PELE'S SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP WITH A MAN MOST DEAR TO MY HEART
The framed monochrome faces staring down from the walls of my childhood were as familiar to me as those of my parents and siblings. They were the reflections of heroes. Two of them remain among the most famous individuals on Earth. Both transcended their human corporeality to achieve godlike status, global acclaim and the sobriquet ‘The Greatest.’ Both were handsome, bewitching males whom my father knew, loved and worked with, and whose respect he gained. One was Muhammad Ali, for whom Dad was an ally: one of only a couple of British writers allowed inside the heavyweight champion’s training camp. The other, whom another of our clan once faced on Swedish grass in a World Cup quarter-final, was Pelé.
‘Greatness in football is greater than football,’ my sports columnist dad Ken Jones used to say. That went over my head when I was a child. Having since spent a quarter of a century interviewing celebrities and writing about rock stars, I think I get it now.
There is little discernible difference between the characters of those who dribble, tackle, score goals and do other apparently miraculous things with their feet and a ball and those who become international rock stars via the songs in their hearts and a guitar, keyboard or drumkit at their fingertips. So often driven by dysfunction and deprivation, the rise of such individuals from nowhere into the realm of the superstars is the rags-to-riches dream we have all entertained. Talent is never enough to guide an achiever right to the top, however. The fire in the belly, the propellant into the stratosphere, is need.
By the time my father got to know Pelé in 1970 the Brazilian, who died this week aged 82, had already reached the heights of his wildest dreams. The lowly-born boy born Edson Arantes Do Nascimento in a hard south-eastern town called Três Corações (in Portuguese, ‘Three Hearts’) was christened in honour of the American Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera; just as my Welsh great-grandparents named their youngest Bertrand Russell after the revered Welsh philosopher, mathematician and pacifist, as though hoping that some of his greatness might rub off on their son. Pelé was nicknamed by tormenting classmates who ridiculed the way he mispronounced the name of his favourite player, Bilé. Having learned to play football barefoot, kicking a sock stuffed with rags for a ball, and having commenced his playing career at 16 at local team Santos FC in the state of São Paulo, he was on his way to winning his third World Cup.
That, for Dad, was a poignant confrontation. He sucked a deep breath, he said, as he stepped up in Mexico to face the boy wonder who had helped to demolish the Welsh national team in 1958, in which my father’s first cousin, our ‘Uncle Cliff’, had played at the age of 23 to Pelé’s 17. Pelé had also excelled in the winning of two World Club championships, and had established his reputation as a key figure in the transformation of football into the phenomenon loved throughout the world today.
‘It was a moment,’ said Dad, with typical understatement. ‘And I can tell you one thing. They say that Pelé only ever speaks about himself in the third person, as if he were a god or a king. He didn’t do that with me.’
It has become fashionable in recent times to knock him. To challenge the assertion that Pelé is the greatest player the game has ever produced. To be dismissive of his style and technique. To quote names such as Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Puskas and Eusebio; Platini, Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo and to ask, were they not as good, if not better than him? To question his alleged scoring of 1200-plus goals. To criticise his past relationship with Brazil’s brutal dictatorship. To call out the practising Catholic for his three marriages, his extra-marital affairs, the offspring conceived out of wedlock – the paternity of some of whom he denied. To suggest that the criminal lifestyle led by his son Edinho, who went down for more than three decades for drug trafficking and money-laundering (but had his sentence reduced to a dozen years) was somehow his fault, and that Pelé pulled strings to get him out. To deride him for his debatable advertising endorsements of erectile dysfunction medication and Mastercard … ‘the sublime to the ridiculous,’ detractors scoffed.
To allow fault-finding to taint the mythology is to misunderstand the point of him.
‘Success is no accident,’ explained the man. ‘It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.’
