PELE: The Phenomenon

He dominated soccer for two decades with a passion matched only by that of his fans throughout the world

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Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us. For those who love soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, generally known as Pele, is a hero.

Performance at a high level in any sport is to exceed the ordinary human scale. But Pele's performance transcended that of the ordinary star by as much as the star exceeds ordinary performance. He scored an average of a goal in every international game he played--the equivalent of a baseball player's hitting a home run in every World Series game over 15 years. Between 1956 and 1974, Pele scored a total of 1,220 goals--not unlike hitting an average of 70 home runs every year for a decade and a half.

While he played, Brazil won the World Cup, staged quadrennially, three times in 12 years. He scored five goals in a game six times, four goals 30 times and three goals 90 times. And he did so not aloofly or disdainfully--as do many modern stars--but with an infectious joy that caused even the teams over which he triumphed to share in his pleasure, for it is no disgrace to be defeated by a phenomenon defying emulation.

He was born across the mountains from the great coastal cities of Brazil, in the impoverished town of Tres Coracoes. Nicknamed Dico by his family, he was called Pele by soccer friends, a word whose origins escape him. Dico shined shoes until he was discovered at the age of 11 by one of the country's premier players, Waldemar de Brito. Four years later, De Brito brought Pele to Sao Paulo and declared to the disbelieving directors of the professional team in Santos, "This boy will be the greatest soccer player in the world." He was quickly legend. By the next season, he was the top scorer in his league. As the Times of London would later say, "How do you spell Pele? G-O-D." He has been known to stop war: both sides in Nigeria's civil war called a 48-hour cease-fire in 1967 so Pele could play an exhibition match in the capital of Lagos.

To understand Pele's role in soccer, some discussion of the nature of the game is necessary. No team sport evokes the same sort of primal, universal passion as soccer. During the World Cup, the matches of the national football teams impose television schedules on the rhythm of life. Last year I attended a dinner for leading members of the British establishment and distinguished guests from all over the world at the staid Spencer House in London. The hosts had the bad luck to have chosen the night of the match between England and Argentina--always a blood feud, compounded on this occasion by the memory of the Falklands crisis. The impeccable audience (or at least enough of it to influence the hosts) insisted that television sets be set up at strategic locations, during both the reception and the dinner. The match went into overtime and required a penalty shoot-out afterward, so the main speaker did not get to deliver his message until 11 p.m. And since England lost, the audience was not precisely in a mood for anything but mourning.

When France finally won the World Cup, Paris was paralyzed with joy for nearly 48 hours, Brazil by dejection for a similar period of time. I was in Brazil in 1962 when the national team won the World Cup in Chile. Everything stopped for two days while Rio celebrated a premature carnival.

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