clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Legend of Pelé, the Brazilian Boy Who Remade Soccer in His Image

A 17-year-old Brazilian became a global sensation at the World Cup in 1958 and changed the tournament—and the sport—forever

Daniel Zalkus

Editor’s note, Thursday, December 29, 2022: Pelé, the global soccer icon regarded as one of the sport’s greatest players, died Thursday at the age of 82. The following essay, published earlier this month, is the final installment of The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup.

The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story, the final installment in the series, involves Pelé, the player who started it all.

1. The Pilot

So here’s how this goes. In the late 1940s, in the city of Bauru, in the southeast of Brazil, a group of boys sets out to see a dead body.

The dead body belongs to a pilot. A pilot who has crashed his plane. Actually, it’s not a plane; it’s a glider. Do you know about gliders? I didn’t really know. Picture a small plane without an engine. Another plane tows the glider up into the sky and then lets it go. And the pilot can steer it. Can bank and turn, etc.

The idea is that you go up in a glider and you soar. But gravity ultimately pulls you down.

Hopefully gently. But down.

So in Bauru, there’s this new Aero Club. A club for aviation enthusiasts. These are mostly, I’m assuming, rich guys who enjoy flying as a hobby. The Bauru Aero Club is especially known for gliders. A small plane pulls you and your glider up into the air. It releases you. You sail on the air currents over the city, take in the view, and then glide down to the airfield and land.

Only on this day, the pilot missed the airfield. I don’t know what happened.

If there are any young people reading this article (and I assume it’s mostly young people who read these articles, given my youthful dynamism as a writer), my no. 1 piece of life advice is to respect gravity.

The pilot crashes. The glider wipes out. The world is down one aviation enthusiast.

And as this is happening, somewhere else in Bauru, there’s a group of boys hanging out in the street. They’re 8, 9, 10 years old. Maybe they’re playing soccer. Maybe they’re just standing around. These are poor kids in a poor neighborhood. They’re barefoot. They’re wearing shirts made of the material that’s used to bind wheat while it’s being transported. The street where they’re hanging around is probably made of dirt.

If there are any cars, they’re, like, 1940s cars, with those great, long 1940s car curves. You know how 1940s cars all look like they could be in the background of a Godfather movie?

So these boys are hanging out on this dusty street. And they hear someone shouting that a pilot has gone down and died. And they’re excited by this.

If Stand by Me has taught us anything, it’s that groups of boys who learned of the existence of a dead body between 1945 and 1970 had no choice but to attempt to find and view that body.

So the kids set out across the city. Bauru is not huge—it’s not São Paulo—but it’s not tiny. About 52,000 people lived there in the 1940s. The boys first go to the place where the crash happened. They see the wreckage. But the body is already at the morgue.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would have had the nerve, as a kid, to attempt to infiltrate a morgue.

But these kids are mischievous. They’re not bad kids, but they get in trouble a lot. They sneak into other people’s orchards and steal mangoes. That kind of thing. So they’re like, You know what would be a great thing to do? Infiltrate a morgue!

So they set out once again.

One of these kids—we’ll call him Edson because that’s his name—is the leader of this expedition. Edson is especially interested in seeing the pilot’s body because he wants to be a pilot. That’s his dream. He loves everything to do with planes and gliders and the people who fly them. He ditches school sometimes and goes out to the Aero Club to watch the flying. But he also likes to go out to the airfield and just watch the pilots. And he thinks, That’ll be me someday.

He’s not a good student, as you can maybe tell from the fact that he’s cutting school at such an early age. He gets busted by his teacher pretty regularly, and the teacher punishes him by making him kneel on a pile of dried beans. Hard on the knees. But he doesn’t usually get punished too severely because he’s likable. He has a really charming rascal energy. A lot of schemes. A lot of harebrained plans. People like to go along with whatever he’s doing.

He’s not a good student, but lately, he’s been trying a little harder. He’s been trying harder because he had a talk with his dad about becoming a pilot. His dad’s a hard worker, but he has a job that doesn’t pay much and a workplace injury that causes him a lot of pain. And he just has to push through it. So he takes the question of Edson’s future seriously. And he tells him, Yes, you can be a pilot, but you’ll have to be a lot more serious about school. And Edson is doing his best.

Now Edson and his buddies make their way across town to the morgue. They get there just as the autopsy is beginning. They find a dirty window that they can huddle around, and through this window they spy on the doctors cutting up the poor dead pilot.