By which, he meant graft. There has perhaps been no blunter exponent of toil and of going the distance. It was this lesson, learned at Pelé’s own elbow, that our father sought to impart, seeking merely to shape us a little. He wanted us to know that our own childhood was a cushy, privileged number compared to the poor Welsh mining valleys upbringing that he and his kin had endured. That they reinvented themselves as the greatest British footballing family of all time was little short of miraculous. Brothers Will John (‘Shoni’), Ivor, Emlyn and Bertrand Russell were sold by Merthyr Town FC to First Division English clubs. My grandfather Emlyn went to Everton. Great Uncle Bryn became the world’s most expensive player in 1939 when he was bought by Arsenal from Wolverhampton Wanderers for £14,500. That then unimaginable transfer fee knocked talk of war and the Great Depression off the front pages and caused a demonstration in Downing Street. Disgruntled fans burned down the goalposts at Molineux. Serving with the Royal Artillery in Italy and North Africa while playing for Arsenal and Wales, he was capped 17 times and starred in eight wartime internationals. Despite the feature film of his life, he wore fame lightly. There was no money in it.
History repeated in the 1960s when our family again produced the world’s most valuable player: the aforementioned Cliff, who was bought for £35,000 by Spurs. Capped 50 times for Wales, he was part of Tottenham’s 1960-1961 Double-winning side during what became known as the ‘Glory Glory Days’. Hailed as the best left-winger in the world, he collected three FA Cup Winners’ medals and the European Cup.
My father followed his father and four uncles into professional football, playing for Southend, Swansea and Hereford before suffering the inoperable injury that felled his dream.
Dad and Pelé bonded. Despite geography and the inevitable language barrier, they had much in common. Both had hailed from nothing, the sons of humble footballers. One excelled at the beautiful game to such an unprecedented level that his name became synonymous with it. The other was injured out. Both were blessed and baffled by football, living in thrall to its raw dignity and purity. Each knew that, at its most powerful, stripped of the money, vulgarity and corruption that have come to define it in modern times, football is the perfect metaphor for life.
It’s about rules to be respected. Victory to be achieved. Dreams to be realised. Hope and desire to be fulfilled. It turns on dramatic, cliff-hanging highs and lows, and on conflict to overcome. On pulling together as a team for the sake of the common good. Bottom line, you win some, you lose some. Football, like life, is no more, no less than that.
‘Brazilians,’ reflected Dad, in the days ahead of his own demise three years ago, ‘are deeply spiritual people. Religious or not, they believe in the supernatural and the unexplainable. They have a profound sense of destiny. Pelé had that in common with his friends Ali and Nelson Mandela. The strength is in knowing it. When a man has nothing except belief, he has everything. We talk about survival of the fittest and of triumph against the odds. Pelé was courageous, caring and selfless. He was the great ambassador, not only for the game but for mankind. He had qualities that take a mere man above others. Success has nothing to do with fame and fortune. It’s who you are when your head hits the pillow that counts.’
His pursuits beyond retirement elevated Pelé to true heroic status. He was the gift that kept on giving. He served as the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Champion for Sport. He became a Goodwill Ambassador for children’s charity UNICEF. He toured tirelessly, visiting the impoverished nations of Africa. His enormous fame and universal appeal popularised football and inspired young people wherever he set foot. He seemed sanctified in the end, something far greater than a footballer – as proven by the International Olympics Committee’s naming of him, in 1999, as Athlete of the Century.
‘I was born to play football, just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint,’ he said. This simplistic view was not the size of it. He must have known that it was infinitely greater than that.
The version of him that endures today is a Disney incarnation of a superhero. As such, he was not allowed to die. Yet the man behind the myth was never immortal. Didn’t the excised kidney, the hip operation, his collapse from exhaustion, the surgery to remove a malignant colonic tumour and his own matter-of-fact acceptance of death give us clues? If we couldn’t accept the weaknesses that made Pelé human, we must now.
It is the trouble with legends. We need them to walk on water. We feel let down when they fall in. When our idols are revealed to be as perishable as we are, it is a nail in the coffin for us all. The pictures still hang right there on the wall. In the end, they are everything.