Annie Leibovicz, Pelé, NY, 1981

Read Luiz Camillo Osorio’s tribute to Pelé: ‘ART AND FOOTBALL II: Thank you, Pelé’

ART AND FOOTBALL II: Thank you, Pelé

By Luiz Camillo Osorio
Translated by Clara Lopes Pereira

Some ages are aberrant, implausible. One of those is Pelé’s. I, now over forty, find it hard to believe someone may be seventeen, ever. Well, then: — a true boy, my character walks the field with one of these irresistible and fatal authorities. One might say a king, not sure if Lear, if emperor Jones, if Ethiopian. Racially flawless, from his chest seem to hang invisible robes. In short: — put him in any ranch and his dynastic majesty is bound to overshadow the whole court around him.

Nelson Rodrigues (written before the 1958 World Cup!)

At the time of Maradona’s death, I wrote a text titled “Art and Football”. Product of my fascination for the most sublime player I kept up with since his first act in (and out of) the field. In this text, however, I made a silly mistake which will be rectified today. I said that Maradona, regardless of not being a better player, was more captivating than Pelé. What I should have said is that Diego Armando was more captivating than Edson Nascimento. There was no distance between Dom Diego and Maradona; man and player were, explosive and tragically, one and the same. Pelé, on the other hand, is above, beyond Edson, being something other than the man. What he did in the field is unparalleled. His football is a dialectical combination of plasticity and efficiency.

Pelé’s death, even if predictable in account of his illness, ended up catching fans of the Briton sport off guard. Football makes up a significant part of my memories and my day-to-day life. The 1970 World Cup is the most vivid event of my childhood. I was almost 7. I remember the first match when Rivelino’s equalizer, still in the first half, after the initial fright, soothed the quick dinner in the half-time. The final score of 4 to 1, with memorable goals by Jairzinho and Pelé, bespoke what would come ahead. The astounding Sunday when we beat England. My father’s nervousness, or yet, his pessimism against the traumatic Uruguay in the semifinals still anguishes me. The very final match. All of that with living, bodily sensations, from the pre-game, up to the survival, within me, of each goal from that World Cup. For years I carried on replaying the main goals in my bedroom, with the open closet as the goal and a plastic ball bulging the hanged clothes. Much of this is due to Pelé.

I have seen him playing live twice in Maracanã, in celebratory games: in Garrincha’s farewell, in which he scored a brilliant goal; and in a charity match between Flamengo and Atlético Mineiro, on a weekday with an afternoon downpour, that took a fanatic Fluminense fan, straight from the beach, to the center of the crimson-black crowd of Flamengo. On that day, the man of the match was left wing Júlio Cesar (Uri Geller). Pelé’s presence in the field always had its own aura, he was already a God, the King of Football, the greatest of all.

Something that always stood up to me about Pelé is that his non-goals are just as memorable as the thousands of successful shots on target: headers, left-footed, right-footed, free kicked, toe-poked, curve balled, within the penalty area, from the midfield, dribbling two men on a sprint, dribbling almost an entire team. Fluminense is proud to have been at the receiving end of the goal which would baptize the expression gol de placa [1]. Despite this obsession with scoring, Pelé also left us non-goals which are true masterpieces. Three of them are familiar to all football fans, all of them from the 1970 World Cup: the midfield shot against Czechoslovakia, the header saved by Banks against England and the magical dribble over Mazurkiewicz, at the very end of the match against Uruguay. None of them translated into scores, but all of them went down in the history of football. I have for them a passion as big as the one I have, for example, for the goal scored against Wales in its World Cup debut in Sweden.

Cassio Loredano, master of the best cartoon illustrations of our football heroes, made two remarks that, to me, define the unmatched style of the King. The first one was that he decided to score his thousandth goal on a penalty shot so that no one would be buying a popsicle at the time of the goal. It was the one goal which even those distracted stopped to watch. The second one compared Pelé’s midfield non-goal against Czechoslovakia to a very similar one by Maradona against Uruguay, at the 1989 Copa América, which capriciously hit the crossbar. Seeing that his shot had barely scraped the post, the Brazilian didn’t even sigh, and went looking for an opponent to mark since the goalkeeper could kick the ball back into play. The Argentine kept whinging and pounding his hands on the ground. For Pelé, the exceptionality was part of the game.

This exceptionality is brought to light by two magnificent photographs: the first of them, taken by Annie Leibovitz, focalizes the King’s feet. Nothing could be more impactful than this image – the scars of many injuries and the telluric solidity that granted at the same time agility, speed, thrust, precision, strength. If Michelangelo’s God’s hands barely touch Adam’s, these Feet are planted on the ground, gnarled and gorgeous. Just before the 2002 World Cup, Casa França-Brasil showed an exhibition on Pelé. I went on the opening day, with my son Manuel and Cassio Loredano, since it was said the King would show up. We took a full page of the magazine of the Spanish newspaper El País, which had, a few years prior, published Leibovitz’s photograph. Cassio was convinced the King should sign it. As soon as Pelé arrived and was welcomed by governor Benedita da Silva, a small crowd surrounded both. It was impossible to get close to them. Suddenly, we noticed the King’s wife, Dona Assíria, at a corner, alone. We took the photograph and asked her to sign. Somewhat startled by the request, she did not hesitate and went in with the pen. As she was about to return it to us, we asked her to give it to her husband to sign. Then it was easy, she cut through the crowd and gave him the spread. Pelé was surprised by it and didn’t disappoint: he signed over both feet. On the next day, we framed the photograph, and it remains with my son, hanging on the wall as a revelation of that which in football (and in life) is work and poetry.

The other image was just posted by the English Football Association. It’s a well-known photograph, but I’d forgotten about it. After the end of the match between Brazil and England, on June 7th, 1970, still in the field of Jalisco de Guadalajara stadium, Pelé and Bobby Moore, both shirtless – after trading shirts – look at each other, touch and speak to each other, taken by the enchantment of one of the greatest matches of all times. To Pelé, Moore had been his bigger and brighter marksman. After 90 minutes of a hard-fought match, they remain under the influence of an enthusiasm which only emanates from decisive events. Everything in this image refers to the deepest of admirations, formed by the clash and adversity.

Pelé’s right hand over Moore’s shoulders seems to express astonishment over what he, Pelé, had to accomplish in the field to defeat the world champions of the time. The play that led to the goal is exemplary. The King’s receiving on the chest, right after Tostão’s fantastic play by the left, trapping the ball to the ground and following with a gentle flick to the right, in just the right way for the demiurgical Jairzinho to send a blast, mid-height, to the corner of Gordon Banks’ goal. The joy of these two sacred monsters, caught by the photograph, is the living, natural expression of the encounter between two geniuses that faced each other and know they gave their best, regardless of winning or losing. Their gaze, and the energy that comes from it, contains full proof that there are two ways of competing. One is healthy, Greek, I would say, in which one competes with an opponent, always acknowledging in him an essential and valuable antagonist. The other one is quite unhealthy, dominant in today’s capitalist spirit, in which one competes against the other, who’s seen as an enemy to be eliminated and despised.

Looking at this image allows us to glimpse at the exceptional emotion that gets hold of us when witnessing something that can be simple and supernatural at once – while still being just a football match. This just which, many times, is everything. Thank you, Pelé, for offering us so much and to so many.

By John Varley, 1970

[1] T/N: Literally translated as “sign goal”, this goal was scored by Pelé during a match between Fluminense and Santos. The goal was so brilliant it became the first goal in Brazil to be honored with a sign.

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