Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pelé - the "God"

I felt in need of cheering myself up a bit, so I've just done a bit of noodling around on YouTube for an hour, enjoying some highlights from the career of the magnificent Brazilian football star, Pelé.

This, I think, is the best collection of highlights I could find (although this one - with mostly similar footage, but mostly rather less good picture quality - does seem to have more of his divine dribbling).

Yes, there is a cheeky cartoon of a coked-up Maradona at the end of it. It's rather unfortunate how many of the comment-threads on these YouTube football compilations degenerate into ugly name-calling between supporters of Maradona and Pelé (though it is, I rather think, quite telling that the ugliest of it seems to come from the Maradona camp). For me, there's just no comparison. There's no denying that Maradona was a prodigiously talented player, but.... well, I think Pelé could do everything that Maradona could do, and a bit more besides (a better header of the ball, a more powerful shot, and, crucially, a much more even temperament). However you might rate their record of achievement on the pitch, there's no question that Pelé's wider influence on the game has been far more. Not just his ability, but the spirit in which he played the game have been an inspiration to millions all around the world. 99% of the time, he played with a smile on his face; whereas Diego always wore a scowl, or a sulky pout. And if we do look at the record on the pitch, well, the statistics of Pelé's career are just flabbergasting, unparalleled. He played competitive football from the time he was 11 or 12 until just shy of his 37th birthday; he averaged over 50 games a year throughout that period (injuries notwithstanding); he averaged very nearly a goal a game (at both international and club level). A goal every game! Astonishing! That record will stand for all time: no-one is ever going to come close to it.

Yet, what I love most about Pelé is that he is celebrated as much for the goals he didn't score as for those he did - particularly some of those magical moments from his international swan-song in the 1970 World Cup: against Czechoslovakia, attempting to lob the goalkeeper from 5 yards inside his own half, and getting the length absolutely perfect but having the shot drift just inches wide of the post; against Chile, putting a shot against the foot of the post, but being alert enough - and cool enough - to track the rebound right across the face of the goal, catch up with it on the far side, and calmly back-heel to a team-mate to slot home the finish; against England, making a huge leap to power a perfect header toward the foot of the far post, only for Gordon Banks bring off an unbelievable reaction save; and then, in the semi-final, improvising that sublime dummy around the Uruguayan keeper, but then shooting from a difficult angle and seeing the ball scrape off the outside of the far post. All this and more (including all the goals from the fantastic final against the Italians) in this tribute to the 1970 Brazil side below.

I don't think Maradona ever pulled off anything quite like this, was ever quite so exuberantly inventive. His creativity was more dogged and industrious, less joyful. Unless you were an Argentinian, or a supporter of one of his club sides, I think you tended to appreciate Maradona's skill with a rather cold detachment: it could inspire awe and amazement, yes, but not affection. Pelé inspired love - from opponents as much as from teammates, from rival fans as much as from his own side's supporters. Hell, even people who know or care little about the game - the beautiful game - can appreciate the greatness of Pelé.

Pelé spent the tail-end of his career promoting the game in the USA, with a three-year stint at the all-star New York Cosmos team in the mid-70s. There is one goal in particular that I recall from that period (shown on the Saturday afternoon worldwide sports roundup on the BBC's Grandstand show): Pelé picked the ball up near the half-way line and cantered forward, almost unopposed; he played a slick one-two (with Beckenbauer, I think - Pelé and Beckenbauer in the same team! Fantasy football indeed!), and then chipped the keeper from the edge of the box - on the run, with the outside of his right foot. Just exquisite. He made everything look so easy. I'm afraid I couldn't find that goal on YouTube, but here's a selection of other great moments from his time with the Cosmos.

I think Pelé was the first black man I was ever aware of - and I absolutely adored him. (The second was Louis Armstrong. And the third was Muhammad Ali. I grew up convinced of the innate superiority of coloured people!)

Don't forget - my EURO 2004 comment-thread is still open for business.

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