afterward, when he was playing for the New York Cosmos. He was no longer as fast, but he was as exuberant as ever. By then, Pele had become an institution. Most modern fans never saw him play, yet they somehow feel he is part of their lives. He made the transition from superstar to mythic figure.

Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State, was instrumental in bringing World Cup soccer to the U.S. in 1994

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