The infinite King hits 70
Seventy years ago to this day, in a jerry-built home in the pastoral city of Tres Coracoes, a 23-year-old bellowed in ecstasy: his wife, Celeste, had just borne him the son he had religiously yearned. Despite earning peanuts as a semi-professional striker, Dondinho, tears of pride streaming down his face, excitedly declared: “He’s going to be a great footballer!” Tears and peanuts would curiously combine to help forge Pele’s path to fulfilling his father’s vow.
It all began on what was seemingly scripted to be paradisiacal 1950 day for Brazilians; one on which they required just a point against Uruguay to lift the FIFA World Cup™ Trophy at the Maracana. Pele left home – by now the family had relocated from Minas Gerais to Bauru in Sao Paulo state - with A Seleção 1-0 up and an enraptured Dondinho, surrounded by a posse of friends, listening to the match on the radio. The nine-year-old returned from a kickabout to discover Brazil had become victims of a gargantuan upset.
Pele recalled: “It was the first time I saw my father cry. I was brought up thinking that grown men didn’t cry, but he was devastated. I promised him: ‘One day I’ll win you the World Cup.’”
Pele, who had previously been infatuated with the prospect of becoming a pilot, was now hellbent on hitting the heights as a footballer. He nevertheless realised that indulging in unsystematic, free-for-all kickabouts was not the platform to a career in the sport, so called a meeting aimed at incepting an official 11-a-side team.
The underprivileged preteens nevertheless faced a sizeable predicament: while footwear wasn’t imperative to compete against other sides, kit was. After a couple of condemned attempts to raise some cash for jerseys and shorts, it was suggested they steal peanuts from delivery wagons and sell them outside the local cinema and circus. Pele, begrudgingly, went along with the otherwise consensus and, to his alarm, was one of two tasked – being athletic had its apparent disadvantages – with mounting the vehicle and making the swipe.
The daring scheme worked and through his performances for Ameriquinha, Pele was invited to join the junior team of Bauru Athletic Club. It was an offer he couldn’t accept fast enough once it became known that Waldemar de Brito, who represented Brazil at Italy 1934, was, by some stroke of luck, to coach the minnows. Soon, the former forward had taken the aspiring one to Santos.
We’ve all heard the subsequent story. Pele debuted for the club at 15 and inspired them to an astronomical 25 major titles over 18 years. He helped Brazil win three FIFA World Cups. He came out of retirement to propel New York Cosmos to the NASL glory.
But Pele’s allure was not exclusive to the sides he gloriously represented. Brazilian touches provoked boos when they kicked off against the hosts in the 1958 FIFA World Cup Final, yet the Swedish fans spent the second half cheering their rivals’ every move. “It was impossible not to applaud Pele’s brilliance,” admitted no less than Swedish King Gustaf VI Adolf afterwards.
Receiving standing ovations on enemy territory became habitual to Pele: one from the Fluminense fans in 1961, after he had taken on six opponents and scored one of the many wonder strikes in his collection of 1,281 goals, forced play to be stopped for almost two minutes, while the following year the Benfica diehards cast aside their devastation at humiliation in the Intercontinental Cup final to pay homage to their executioner-in-chief – O Rei had posted a hat-trick in a 5-2 victory in Lisbon he later described as his “best performance”.
When Pele was sent off during a Santos-Millonarios clash in 1968, the spectators invaded the pitch, demanding he be reinstated. He was, with the referee red-carded instead! But even more unimaginable was that the rioting supporters were not Santistas but Colombians enraged by the official’s decision to cut short their watching of the Brazilian’s indescribable genius!
That was not the only battle Pele brought to a temporary halt. In early 1969, a 48-hour ceasefire was called to the Nigerian civil war just so that combatants could watch him play a friendly in Lagos!
This incomparable sway owed to his unparalleled perfection as a footballer. Tarcisio Burgnich, who attempted to mark O Rei in the Mexico 1970 Final, said: "I told myself before the game, 'he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else'. But I was wrong,” while Costa Pereira, who kept goal for Benfica in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup, later reflected: “I arrived hoping to stop a great man, but I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us.”
Tres Coracoes is, however, an atomic dot on planet earth, and exactly seven decades ago it welcomed somebody who would become emphatically more than a magnificent footballer. The FIFA Order of Merit recipient shattered racial barriers, promoted peace, founded multiple charities and has done admirable work as a FIFA Fair Play ambassador.
FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter said: “I first saw a televised World Cup in 1958, when I discovered the player who would become the immense star that is Pele. I can still remember that incredible lob and unforgettable dummy from Mexico 1970, perhaps his finest hour.
“This great man of football is now 70, which beggars belief given how recent his exploits seem. As FIFA President and as a friend, I congratulate him for everything he has done for football, both on and off the pitch. He is, and always will be, an icon of the game. Happy birthday, Pele!”