As regular readers may be aware, John Milton, a native of Heaton lived in Brazil for several years and as a writer for TF provided some brilliant insights into Brazilian football, its history, culture and its icons. Within the printed pages of the fanzine, John provided an exceptional series of articles chronicling the life of Brazilian football’s greatest icons. Like everyone we were saddened at the death of Pele but have decided to re-publish this series from the fanzine as our tribute to one of the greatest footballers ever to play the game. Many thanks to John who you can follow on @Geordioca

O Rei.

Pelé‘s story is one that transcends your average rags-to-riches, kid-from-the-backstreet-to-global-superstar, fairy tale.  In fact, his story beggars belief. So when the editor asked me to give it a bash I rolled my sleeves up, hit the books, and pieced together the journey of the little black kid from the backwaters of Minas Gerais to FIFA Player of the Century as best I could.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born in the rural state of Minas Gerais in the small town of TrêsCorações (‘Three Hearts’).  His father, João Ramos do Nascimento, nicknamed Dondinho, was a player of some ability who played for various small clubs around Minas Gerais state.  Dondinho moved his family to the dilapidated neighbourhood of Bauru in São Paulo where he played for Bauru Atlético Clube until ligament damage forced him into retirement at the age of 35.  Dondinho was desperate for young Edson to follow in his footsteps but his wife, Celeste, constantly reminded her son of the precarious life a footballer leads: the family were in constant money trouble due to Dondinho’s inability to earn a decent living.  She urged Edson to pursue a career in medicine or teaching.

It was obvious that Edson, then known as Dico, was a gifted player.  His father, obviously chuffed, advised, guided and encouraged his son.  It was at around this time, when Edson was about 8 years old, that he picked up the nickname ‘Pelé’.  There are various stories where it came from but it’s most likely that it came from young Edson’s mispronunciation of the name of his favourite player at the time, Vasco da Gama goalkeeper, Bilé.  Pelé claims to have forgotten exactly how he earned his new moniker and it sounds like it wasn’t complimentary, but the more Edson objected, the more it stuck.

Despite the teasing he received from his peers, Pelé began to dominate the local football scene.  The amateur teams he played for were winning tournaments around the city and young Pelé was getting noticed.  At the age of 13 he was taken on at the youth team at his father’s club, Bauru, where he was coached by Waldemir de Brito – an ex-player who had represented his country at the 1934 World Cup.  With Pelé leading the team, Bauru won 3 state youth championships between 1954-56.

In 1956 Brito took his star player to the port city of Santos for a trial with Os Peixes. After a single training session Santos signed Pelé,he would stay with the club for the following 20 years.  Pelé scored against Corinthians in his first game at the age of just 15, by the time the 1957 Campeonato Paulista (São Paulo State Championship) started, the now 16 year old had broken into the first team and was getting regular starts.  Although Santos would lose their title to São Paulo FC the boy wonder didn’t fail to impress, ending the tournament as top scorer.

Despite setting the Paulista football world alight during his debut season, Pelé was a complete unknown to the wider Brazilian football community.  As well as being without the television saturation of the sport that we have today, there was also no national Championship.  Until the first national league was established in 1971 it was the State Championships which were the be-all and end-all to clubs and fans alike.  Each Championship was played out in almost complete isolation with only the results of the strongest tournaments,the Carioca (Rio de Janeiro) and Paulista, attracting attention.  With Carioca and Paulista football dominating the Brazilian game, it is little wonder that the national team was made up from the cream of these two tournaments.

Pelé had made his breakthrough at the perfect moment – as top scorer in the Paulista just one year before the World Cup, he had caught the attention of Brazil’s rotund, jovial and maverick coach – Vicente Feola.Today Feolahas a reputation for being too relaxed, for allowing his senior players to run his teams, and for even taking naps on the bench during training sessions and matches.  However,Feola, above all else, was an innovator, unafraid of taking risks.

On the day the squad for the ’58 World Cup in Sweden was announced there was widespread confusion and scratching of heads all over Brazil.  Even the stars of the Carioca tournament were bemused, Mário Zagallo and his colleagues from Rio nudged each other on seeing the little black kid from Santos at the training camp – ‘Quem é ele?’, ‘Who’s he?’, they asked each other.  They were soon to find out.

That squad was the best prepared squad in the history of football at that time.  They added Soviet style sports science to their natural South American flair.  They took an army of backroom staff including physios, doctors, dentists and even a psychologist.  Luckily for world football, Feola knew far more about football than Dr. João Carvalhaes: the psychologist declared Garrincha too naïve and Pelé too immature to play.  Feola also knew quite a bit about kidology.  Hiding his secret weapons during the first two group games (a 3-0 win over Austria and a 0-0 draw with England) he unleashed what would be Brazil’s greatest ever attacking partnership, Garrincha and Pelé, in Brazil’s must-win group game against the fancied and feared Soviet Union.

