Pelé was soccer’s greatest player. Was it good or bad for Brazil?

I’ve seen Brazilian soccer demigod Pelé play in person a number of times and seen countless clips of his greatest hits. Two of my most indelible memories are goals he didn’t even score.

Both appeared at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City where Brazil were impressive selection was bidding for his third world championship in a dozen years. No. 10 was in superlative form, as two incidents attest to its magical daring, its improvisational genius, its polyrhythmic delight.

In the semifinals against Uruguay, Pelé pulled out the Uruguayan goalkeeper after a counterattack by Tostão, then let the ball run to the left of the goalkeeper while Pelé sped past on the right, recovered the ball with lightning speed, looped and missed with a shot to the far post .

In Brazil’s 4-1 win over a cynical and unimaginative Italian side in the final, seven Brazilians swerved in midfield until the ball reached Pelé, who casually shoved it to his right for a sprinting Carlos Alberto to complete the coup de grace.

In Brazil, where my wife and I lived for a few years, these dramatic moments have coalesced (among other things) into a kind of secular catechism surrounding a sport that for Brazilians – and Argentines, Mexicans and their Latin American neighbors – is far, far away is more than just a national religion. Since fútbol was imported into this hemisphere more than a century ago, Latin America has not only radically reinvented the game and produced many of its brightest luminaries, but also transformed football into an escape from poverty, racism and despair – in fantasy if not often the truth is.

This was the legend, the promise that Pelé embodied, and the dream of it dies hard in the slums of Buenos Aires, the dirt fields of Jalisco, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Never mind that the contemporary sports-industrial complex has turned promising young children – particularly Brazilian children – into interchangeable entities to be swapped and sold to the highest bidders in London, Paris and Barcelona. Even a tragedy like the 2019 fire that killed 10 young players at Flamengo club’s training ground in Rio will not stop the frenzy to ‘discover’ the next Pelé, the next Maradona, the next Messi.

New York Cosmos forward Pelé (foreground) controls the ball during a game in August 1976.

New York Cosmos forward Pelé (foreground) controls the ball during a game against the Miami Toros in August 1976.

(Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Pelé remains an emerging figure for these young players. He was not a rebel like the other global superstars of his time. No Muhammad Ali raising his fist at the Pentagon when it tried to ship him to Vietnam. No Jim Brown, the scourge of the defenders and the Black Power avatar, best ride a motorcycle. No Billie Jean King paddling on the butt of the male chauvinistic pigsty.

Pele and his teammates held too much symbolic value for the brutal military junta that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985 to allow them to be turned into counterculture heroes. That task fell to a later generation of Brazilians, including the great midfielder Socrates, who helped bring Brazil back to democracy.

Pelé’s destiny should become brand ambassador. I’ve seen him in person at least three times (although he’s past his prime). In a friendly in the 1970s between his Brazilian club Santos and the Rochester Lancers from my nightmare hometown of the nightmare North American Soccer League, Pele scored the only goal from a late penalty. A few seasons later, he and his new team, the New York Cosmos, defeated the Lancers again in the regular season and again in the playoffs.

Allegedly, Pelé’s job at Cosmos was to score goals. His real job was to soften up the world’s richest market, the United States, for football. He succeeded in both.

I saw him again as the pitchman for the 2014 World Cup that Brazil hosted and was humiliatingly knocked out of the race. Football remains Brazil’s blessing and curse, a delightful distraction from its daunting challenges and dazzling potential.

Pelé was a disruptor in what mattered most to him and football: pushing the boundaries of what was possible. One wonders what he really thought of the spoiled, polished, multi-millionaire playboys of the contemporary global game, who change their haircut weekly and win world championships sparingly. Pelé won two and could easily have won four in a row were it not for an injury early in the 1962 World Cup in Chile (although Brazil still won) and a series of ugly hackings during the 1966 World Cup in England (won by the host nation). ).

He was brilliant. He was unique. He was the best. Pelé was soccer’s greatest player. Was it good or bad for Brazil?

Emma Bowman

Emma Bowman is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Emma Bowman joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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