And at first, Edson thinks this is cool. His first dead body! But then one of the doctors tries to move the corpse’s arm. Blood comes spurting out onto the floor, and Edson is suddenly seized by horror. For a little rascal, he’s already got kind of an anxious side. He has a lot of nightmares. He sleepwalks sometimes. But this is worse. Even after the boys leave the morgue, he sees the image of the pilot’s body in his head. He sees it in his dreams and wakes up in terror.

And so Edson gives up the idea of becoming a pilot. He’ll need a new dream.

2. Embracing the Ending

Why am I telling you about these kids traversing Bauru in the 1940s to see a dead body? I don’t know. Some questions have no good answers. Mickey’s a mouse, Donald’s a duck, Pluto’s a dog. What the hell is Goofy?

Don’t answer that.

It’s possible that I’m telling you this story mostly because I’m stalling.

I’m stalling because gravity ultimately pulls you down—hopefully gently—and today is the last installment of 22 Goals. And I don’t want it to end! I have enjoyed making this series so much. I’ve enjoyed talking to you about these stories so much.

These chats of ours, in which I do all the talking, have become very important to me.

It’s like going to therapy without all the inconvenient life advice.

So I don’t know. I’m looking for things to talk about because if I keep talking, maybe the series doesn’t have to end. Does it work like that? If I just start yammering in detail about, like, a random mystery novel published in the second half of the 1980s, can we stay here a little longer? Please?

I’m kidding.

Am I kidding?

It’s funny, though, my reluctance to get to the end. Because in a way, this has been a show about endings from the very beginning.

A soccer goal is an ending. It ends an attacking move. World Cups are also about endings. The ending is where you crown the champion! The ending is the point of the whole tournament. Get a bunch of teams together, see who’s best, give them a special cup. Or in FIFA’s case, give them a cheaper replica of a special cup while you permanently retain the original at your own office, for some reason.

Maybe life is about the journey and not the destination. Soccer’s pretty pro-destination.

So. We have to get in line with the logic of this whole endeavor. This is a show about endings. I love endings. Let’s embrace the ending.

In the second half of the 1980s, a random mystery novel was published by a writer called Herb Resnicow.

I’m kidding!

No. Here’s what we’ll do today. We’ll embrace the ending, but we’ll also avoid the ending. We’ll do both at the same time.

Because the last story we’ll tell on 22 Goals is the story of a beginning. We’re here to talk about one of the most significant beginnings in the history of soccer.

In a normal installment, this would be the place where I’d give you a preview of all the stuff we’re about to cover.

In a normal installment, I’d do a little signposting. I’d be like, We’re here today to talk about Ludwig van Beethoven, whose late string quartets pushed the boundaries of classical harmony, yada yada. I would legitimately love to write an essay about Beethoven, by the way. That would be so much fun.

That’s what I’d do in a normal installment.

But this isn’t a normal installment. This is the last installment, and I’m stalling. So bear with me. Before we get to the soccer action—and there will be soccer action, my friends; there will be soccer action aplenty—I’m leading you down another little tangent. I promise it’s relevant.

This is not a soccer essay; this is a long goodbye. Let’s make the most of the time we have left.

3. Electric Light

So. Brazil in the ’30s and ’40s. In the interior of Brazil, rural areas and villages were fairly slow to receive electricity. A lot of them weren’t electrified until well into the 20th century. There was a town called Três Corações, in the Minas Gerais state, that had no electricity for many years. Even into the late 1930s, if you wanted light, you lit a candle or a gas lamp.

There is a girl in Três Corações called Celeste. She comes from poverty. Her dad is a cart driver, meaning he has a big wooden wagon and he hauls wood or carries loads for people. Três Corações doesn’t have electricity, but like most places in Brazil, it does have a small local soccer team. A semiprofessional team. Players get a little money. Not enough to make much of a living, but a little bit.

When Celeste is in her mid-teens, 14 or 15, she meets a guy who plays for the Três Corações soccer club. His name is João, but like many Brazilian soccer players, even back in the late 1930s, he is known by a nickname. He is known as Dondinho.

Great nickname, in my opinion.

Dondinho is from a town about 70 miles away. He’s doing his military service in Três Corações and playing soccer while he’s there. He’s older than Celeste, about 22 or 23. But they hit it off.

