Pelé with ball vs Sweden in World Cup final, 29 June 1958 / El Gráfico

I’m here with my coffee gearing up to proofread a project before sending it back to the editors. I’ve been off this week but intentionally staying away for most work- and writing-related things. The past twenty-four hours I’ve been reading of Pelé’s passing with great sadness. It was not unexpected; news of his illness was widespread during the World Cup. Still, when someone so iconic passes away it is always a shock. Soccer is not something I follow regularly and although losing interest the last few cycles due to people and events related to the organizing bodies, I do enjoy the World Cup when it comes every four years. There are different ways of putting it but watching makes you feel like an international citizen, or something like that. Not to mention that the game is, well, beautiful.

Pelé is the only player to have won three World Cups, in 1958, 1962, and 1970. I don’t think I quite understood until reading some of the obituaries and tributes the extent to which his playing elevated the nation of Brazil in those decades just after the Second World War. Prior to Brazil’s 1958 victory the only three nations to have won the Cup were Uruguay, Italy, and West Germany. England won in 1966 before Brazil’s third title in 1970. The symbolism of this seventeen-year-old from the barrios of Brazil leading his country to victory at the height of the decolonization movement would not have been lost on many. The details are different but he was much like Muhammad Ali in this respect, which explains their respective international stature. I remember when he played for the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos in the mid-1970s. Pelé’s best playing days were behind him at this point, but his presence brought soccer to millions of Americans who otherwise would never have been exposed. And oh yes, he led the Cosmos to the Soccer Bowl title in 1977. (I was having lunch with someone a week ago when we got on the topic of ins and outs of the NASL shootout.) If you want to read a good book and/or watch a good film, check out Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. You want to talk about 70s excess? Yikes.

Like all persons Pelé could sometimes disappoint. I found it unseemly the way he sometimes denigrated the accomplishments of later players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. I never understood why he felt the need to do that. Still, people’s feet of clay are part of their humanity and thus what make them even more interesting. I feel fortunate to have lived in the world at the same time Pelé was in it as well.