Pele steps out of the shadows

All great teams need their fantasistas, the Zinedine Zidanes and Cristiano Ronaldos of this world who thrill crowds with almost superhuman skill. But where would they be without the grafters and water-carriers, players prepared to get dirty and carry out the thankless tasks?

Fortunately for Portugal, that question never arises, because in Pele they boast one of the most gifted in the business. His supercharged name naturally screams for attention, but the youngster is impeccably humble, especially since he possesses the kind of talent that could see him and his side go far. If anything, he addresses the media much in the same way he patrols the pitch - straight to the point and without needless extravagance.

"I feel that we're working well as a team and that we've shown how good we are until now," he says. "The next match is important and we have to go out there thinking only about getting the win. We'll need to finish better than in our opening games because that's where we've come up short so far."

Tall and sturdy (1.87m, 80 kilos), his slow, rolling gait and warm, low voice make him a reassuring presence away from the field of play. On it, he exudes precisely the same calmness and control, and his positional sense, plus his ability to reclaim the ball and orchestrate moves have stood out on Canadian soil.

It is almost difficult to believe he is just 19, but compared to most of his peers he has already amassed plenty of experience. He began his career at Boavista, left for Salgueiros, moved to Benfica and then, as if that were not enough, finally ended up at Vitoria Guimaraes six months later.

"Circumstances have led to me travelling around quite a bit, but now I'm at Vitoria and I feel good there," he explains, before adding: "Of course, if I had an offer from a big European club, I'd think about it. That's only natural, it's what every player dreams about."

Pele clearly has his feet on the ground, but what about that name? Surely a certain amount of self-importance - or even arrogance - has to come with the territory. "I got the nickname almost as soon as I started playing football," he says. "At the time, I was about six or seven and I played up front. I scored a lot of goals too, so times have changed a lot! That's why my friends started calling me Pele, and at Boavista it stuck."

'There's no comparison'
Many players have been weighed down by a famous name over the years, but few have voluntarily chosen to add that pressure. With a smile on his lips, he denies he is asking for trouble, because, "there's absolutely no comparison with the great Pele." Perhaps that goes without saying, but in his case it is doubly true.

Operating in the shadows, he is glad to let his colleagues further forward attract the limelight: "It's normal that players like Bruno Gama or Zequinha get all the attention from the media. They're forwards and they've got great technique. I'm happy with my role in the background, I'm used to it. The important thing is that we keep playing as a team. That's how we'll go far."

A fan of Patrick Vieira and Manuel Fernandes, he may not clamour to see his name in lights, but he still harbours a healthy measure of ambition.

Asked which side he would prefer to face in the Round of 16, he fires back his answer without hesitation: "Our main goal is to reach the final, so who we face before that doesn't matter. In the final, we'd like to take on a big team like Brazil. That's if they make it, of course."

Between now and then, the midfield terrier and his team-mates will be spurred on by a large contingent of followers in the stands. There is a sizeable Portuguese community in Canada (especially in Toronto) and Pele greatly appreciates how they have made their presence felt.

"We've had incredible luck with that and their support is very precious to us," notes the youngster, whose mother hails from the Cape Verde Islands and father from Portugal. "They push us to play even better, which helps us without a doubt. And anything that helps is welcome!"

It must almost seem like playing at home at times, but even without them he insists he would not feel homesick: "I'm used to being a long way from my loved ones. I was born in Porto: that's where all my family are, so since I've been at Vitoria I've been living alone."

As straightforward in real life as he is on the pitch, it would be a mistake, however, to think Pele is mature beyond his years. At heart, he remains an adolescent and although he ends the interview with characteristic politeness, there is a certain restlessness in his eyes. His friends are keen to explore the jazz festival on the streets of Montreal and he leaves to join them, disappearing back into the shadows.