I don’t know how Celeste’s dad, the cart driver, feels about this, but probably not great because, well, Celeste is 14 and Dondinho is 22.

And in late 1930s Brazil, soccer players have kind of an unreliable reputation. They are like cowboys—cowboys and soccer players both being badly paid, irresponsible, impulsive, a little glamorous, apt to leave town without warning, and prone to having very sore thighs.

Regardless. When Celeste is 15, she and Dondinho get married. At 16, she’s pregnant with their first child. At around the same time, workers come in with heavy machines and bring electricity to Três Corações. For the first time, there are electric lights. And Dondinho is so enthusiastic about this modern miracle that when their son is born, he names the baby after the man credited with inventing the light bulb. Thomas Edison.

Dondinho and Celeste don’t literally name their baby “Thomas Edison.” They give him a name inspired by Edison. They call him Edson. Yes. Our Edson, the little scamp who was so afraid of the dead pilot’s body.

These are his parents. This is his birth.

Within a few years’ time, Celeste has another son and a daughter. Dondinho is a good father, but soccer doesn’t bring in much money, and Celeste is worried, all the time, about how to make ends meet. By the time she’s in her early 20s, she’s trying to hold a family of five together, and she’s afraid a lot of the time. They live in ramshackle houses. They move around because Dondinho goes from one small club to another. Celeste blames soccer for her troubles. She is determined that her kids will get an education. She is determined that they will not become footballers like their dad.

In 1944, when Edson is almost 4, he gets to ride on a train for the first time. His dad has finally been offered a good job. A town called Bauru, near São Paulo, has a soccer club that wants to sign him, and they offer to get him a steady government job if he comes on board. It is potentially a way out of poverty and an end to Celeste’s fear. So they pack up what little they have and set out.

Edson is enchanted by the train. He watches the landscape rolling past, and he opens the big windows and leans out to feel the air rushing over him. He leans out so far that he nearly falls out of the train, but Dondinho grabs him and pulls him back just in time.

When they get to Bauru, bad news is waiting for them. The soccer club has suddenly changed owners. They still want Dondinho to play, but the government job is off the table.

Back to poverty.

Edson and his younger siblings, parents, and several other family members who have come to Bauru all have to crowd into one small house. The roof leaks. The family never goes hungry, but dinner is sometimes a slice of banana with some bread.

When Edson is old enough, meaning when he’s about 7, he manages to get together enough money for a shoeshine kit, and he goes out into town to shine other people’s shoes. Even though he has no shoes of his own. And he brings in a little extra money that way.

Edson and his friends spend their time playing in the street. They get up to a lot of mischief and have a lot of fun, but Edson has not only his dad’s fun-loving streak but also that slightly anxious streak that he might have picked up from his mom.

He starts keeping track of all the times he could have died but didn’t.

He could have fallen out the train window on the way to Bauru. One day he and his friends are swimming in the river behind the train tracks, and he gets caught in the middle and nearly drowns. He’s saved by a man who comes along and holds out a long stick. Another time, there’s a rainstorm, and he’s hanging out in this hideout he and his friends have built. It’s sort of a big dugout in the ground near the street. He’s hiding from his mom, who’s furious because he hasn’t done his homework. She finds him, drags him home, and makes him study. A little later, a neighborhood kid pounds on the door and tells them that the earth around the dugout has collapsed in the rain and buried another little boy alive.

Edson watches them pull that little boy’s body out of the cave-in. It gives him more nightmares. He feels guilty, as if he’s somehow responsible for the cave-in. He often feels a little guilty about things he does. He thinks a lot about sin. He’s a devout Catholic. And he tries to reason himself out of his guilt. When he steals mangoes, he thinks, Well, this isn’t really a sin because many of those mangoes would have fallen to the ground and gone to waste. So it’s not really stealing …

He doesn’t want to be a bad person. And for many years after the hideout caves in, he’s afraid of the dark.

4. The Shoeless Ones

He loves watching his dad play soccer. Dondinho is a forward. He’s a talented player. But in Bauru he’s suffered a knee injury that’s never quite healed, so he’s playing through pain a lot of the time. But it’s absolutely thrilling for Edson to be in the stadium, watching his dad score goals. He knows his mom disapproves of the game, but when he watches his dad, he gets totally overwhelmed by passion.