To keep his opponents guessing Feola lined his team up in random positions while journalists visited during training sessions, meaning nobody knew what to expect when Pelé and Garrincha took to the field.  What they got has been described as the greatest 3 minutes of football ever played as Brazil launched wave after wave of attack from the get-go, usually down the right hand side with Garrincha obliterating the Soviet left back time and again.With the legendary forwards Didi and Vavá bolstered with Brazil’s two newest superstars, Vaváwas able to put both goals past Lev Yashin in the Soviet net for a 2-0 win.

Wales were next up in the Quarter Finals but were without John Charles, while Brazil were without the injured Vavá, meaning even more pressure on Pelé to perform for his country.  Despite plenty of intent from the canarinhos the game remained 0-0 till midway through the 2nd half when, with his back to goal, Pelé received a pass from Didi.  He controlled with his chest, swivelled, knocked it past his defender and buried into the bottom corner for his first ever World Cup goal.  That goal was enough as Brazil moved on to the Semi-Final where a formidable France, and eventual tournament top scorer Just Fontaine, were waiting.

Vavá was restored to the team and Brazil were ready.  Vavá scored in the 2ndminute and all seemed well until Fontaine equalised just 7 minutes later.  The perceived mental fragility of the Brazilians came under scrutiny – thankfully, however, Didi scored before half time to restore Brazil’s lead.  2-1 and the game looked in the balance, but nobody had calculated-in the Pelé factor.  Grabbing the game by the proverbial scruff of the neck, the youngster grabbed a 23-minute, 2nd half hat-trick as France were blown away.  An 83rd minute goal by Piatoni was hardly consolation as the game finished 5-2.

Into the finals and Brazil faced the biggest threat to their dominance to date.  No, not the hosts, Sweden, who had also made it to the final, but their own self-doubt.  Brazilians are an insanely superstitious breed and their superstitions were almost their undoing.  As hosts, Sweden rightfully requested to wear their yellow shirts, but Brazil refused to acquiesce.  It became quite ugly as the CBF refused to back down.  Eventually a coin-toss was agreed upon and justice was done as Sweden won it.  Panic spread quickly through the Brazil camp until a quick-thinking trainer begged some spare shirts from the French squad.  Handing the modified strips to the team he told them it was a blessing: the blue was the colour of the patron saint of Brazil, Nossa Senhora de Aparecido.

Sweden scored a quick goal which really knocked the stuffing out of Brazil, but the imperious captain, Bellini, slowly picked the ball out of the net and calmly walked to the spot.  By the time he had given the ball to the forwards the team had settled.  Vavá scored two goals (both set up by Garrincha) before Pelé scored a third.  Zagallo added a fourth before Sweden pulled one back through Simonsson.  Pelé rose in the 90th minute to score with his head – a goal that would provide wonderful symmetry with his exploits in 1970.  With the goal came the final whistle: 5-2.  Brazil were World Champions!

While Garrincha was confused (“Is that it? But in the Carioca we play them twice!”) the moment was not lost on the baby of the team.  Pelé, overcome with emotion, could not cope with what had just happened.  He broke down in floods of tears, images of the boy burying his face in goalkeeper Gilmar’s shoulders as he sobbed uncontrollably endeared him to football fans the world over.

Having left Brazil as an unknown 17 year old, Pelé returned as the most famous player on the planet.  Now dubbed o Rei (The King) he would be received like a rock star wherever he went.  Luckily, unlike so many other footballing greats, Pelé was well prepared for fame.  He had a fantastic attitude and was fully aware of all the trappings of life in the public eye.  His emergence coincided with that of Garrincha, they would play together in 40 matches for the national team until 1966 during which time Brazil didn’t lose a single game when they played together: 36 wins and 4 draws. An astounding feat.

Although many (myself included) argue that Garrincha was a better player, Pelé was by far the most professional of the two.  In fact, these two legends could not have been more different from each other off the pitch.  While Garrincha has been described as the most unprofessional professional to have played the game, Pelé was always a coach’s dream.  Garrincha would go on 5 day benders before waking up on a Sunday afternoon and destroying whichever unfortunate left back was up against him that day (he usually didn’t have a clue who he was facing) before meeting up with his mates to do it all again.  Pelé trained hard, he took care of his body, he understood tactics and he knew his worth.  Garrincha relied on his natural ability and enjoyed the high life, Pelé worked hard to improve on every aspect of his game.

By the 1966 World Cup Garrincha was overweight, knackered with injuries and struggling with alcohol.  He was finished.  Pelé would have another World Cup in him.

Back to 1958 and Pelé was now a global brand and a one that his club, Santos, were eager to exploit.  They went on epic tours, usually around Europe, where the public would pay top dollar to see the boy wonder.  In the 4 years before the ’62 World Cup Pelé played a huge amount of games and the goals kept coming.  After his debut season in 1957, Pelé would dominate the Paulista scoring charts, ending as top scorer in 9 consecutive seasons from ’57-’65 (including an astonishing 58 goals in the 1958 tournament).  Added to this were his goals on tour and for his country – he won the golden boot at the 1959 South America Championships with 8 goals.

