How Pelé became a pioneer of Brazil and the beautiful game

Teamwork, consistency, charisma, and enthusiasm all played roles in Pelé's playing style, as described by Dr. Connell Vaughan of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

How Pelé became a pioneer of Brazil and the beautiful game
What set Pelé apart as a trailblazer in Brazil and the world of soccer. Credit: Wikimedia

It is all too easy to measure football success by goals scored, games played, and medals won. However, statistics do not allow us to appreciate the quality, joy, and beauty of the game. Robert F. Kennedy spoke of the NRP when he said that "it measures neither our intelligence, nor our courage, nor our wisdom, nor our education, nor our compassion, nor our loyalty to our country; in short, it measures everything except what makes life worth living." He could have also talked about sports and how more and more people are using numbers to judge them.

Although he has a remarkable record (for example, he is the only player to have won three World Cups), the appeal and importance of the Brazilian football legend Pelé go beyond numbers. In an attempt to explain why Brazil's victory in the 1970 World Cup final was so important, Jornal do Brazil said, "Brazil's victory with the ball is like the Americans taking over the moon."

In recent years, football commentators from Jonathan Wilson to David Goldblatt to Andreas Campomar have used this quote to assess the impact and legacy of Brazil's 1970 victory. This quote has become a cliché.

At first, the comparison could have been dismissed as chauvinistic nonsense. However, there is some truth in the comparison. Just as Apollo 11 won the space race the previous summer, the victory of the Brazilian 11 is still considered the pinnacle of football. It is the highest standard against which all other achievements are measured. It is still otherworldly in a modern way.

Pelé's ingenious deception against Uruguay and Neil Armstrong's climb backward off the steps of the Eagle are the first truly global and televised memes to which we can return endlessly. There are probably better candidates for epic moments, but they did not happen live. Moreover, unlike the moon landings, the football game was broadcast in the so-called "glorious Technicolor".

From ITV, all the highlights from the 1970 World Cup.

As an icon, Pelé was an ambassador not only for Brazil but also for "O Jogo Bonito", the "beautiful game," a phrase he popularized in the title of his 1977 memoirs. He was a global sports superstar who traveled from Washington to Daly City with his circus of tricks and glamour.

Andy Warhol is credited with saying: "Pele was one of the few who disproved my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he would have 15 centuries." He became a businessman, a sports minister, a singer, an actor, a composer, the public face of Viagra, and a serial offender who talks about himself in the third person.

Ben Nicholas, co-director of a recent Netflix biopic on Pelé, described his status thus: "He's like Elvis." He's Neil Armstrong. He's the prototype; all the other guys who come after him are building on what he laid the foundation for because he lived a life that nobody had lived before. "He was the first global superstar."

However, Pelé immediately catches the eye with his style of play, characterized by tight ball control, quick turns, and tricks. He had a carefree flow that was perfect for deceiving his opponents and, consequently, the crowd. This is the style known as ginga or body sway (a term for one of the basic movements of capoeira).

This liquid-like football represented an aesthetic that was in keeping with the Latin American era of modernity. Its success was seen as a tonic for the Brazilian people after the 1960s coup and a national atonement for the 1950 Maracanazo defeat when Brazil lost the World Cup on home soil in incredible fashion.

This event is usually understood in terms of the "monk complex," invented by the Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues and illustrated by the racist fall of the players after the 1950 World Cup loss. In 1958, Rodrigues described this complex as "an inferiority complex in which Brazilians voluntarily place themselves in comparison with the rest of the world." Brazilians are upside-down narcissists who spit on their image. "This is the truth: we cannot find personal or historical pretexts for self-esteem."

Pelé Netflix Trailer

Ginga's success was also in line with the so-called "mestizo modernity" in art and architecture described by the architect Oscar Niemeyer, who was famous for planning the new modernist capital of Brazil from 1960 on. In the same way, social historian Gilberto Freire used Nietzsche's fundamental analysis of ancient Greek culture to compare the smart, skilled, and emotional way (Dionysian) Brazilians play football with the formal and disciplined (Apollonian) way Europeans play football. Freire made a distinction between two different ways to play football and, by extension, two different ways of life. He saw what he called "Futebol Arte" in Brazil as a "vibrant and clever mulattoism".

Like any other sport, football is, of course, a combination of both aspects. Pelé's style was simultaneously based on teamwork, consistency, charisma, and passion. Despite the racist discourse that still overshadows the sport, Pelé's success in becoming the aesthetic yardstick of the game can be seen as a victory over "football as eugenics," which demands beauty for the "other." After all, Brazil's World Cup victory with Pelé is no miracle; it is their style of play that is the modern miracle, comparable only to humanity's exploration and conquest of space.

Source: RTÉ. RTÉ Ireland's public service media project "Brainstorm" is a collection of new ideas, fresh thoughts, and expert opinions on the world around us, from Europe's academic and research community.