So overwhelmed that when he hears a fan yelling insults at his dad, he picks up a brick and challenges this adult fan to fight, which leads to a brawl in the stadium.

He and his friends play soccer in the street and in yards and in empty lots around the town. They play barefoot because they can’t afford shoes. They also can’t afford a ball. They have to stuff wadded-up paper or rags into a sock and play with that. They steal laundry from clotheslines to try to pad the sock into a proper sphere.

After the incident with the dead pilot, Edson is less motivated at school. He doesn’t want to fly anymore, and he also has a really strict teacher who, when Edson talks out of turn, stuffs balled-up sheets of paper into his mouth, which really hurts. So he’s spending more time playing soccer. He loves it. And he’s good at it. Dondinho helps him with his technique, which is a big advantage.

There are some downsides, however, to being the son of the neighborhood soccer player. Whenever another kid kicks a ball through someone’s window and runs off, the owner of the window invariably comes to Dondinho and Celeste’s house, pounds on the door, and blames Edson for the accident.

One day he decides he wants to start a soccer club for his friends. A really nice idea! The problem: They don’t have a ball, they don’t have any kits, and they also don’t have any money.

So they devise a two-pronged scheme to raise funds.

Prong no. 1: They all collect soccer stickers. Kind of like trading cards, but in sticker form. None of these kids have been anywhere near a television, so soccer stickers are one of the best sources of information they have about, say, what the stars on the Brazil national team look like. So they pool their sticker collections together and figure that if they can assemble some complete sets, they can trade those for gear.

Prong no. 2: They concoct a plan to steal peanuts out of freight trains and sell them outside the local movie theater. They devise a peanut heist!

Edson is one of the boys who sneaks into the train wagon. He’s terrified. The peanuts come in big sacks. The boys slit the sacks and let the peanuts spill out into the bowls and sieves they’ve brought to hold them. They sneak back out. Success.

They toast the peanuts. Sell the peanuts to moviegoers. Now they can afford shirts and shorts.

They trade their sticker albums for a ball. They go back to steal more peanuts. This time they get caught. Someone spots them. They have to run like mad to get away. That ends the peanut heist.

They can still start their club. They just have to play barefoot. They nickname themselves “the Shoeless Ones.”

Speaking of nicknames. Around this time, in the early 1950s, when they’re 10 or 12 years old, Edson’s friends give him a nickname. The nickname is a nonsense word. No one’s sure where it comes from or what it means, if it even means anything.

And Edson hates it. Absolutely hates it. He’s proud to be named after Thomas Edison. He likes his real name!

He gets suspended from school for punching a kid who calls him by the nickname. And after that, his friends realize, Oh, wow, this genuinely bothers him. He really does not want us to call him by this name.

So they do what all true friends would do in this situation. They mercilessly double down on the nickname and refuse to call him by his real name, ever.

One day, the mayor of Bauru makes an exciting announcement. He’s starting a new tournament for youth clubs. The Shoeless Ones are desperate to play in this tournament. But they can’t. Why?

Because the rules say you have to have shoes to play. Rude!

Three of the boys on the team are brothers. Their dad is a salesman. He makes a pretty good living compared with most of the kids’ parents. And he at last agrees to buy soccer shoes for all the kids, with two conditions. No. 1, they have to be even more serious about their training. No. 2, they have to change their nickname to something that can withstand basic fact-checking. Done.

They get shoes. They become Amériquinha.

They start practicing, and at first, they’re not sure whether they like playing in shoes. Shoes are super awkward! The kids feel clumsy. They feel weird. But they enter the tournament anyway, and it turns out that they’re really good. Who knew?

They reach the final. The final is played in the big local stadium, the same place where Dondinho plays his games. Thousands of people come to watch. The former Shoeless Ones—The Newly Shod Ones? The Shoeful Ones?—win the match.

Edson is the star player. He finishes as the tournament’s top scorer. The crowd chants his nickname. The nickname he hates so much that he decked a kid for using it.

But now, listening to all these people, he thinks it might not be so bad after all, being called Pelé.

5. Joy

There is a question hanging over this essay like the ending of a series of soccer essays over the final installment of that series.

The question is, Why does soccer bring us so much joy? Where does this feeling come from? How does this frankly quite silly activity, watching people bap a ball around with their feet—regardless of the shod or unshod status of those feet—tap into such a deep and powerful current of happiness?

