SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Pelé once confessed that he had long been troubled by a conundrum, one he’d only be able to crack when he met God, face-to-face, and could demand an explanation.
What plagued him was a feeling of dual identity: There was “Pelé,” the world’s greatest living sports legend of the 20th century, but also “Edson Arantes do Nascimento,” the ordinary guy whose job it was to watch over Pelé, shouldering the weight of his quasi-supernatural existence. Pelé, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 82, felt, perhaps with some humor, that he was due some kind of answer as to why he had been given this double fate, upholding a godlike status in the world’s eyes, yet still feeling all too human. At his death, he wondered, who would die, given that both the incarnate demigod and the simplest of creatures coexisted inside him?
Anyone who saw him play will have no doubt God really did owe him an explanation. Pelé, the most consummate, luminous figure of perfection to ever grace a soccer field, was swept into fame at a very young age, unaware in the beginning of his own exceptionality. According to him, his most personal aim was to achieve the unrealized greatness he glimpsed in his father, who’d been an admirable but obscure player, to redeem him from a failed soccer career. Before he knew it, he was the top idol of the most popular sport on the planet, making his thunderous arrival at the 1958 World Cup, at the age of 17.
All this belongs to a bygone era of sports innocence. Soccer games were broadcast on the radio, immediately turning them into oral storytelling, steeped in legend and myth. Pelé’s career relied first on the radio and then television, cementing his fame there in 1970, when the Brazilian team captured the country’s third World Cup title. There is no visual record of much of his career, including some of his greatest goals. But throughout the 1960s, Pelé was unanimously known as the King of Soccer, bolstering his majesty with the natural nobility of someone who understood the value of his celebrity for every peasant with whom he identified.
No one else combined his speed and dribbling skills, the ability to shoot with both feet, his precise and devastating ground and aerial play, a magical sense of timing with the ball, an instantaneous understanding of what was going on around him, all grounded in a robust and rigorously balanced athleticism. Even so, the Pelé-effect isn’t just a sum, unique it may be, of quantifiable skills.
A poet once remarked that Pelé seemed to drag the field with him toward the opposing goal, like an extension of his own skin. A philosopher conceded, playfully, the possibility of glimpsing flickers of the Absolute in him. The beauty and intelligence of his body in action, plus his eagle eye and the unpredictability of his tricks, made Pelé appear to be operating on a different frequency from the other players, watching in slow motion the same game he was participating in at high speed, while others around him seemed to be doing the reverse.
The phenom was quickly discovered and embraced on every continent, long before the introduction of large-scale marketing campaigns. It’s because his existence connects with the world through a symbolic alignment of a different nature. Beyond being recognized and revered in the traditional circles of European football, this affable Black man, ambassador of a peripheral country and performing in a nonverbal language, was perceived, celebrated and loved in the most diverse corners of the world as the eloquent assertion of a grandeur greater than any political and economic supremacy.
In Brazil, Pelé’s arrival on the world stage coincided with that of the nation’s new capital, Brasília, founded in 1960, and its innovative architecture, and the success of bossa nova music. It’s been said that a goal by Pelé, one of Oscar Niemeyer’s curves or a Tom Jobim tune sung by João Gilberto were like a “promise of joy” from an exotic marginal country that seemed to be offering the world a smooth if profound passage from popular vernacular to modern art, without the costs of the Industrial Revolution. The dictatorship that followed, beginning in 1964, gave signs, recurring and persisting to this day, that this path wasn’t so direct or so simple, to say the least.
Behaving in accordance with the dictates of traditional Brazilian cordial sociability, masking insidious structural racism and social inequality, Pelé did not adopt Muhammad Ali’s swaggering rebelliousness, or the passionate, political zigzags of Argentina’s Diego Maradona, nor did he pursue the carnivalesque style and tragic arc of Garrincha, the other great Brazilian star of his generation. Instead he remained a tacit and grandiose witness of Blackness in action.
More Dionysian, politicized and mercurial than Pelé, Maradona never ceased to be Maradona, at the cost of being consumed by the flames of his glory and his downfall. By dispensing with questioning God, Maradona made himself God and his own writhing demons. Garrincha and Maradona rose and fell without ever being able to separate themselves from the experience.
Pelé, meanwhile, had Edson. Among the geniuses of our time, he is safeguarded by his double, who takes on life’s contingencies and personal dramas on a lessened scale. Even if younger generations never got the chance to go head-to-head with his magnificent, indescribable appearance on the field, thanks to his guardian angel, Pelé is spared from ruin, remaining immortal in life.
Maybe God, if He exists, will reveal this to him.