By the time the 1962 World Cup came around Pelé, now 22, was in hot form – this was meant to be his tournament.  Unfortunately, by then most teams had given up trying to find a legitimate way of stopping him and he had become a marked man.  In Brazil’s opening group game against Mexico Pelé scored the 2nd in a 2-0 win but in the next game against Czechoslovakia he tore a hamstring and his tournament was over.  Not only was this a disaster for Brazil, but it was a disaster for FIFA, too – Pelé was the star attraction!  Not to worry – Garrincha stepped out of Pelé’s shadows and took responsibility.  He inspired his team and did what only one other player has ever done: single handedly won a World Cup.

Pelé, although obviously disappointed, was as gracious and humble as ever – he has always thanked that team for winning the Cup, “Without Garrincha I would not be a 3 time World Champion.”  It was this humility that had endeared Pelé to the world and it would be this attitude that would continue to cement his place in fan’s hearts around the world.

Despite the disappointment of ’62, fans didn’t have to wait long for Pelé to be given the chance to shine on the international stage.  Santos won the 1962 Copa Libertadores (the South American version of the Champions League) putting them up against the European giants, Benfica, in the Intercontinental Cup.  In the 2-legged final Pelé would be up against the player dubbed ‘The European Pelé’ – Eusébio.

The first leg was played at Rio’s Maracanã, it was a nervy affair with some cut-and-thrust.  While Europe’s pretender failed to score, the real deal scored 2 in Santos’ 3-2 victory.

In the return leg, held in the real Estadio da Luz (Stadium of Light) Pelé would play what he has described as his greatest ever game.  In a blistering display of raw power, deft touch and positional awareness Pelé produced dribbles, back-heeled passes and tricks galore as he single-handedly tempered Benfica’s soaring pre-match confidence.  By the time Europe’s finest were able to get to grips with the South Americans and their rampaging forward they were already trailing by two Pelé goals.  Where his first was a simple sliding conversion, his second was a stroke of genius – after a feint allowed him to go past his first marker his sheer strength allowed him to power past 2 defenders, despite stumbling, before smashing a left foot shot into the bottom right corner.  His feints and dummies continued to cause consternation, constantly ghosting past or powering through groups of 3 or 4 defenders at a time.

He continued to torment his opponents in the 2nd half, which allowed Coutinho a simple tap-in after being left in acres of space in the Benfica box – the Portuguese by now being completely transfixed on Pelé.  Pelé’s hat-trick came with the goal of the tie.  Collecting the ball just inside his own half he dribbled and powered his way past 4 Benfica players into the box before his shot was saved by Pereira in the Benfica net, but the goalie could only parry, allowing Pelé to pick up the pieces and slot home.  Pepe scored Santos’ fifth before Eusébio and Santana got consolations in the final 10 minutes.  Pelé was a World Champion again, following a now-familiar 5-2 scoreline.

In the period between Pelé’s breakthrough until the ’66 World Cup Santos built a dynasty to rival that of Europe’s best – in their all-white strips and huge success it is little wonder that they were called ‘The South American Real Madrid’.  This golden era brought them 2 x Intercontinental Cups, 2 x Libertadores and 6 x Paulista titles.  And Pelé was the beating heart of it all.

1966 is black hole in Brazilian football, firmly placed in the ‘best forgotten about’ column.  Pelé was at the height of his powers.  He was 25 and had been top-scorer in the Campeonato Paulista for the ninth time.  But unlike Pelé, the seleção was nowhere near ready.  Feola had been hastily drafted in at the last minute, the meticulous preparation and attention to detail that had accompanied the ’58 and ’62 victories had been abandoned and the squad was largely made up of the veterans of the previous campaign.They were out of shape, aging and ill-prepared for the rigours of tournament football.  Garrincha in particular was a shadow of his former self – having been ravaged by injury and alcohol.

It was a disaster from which the coach’s reputation, and those of many of his squad, would never recover.

It is said that Pelé carried an injury into the tournament, we can’t be sure how accurate that is, what we do know is that Brazil were abject.  All 3 of their group games were at Goodison.  In the first game Bulgaria were beaten 2-0, both Pelé and Garrincha rolled back the years with a goal apiece, bringing hope that experience would be enough.  It was, however, a false dawn.  They lost 3-1 to Hungary before Eusébio came looking for revenge with Portugal.  They knew they could beat this Brazil side and they weren’t wrong.  Another 3-1 defeat and the defending champions were sent home.

Pelé and Brazil have always maintained that this World Cup was too aggressive, that the officials allowed too much physicality, and they might have a point.  Pelé had been left unprotected in all 3 games before finally suffering an injury that would rule him out for the coming months having been kicked mercilessly by the Portuguese.

He trudged down the tunnel having been unable to finish the game.  He was dejected and despondent.  Disgusted with what had happened, looking back at the pitch he made his mind up that he would walk away.  He resolved never to play another World Cup again.

To be continued…

John Milton – @Geordioca