Pelé’s graceful genius was just one part of what made him unforgettable.
He was a dervish, a magician, an artist whose speedy precision, bullet drives and twirling bicycle kicks were brush strokes offering a challenge to the staid, stationary, and traditional standards of the game he came to dominate.
The soccer field was his canvas, where he created masterpiece after masterpiece, starting at the very beginning of his career. In 1958, he was only17and just a few short years removed from learning soccer on the streets of an impoverished Brazilian favela that was his home. But at that year’s World Cup, he scored six goals, including three in the semifinals against France and two in a 5-2 win over Sweden, the home team, to clinch the championship.
That’s the genius, precocious and pure.
But the other part, what made Pelé the indelible gold standard of the global game, was timing. I do not mean the timing on the field that Pelé possessed — and did he ever. I mean how his rise lined up just right with changes in the world.
After winning that 1958 World Cup, Pelé would quickly stride to the top of the most popular sport on earth and remain there for nearly 20 years, in an era defined by political struggles against colonialism and racial inequity around the world.
The world changed in ways that lined up perfectly for Pelé, gilding his mystique, and TV was a prime mover.
Think about when he emerged. He would solidify his status as the game’s greatest star, the first from the African diaspora to achieve such acclaim, in the 1960s, before topping off his career in the 70s by pushing Brazil to a third World Cup title. He then attempted to capture the hearts of soccer-skeptical America by playing for the New York Cosmos. Television became ubiquitous, and so too did Pele.
Grace and genius and the luck of perfect timing. That’s Pelé.
It was just a few short weeks ago, on Dec. 18, when we once again saw Pelé-style brilliance displayed at the World Cup. Argentina defeated the reigning champion, France, on the wind of penalty kicks. Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé conjured a final of such tension and quality that many called it the greatest World Cup game.
It shredded nerves, brought tears of joy and pain in equal measure, and spawned a new round of arguments. Who is better — Messi or Mbappé? And more than that, with Messi finally fulfilling his World Cup dream, did he have a case as greatest soccer player of all time?
Could the whirling Argentine be better than Pelé? Or had he not yet topped his countryman, Diego Maradona?
That argument will not be solved here. It could go on until the end of time. But notice the throughline: Pelé is the ultimate measure.
Only one player is held in such high regard that he is seen as the prime example of greatness by which all others should be compared. Sports evolve constantly, but evolution must begin somewhere.
Pelé was soccer’s Big Bang. The great players of the present day, and of the future, will follow his lead.
There is another, less talked about way that Pelé was unique. He was Black and he burst forward into the global consciousness when people of color around the world were clamoring anew against entrenched power. This cannot be overlooked.
Nuance is needed here, for Pelé was famously — some would say infamously — agnostic regarding the great struggles of the day. He shared the same élan and mastery as another champion of the era, Muhammad Ali, yet he lacked Ali’s outspoken conviction.
“Ultimately I don’t understand anything about politics,” he said in a 2021 documentary.
Of course, he endured plenty of criticism for not standing up to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for roughly two decades, beginning in 1964 and lasting through Brazil’s victory in 1970.
“A lot of people look less at what he did on the pitch, and more at what he did off of it,” said Paulo César Vasconcellos, a Brazilian journalist, in the documentary. “Off the pitch, he’s characterized by his political neutrality. At that moment in history, that worked against him.”
But not every prominent athlete needs to be a firebrand. And it would be a mistake to cast judgment on Pelé while failing to recognize the deep history of Brazil and how its particular culture shaped and muted Black citizens for centuries.
He was not Ali. Being Pelé was feat enough to push the world forward. A Black athlete who stirred a soul-deep passion in virtually every corner of the world. A Black athlete not just dominating, not just bringing a breathtaking aesthetic to the pitch, but becoming the mold by which all others are compared.
Now we are on to the next.
As fate would have it, in this year’s World Cup championship match defeat, France’s Mbappé netted a hat trick and won the Golden Boot award, recognizing him as the tournament’s top scorer. Black, lithe like Pelé, speedy like Pelé, possessing touch and alacrity and daring that feels oh-so-very-much like Pelé, Mbappé continues the evolution.
In sports, greatness is transposed, and sometimes polished, player to player, era to era. And in soccer, each generational great, each Mbappé or Messi, each Marta or Abby Wambach, each Maradona or Cristiano Ronaldo, each graceful genius who will play the beautiful game of the future, comes created in the mold of Pelé, the one and only.