Pelé sells his history, but remains in ours
Sometimes, it’s not enough being a legend. Pelé, the first global superstar of football has auctioned his entire collection of awards and memorabilia for five million dollars including what he won as FIFA’s player of the century. It can’t be easy letting this treasure go, Pelé was still in his teens when he won the first of his three world champion titles and now at the age of 75 will see strangers holding his trophies.
Pelé insists that he wants his fans to own a piece of his history and will be donating proceeds to the largest paediatric hospital in Brazil. Memorabilia will also be given to the city of Santos, where he played since he turned professional in 1956 at the age of 15 when most kids are still trying to understand club football. But in a world of cynics, an auction like this makes us wonder if much has also been left unsaid. Pelé has cryptically asked if in this world there was anyone who did not need money.
Despite what goes on in his personal life, the former football player continues to be a big part of the growing years of sports lovers like me who were born in the 70s and earlier. In those days, football was the ‘beautiful game’ of dribbling your way through the defence and far removed from the Spanish tiki-taka that eventually won everything in world football. But even when the legend had long left the stadium, his cult remained undiminished.
For me, it wasn’t about Pelé’s typical rags to riches story but never fails as a selling point, the recent Hollywood biopic, Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016) being case in point; a ‘black’ boy making it big in his sport. Carl Lewis in athletics, Michael Jordan in basketball and the great Muhammad Ali punching his way through in boxing to name a few had silenced our generation with their talent. Maybe it was just about the mesmerising charm of Brazilian football that was producing one great after another, yet Pelé was the only king.
If you reach where he did, there will always be detractors. Even the greatest are not spared. Sachin Tendulkar may be called the God of Cricket but he was always questioned for performing for personal milestones. The modern day sport is not isolated from public relations. The best athletes will sell everything from batteries to cars and so brand Pelé selling toothpastes is nothing unusual from brand Dhoni or brand Sharapova selling ‘Sugarpova’, her own brand of candies before failing a drug test. Pelé is probably making up for being a star in an era with limited exposure. Imagine his outreach if he had played in today’s world of non-stop coverage and social media.
Former Brazil coach Felipe Scolari once said that Pelé’s knowledge of football was negligible; he had done nothing as a coach and all his analysis always turned out wrong. Not many know Scolari from his professional football playing days but the sporting world does remember the miserable first outing of former world cup winning Brazilian captain Dunga as a national coach. He isn’t doing any better the second time around either with Brazil’s early exit from the Copa America.
If there is one sport that is tainted with allegations of corruption and match-fixing as much as cricket, it is football and even the mighty like Michel Platini have now fallen from grace. Pelé then may have sensibly stayed away from the football administration and clearly has no love lost with FIFA as was evident from the 2014 world cup in his country, where he was conspicuous by his absence. Sports and politics are increasingly becoming interchangeable and Pelé is often considered a voice of the government, something that doesn’t score him brownie points.
But his mystique was always beyond borders and even when he visited a non-football playing country like India which has no realistic hope of ever qualifying for the world cup, he was received with hysteria. Pelé first came to India in 1977 when he was at the peak of his career and then again more than three decades later, last year. The music for his Hollywood biopic has also been scored by Bollywood musician AR Rahman.
Brazilians will argue that Garrincha was a more skillful player, Maradona will disregard Pelé in his usual dismissive style and critics will remember not his goals but instead how he tried to dodge national service. But none of them were the youngest to ever score a hat trick in a world cup semi-final. On top of that, Pelé’s record of being the highest goal scorer for Brazil has not been overtaken despite stars like Socrates, Cafu, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo blazing a trail on the field.
Pelé was not alone in defining the sporting landscape in the 60s and the 70s. His friend, the legendary Muhammad Ali passed away recently. Now there is just one man standing.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.