The simplest way to capture the achievements of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Brazil’s unparalleled Pelé, is to tally the numbers. In two decades, he scored 1,283 goals (although the exact number sometimes is disputed) – 1,000 of them before he was 30 and 95, wearing the national team colors. He helped bring home three of Brazil’s five World Cups, a feat unequaled by any other player to this day.
But soccer is not a ledger, and Pelé’s magic doesn’t fit in a trophy room. When colon cancer killed him Thursday at age 82, the country lost a bit of its soul. From 1956 to 1977, he brought grace and majesty to the world’s most popular sport. He also became Brazil’s most enduring brand, the boyish star with a halogen smile, who put soft power in short pants and joyfully conflated the country’s name with his own.
Ask the Nigerians, who saw combatants in their bloody civil war briefly put down their weapons to watch Pelé perform in a 1969 exhibition game. Or the Brazilian-led United Nations peacekeepers who in 2004, promoted a “peace match” in strife-torn Haiti, parading their national team stars atop armored cars through the streets of Port-au-Prince – a brazen bet on the sort of football diplomacy that Pelé invented. If the truce was short-lived, Pelé’s aura lingered, garnering Brazilian travelers instant bonhomie.
But Pelé’s most enduring effect was at home. More than a star athlete, he was a symbol of a nation in transformation. He came up in an era when Brazil was stirring to international ambitions and world-class industry. Bossa nova was on the Victrola and Carnaval cranked the street party up to 11. Glissading over the grass, Pelé made impossible moves look effortless and sent parabola kicks home from ridiculous angles, with right foot and left, turning even the missed shot into a thing of beauty. He seemed a dancing emblem of Brazilian confidence and aspiration.
Pelé never leveraged his charisma for political ends. He repeatedly declined invitations to run for office or even join a party. That suited the generals who ran Brazil from 1964 to 1985, who wanted an authentic cultural hero to add a popular sheen to their brass. It was Pelé’s bad luck that his reign on the pitch coincided with the gutting of democracy. He was constantly feted by the ruling junta, most of all by Gen. Emílio Garrastazu Médici, the hardest of the hardliners, to whom Pelé’s triumphs and easy smile were collateral advantages.
This fawning attention brought Pelé criticism and unflattering comparisons – not least with Muhammad Ali, his contemporary and international coeval, whose outspokenness against racism and the Vietnam War made him both an exemplar of political defiance and a target of official rancor. Pelé’s diffidence perhaps “prevented him from being a more influential citizen than he was,” Juca Kfouri, a veteran Brazilian sports analyst, wrote last week.
But Pelé was a star, not a saint. A World Cup hero at age 17, and soon afterward anointed soccer’s “king” by the media and fans, he adored distributing autographs and posing in a faux crown. He spoke of himself in the third person. He fathered seven children; five of them were by his side during his final moments.
Yet, if Pelé never demurred to the generals, neither did he shill for them. And while his accession to their entreaties frustrated the country’s democratic opposition, Pelé always made his most eloquent statements on the pitch.
And so Pelé’s greatness outshone his murky politics. In a country as socially fractured and unequal as Brazil, where money is power, and politics has always seemed a rigged game, Pelé represented another possibility. He still does.
Mac Margolis contributes to The Washington Post.