Edson Arentes do Nascimento, aka Pele, was the first foreign name I remember knowing. The first footballer’s name I remember knowing. His image and exploits coming to life, in the pages of a football encyclopaedia, given to me as a Christmas present, as a football-obsessed child, growing up in Huyton, Liverpool, in the early 70s.
Who was this man, a man who by common consent, was even then, almost 50 years ago, considered to be the greatest footballer in the world? A man who subsequently transcended not just his sport, but all sport, like no other, before or since, with the exception of Muhammad Ali. All I knew then, was that he was Brazilian, wore the number 10, and appeared to glide with balletic grace, in that iconic gold shirt, across a football pitch, like no other. How could anyone score that many goals, run so fast with the ball, bamboozle so many opponents, and win the World Cup, not once, or twice, but three times?
I sought out every picture I could, every fact, and devoured every tv clip of this elusive genius, whenever I could. Of course, tv clips, however seldom seen, were often in black and white. Just about the only colour film shown was of the 1970 Brazilian World Cup triumph in Mexico, when an international team that’s probably never been surpassed, beat every team they played, including England, on their way to demolishing Italy with ‘sheer delightful football’.
I quote that much-revered match commentary, by the late Sir Kenneth Wolstenholme, because delight is what Brazil appeared to display in their football at every opportunity, not least of all, through the feet of Pele. The sheer joy, pleasure, and boyish glee was, is, and will forever be, the beautiful game. Brazil didn’t so much play football, as demonstrate its artistic beauty, its power to exhilarate and entertain and invite you to applaud. It’s why for so many, we fell in love with football as a child, and why Brazil receive the support and adulation of millions of neutral supporters at every World Cup.
Of course, during England’s triumphant World Cup of 1966, Pele graced the pitch of our City rivals. Indeed, the legend of Pele was cemented in my mind by a tale told to me at Sylvester School in Huyton. When leaving the pitch at Goodison Park following a group game for Brazil, Pele had given away his shirt, a shirt subsequently ripped into numerous shreds by fans, and one such piece had found its way into the hands, of the uncle of a fellow playground footballer at school. It’s a tale I cherished, and the truth or otherwise of the oft-repeated claim is largely irrelevant. The tale demonstrated then, to a young boy, as it does now, to a 54yr old man, the power of the game we love. The adulation that’s bestowed upon those we so desperately want to emulate when dreaming of being a footballer, in our childhood.
The world of football will rightly honour Pele in the days ahead. The poignancy of that remembrance here in England, Europe and South America, will be as nothing to the reverence for which he will always be held in Brazil. For in Brazil, football is considered more than its favourite sport. Indeed, its favourite sport is often cited as beach volleyball. Football is not a sport in Brazil, it’s a religion.
Religious fervour can often be unnerving, and to be in its midst, uncomfortable and unsettling. I and my youngest son, experienced that fervour, amongst Brazilian football fans, when attending a match at the Maracana in Rio in 2008. It was an experience like no other, unparalleled even by Anfield. They weren’t attending a game, or even just a football match, they were marching as one, to a shrine. Pele had graced that pitch and had brought unadulterated joy to millions there, and just as my son wore the number 10 jersey of Brazil to the match, so did thousands upon thousands of others. A number on a shirt made famous by one man.
RIP Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pele. We, as fans of this beautiful game, your beautiful game, are forever in your debt.