Pelé at Wembley Stadium, London, May 7, 1963 (Photo: Getty Images)
In Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk (1991), Rabi Ghosh’s character Ranjan’s eyes grow big when he learns the agantuk or guest, Mamomohan Mitra played by Utpal Dutt, had spent time in Brazil in his globe-trotting career. Sudhindra (Deepankar De) explains that Ranjan’s wonder at the mention of Brazil is only because of Pelé. Football’s first global icon, or the first global footballer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, didn’t like the nickname thrust upon him but that name had come to stand for a nation in many other nations. Even if you didn’t know much else about Brazil, you knew that their football was a synonym for magic—and you knew who Pelé was.
His death from multiple organ failure as a complication of colon cancer on December 29 in São Paulo did not catch Brazil or the world unawares. There had been a sense of closure, perhaps a finality, to Pelé’s hospitalisation in late-November and the banners displayed by both Brazil fans and the team before their matches were more than mere get-well prayers. Pelé was not coming back, not this time. Thus, the announcement of his death by his daughter Kely Nascimento, who had been posting updates regularly on social media through Pelé’s stay, and the hospital didn’t come as a shock or a surprise. Brazil, and the world, had perhaps been prepared to receive bad news—although Pelé had seemed better for a while—but that made little difference to the sense of loss, the imperative of national mourning, and a profound sadness. Because with Pelé, there was no debate. He was the 20th century’s greatest football icon.
As per the FIFA records, Pelé scored 1,282 goals in 1,363 matches while his club Santos and the Brazilian Football Confederation maintain the figure is 1,283 in 1,367 games. Be that as it may, it takes nothing away from the legend of the only footballer to have three World Cup titles to his name, although he was mostly out of action in the later stages of the 1962 World Cup in Chile. His 12 goals in 14 appearances in the World Cup finals are an enviable statistic too, meaning an average of 0.86 goals in every match he played on football’s biggest stage. What those statistics don’t say is how influential Pelé was on the pitch almost every time he donned a Brazil or Santos shirt. Pelé was, above all, the archetype of the team player—unselfish, with a good eye for what was happening on the pitch and what was best for his team. It was his humility that made him a cut above the rest, to say nothing of his talent.
As an example of Pelé the team player, recall Jairzinho’s goal (the only one in Brazil’s 1:0 victory) against England in the 1970 World Cup. It could have been, it should have been Pelé’s goal but reading the game better than the rest, Pelé ended up providing one of the more fabled assists in football history. Gordon Banks had earlier pulled off perhaps the greatest save ever by a goalkeeper at the World Cup off Pelé’s header. Now, Tostão had beaten a bunch of England defenders and crossed the ball to Pelé who took a split-second call not to shoot or press but flicked it to the feet of Jairzinho on his right. In his second autobiography After the Ball (2003), England legend Nobby Stiles (incidentally out of action in that match) wrote: “When Brazil scored their winning goal, we saw another vital aspect of Pele’s game—humility.”
That humility, the selfless dedication to the team, made him a national treasure in a truer sense than the reasons why he was actually declared an export-banned national treasure in the 1960s who could not, thus, play in Europe when the Italians came scouting. He united the politically volatile, junta-ruled Brazil then; he united the politically polarised Brazil suspended between two presidencies today. On top of it all, he was football’s greatest ambassador with his stint at New York Cosmos doing a lot for the sport in a country that didn’t take to it. Long before FIFA opened its eyes to new markets to take the World Cup everywhere—and then began a still ongoing saga of globalised corruption—there was Pelé championing taking the World Cup beyond the northern borders of Mexico or picking smaller South American sides—such as the talented but tragic Colombia team of 1994—to win the trophy. When you think of Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi, you think of great footballers. With Pelé, it’s always much more. And the fact that he kept his head down when it came to politics, something he has been criticised for often, in retrospect, served to seal his legend. Pelé was above it all. The king, or emperor, preferring the silence of the high priest—the lifelong devout Catholic investing his faith in god and football alone. Pelé’s faith has had no small role to play in giving him an aura of control—no excesses, no infamous off-field antics, and perhaps even a peaceful death.
Unlike what some news stories digging up the past claim these days, India and Kolkata, or Calcutta, never fell out of love with him. The match against Mohun Bagan at Eden Gardens on September 24, 1977 was a mediocre affair, a 2:2 draw with a sub-par Pelé and New York Cosmos, and the news was all about the chaos had that overwhelmed the city with Pelé in town. But the cheering of the Bagan players at the end was only natural, the local boys having matched up to a side with Pelé in it. The reverence for Brazilian football didn’t begin and end with him. But Pelé, more than others, had come to symbolise the Beautiful Game as played by not one but a team of ballet dancers in canary yellow and cobalt blue. Football moved on a long time ago but it never stopped looking back over its shoulder. With Pelé gone, football will keep looking back to look ahead.