On Pelé

Published on 30 Dec 2022 11:04AM / 600 words

The King and the God are gone

Pelé was a totem. And a scary one at that. For a kid growing up in Naples during the 80s, Pelé was not a tangible experience but a myth already. Somebody who we would all compare to, as the archetype of the great footballer from South America.

He was a scary figure. Scary because for a city being dragged to the top of the league, twice, by Maradona, Pelé was the only one we could possibly believe being better than our God, Diego. Fans used to chant “Maradona is better than Pelé” and, while perhaps true, it was a chant born out of fear rather than proud.

As an italian, Pelé was the symbol of the 1970 team that destroyed Italy in the World Cup final. Deservedly, even. That Italy was packed with talent and against any other squad would have won that cup. But Pelé’s Brazil was unbeatable. Italy would get their revenge in 1982, but that was not against Pelé anymore. He remained that player that was not defeated, we could not.

Pelé was that athlete that univocally most critics considered the best ever. Many still do, but less so than 40 years ago. Maradona became the strongest contender, with Messi a recent second. I do not know who is the best ever, it is a discussion that makes little sense. To me as a young kid Maradona was the God of football and Pelé its King. They still are, God and King, just not anymore on this Earth.

Today is the first day of post-Maradona and Pelé era. While Diego’s death is like of a father figure, that never truly heals, Pelé’s is like the death of a wise king, somebody who you deeply respected and admired, but was too distant to develop love. Maradona was the visceral passion for football and the art he showed on the pitch, Pelé was a far away myth, a powerful and respectable figure that you can’t truly disrespect. His achievements on the football fields were too high to not deserve only the utmost respect. No matter who was the best player in your team, Pelé had always done something more than him. More World Cups, more goals, more presences. What were mere local league’s achievements compared to successfully carrying your national team to the top of the world? How winning the national cup was anywhere better than bringing football as a sport from the swamps of semi-professionalism to be a worldwide star, even outside of football itself? How your modern hero compares to winning the World Cup with a stunning goal in the final while being still a minor?

Pelé came when football was a poor sport, played by rough and occasionally talented players, and left it as a worldwide phenomenon, with professional players and watched in the four corners of the world. He was the one that made modern football possible. Not the brain of it, that sceptre goes to Cruyff, but the physique that catapulted football players in the modern era. This may be his least discussed achievement, but his most important one nonetheless.

Today we are left without the King and the God. Some already started saying how they are not together as Pelé deserves the heavens and Maradona is more of an hell figure. I have no authority to claim otherwise. I only know that my God and my King are not on the same plane as me anymore. I can only lament that, and hope that wherever they are they are at peace.

R.I.P. Edson Arantes do Nascimento.