In the late 1980s in Costa Rica, my Spanish language teacher was trying to convey ‘juego’, or game. She gave what she thought was a huge clue. She tapped her finger on a picture taped on the wall: a man kicking a soccer ball. I had no idea. So a whisper: Maradona. Huh? She switched to English – which she never did – so she could be sure about this. Did I really not know who Diego Maradona was? I didn’t. She was speechless. But if it had been a picture of Pelé, I’d have got it right off the bat.
I thought of this while listening to an interview on CBC’s Day 6 with the makers of the film Pelé. It will be released Tuesday on Netflix. I’ve known who Pelé is since I was a kid, but I wasn’t a soccer fan. Why, I’ve wondered.
Maybe it’s because Pelé is one of the pantheon of athletes we all know. Famous names like Muhammed Ali, Mickey Mantle, Secretariat. But baseball, boxing and horse racing have long been part of North American sports popular culture. Soccer not so much. Until Pelé.
The Beautiful Game
His career was in Brazil. Pelé played for the Santos team from 1956 to 1974 and, of course, on the national team. Brazil won the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Pelé retired in 1974. Then he returned to play with the New York Cosmos in 1975. And brought soccer to the USA.
I can’t remember for sure, but maybe that’s when I first knew of Pelé. Maybe a soccer player struck a chord for me because, in school, the only time I actually looked forward to Phys Ed was when we played soccer. It was only a few brief weeks sandwiched between baseball and basketball. Those team sports were nightmarish hells. But somehow soccer was different. It was fun!
I never played soccer again and, obviously, didn’t become a fan. But, maybe due to my good experience with the game, Pelé had engrained himself in my brain. Maradona did too after my language class, and I understood why my teacher was so astonished.
I have become a World Cup soccer fan. Thanks to a friend who did a play-by-play for me during the 1998 World Cup games, every four years I pick my teams and settle in to watch and cheer and cry. So thanks, Pelé. You made the game more beautiful.