I know joy isn’t the only thing soccer brings us. It’s not the only strong feeling. There’s also frustration. Anger. Camaraderie, maybe. Anxiety. Hope.

There’s misery. When Brazil lost in the final of the 1950 men’s World Cup—the first time they’d ever hosted the tournament (the final was in Rio, at the brand-new Maracanã)—Edson saw his father cry for the first time. Edson himself cried. Sobbed. He went to his room, where there was a picture of Jesus on the wall, and wept and asked Jesus why Brazil was being punished.

Soccer stirs up a lot of strong feelings. But joy is the goal. Joy is what all the rest of it is building toward.

What do you want, when you’re a fan, every time your team has the ball? You want them to score a goal. Every season, you want them to win a championship. You want to see your favorite player hit the winning shot. You want goose bumps to break out all over your body. You want to feel as if the top of your head has been taken off.

I used to work in a bank. Isn’t that funny? I wasn’t always an internationally revered soccer writer. I had a career in finance.

My career in finance occurred at a small-town bank in north-central Oklahoma. First National in Ponca City. Pretty high powered. The bank was on Grand Avenue, just down from the old vaudeville theater and Junior’s Gun and Lock Shop.

I was a bank teller. This was my summer job for three or four years in high school and college. Someone at the bank—someone, I assume, who had been kicked in the head by a mule as a child—looked at me when I was a teenager and said, “Well, he looks like he’d be good at two things: interacting with customers and responsibly keeping track of enormous sums of money.”

Application accepted. It was literally like that. “You’re hired. Welcome aboard. Here is a box full of $47,000 in cash. Please don’t lose it.”

I didn’t like working at the bank because it took me away from my true passion of being unemployed. But I learned a lot from it. I can count money really fast now. Like drug dealer fast. I’ve got the brisk right thumb.

What else did I learn about? I learned a ton about FBI background checks. Because the handyman–slash–maintenance guy at the bank—this huge, towering, lumbering dude called Mark, who wore blue coveralls and very memorable sideburns—used to come to my window and tell me about how he was being vetted for a job in government intelligence. And the only thing holding up his career change from local bank handyman to CIA operative was the background check.

Mark led me to understand that he had secrets in his past. Secrets that must not be inquired into. But these secrets would not impair his ability to pursue American interests abroad in an espionage capacity.

He was, conservatively, 6-foot-4. About 300 pounds, also conservatively. Extremely conspicuous physical massiveness is the no. 1 trait you look for in a spy. Mark told me that the FBI would be asking me about him and that it was extremely important that I not pass them any compromising information.

The future of America might depend on it.

I would sit there kicking my legs on my stool in my teller window from the punishingly early hour of 9:15 a.m. through a grueling workday that ended at 4:30. It’s called bankers’ hours. It’s respectable. And I’d deposit social security checks for blue-haired grandmothers. And guys in undershirts who smelled powerfully of gasoline would come in with purple velvet Crown Royal bags full of nickels and ask me to change them for $5 bills. And my fellow tellers and I would gossip about whatever happened on Guiding Light and As the World Turns that day, my fellow tellers all being women in their 50s.

It was awkward at first, but they soon accepted me as one of them. They let me into all of their chats about which celebrities had had plastic surgery and whether that plastic surgery was working for them or not.

And at the end of the day, we’d have to tally up all our money and make sure the totals matched up with what we’d taken in and handed out that day. And mine absolutely never did. Most days, the head teller, Teresa—whom I mostly remember because she loved riverboat gambling and was constantly taking trips to Tunica, a town across the Mississippi, in the state of Mississippi, to play slot machines on a boat—would have to come to my window and go through all my stuff. She’d have to figure out what had happened to the $1,100 that the machine said I was missing or how I had managed to acquire $462 more than I was supposed to have.

And periodically, an armed car would show up and deliver cash to the bank. They’d wheel the cash in on dollies in these big shrink-wrapped cubes. And a few times—not often, but three or four times over the years—I’d have to go into the vault to help put the cash away. Shift the bales of $20 bills or whatever.

The vault was exactly what you’d picture when you imagine a bank vault in an old small-town bank. A huge walk-in safe with a thick metal door and a handle that looked like you could steer a ship with it.

And I remember being left alone in the vault a couple of times and hoisting up, like, $100,000 on my shoulder. And just wondering, How did life put me here? How did the universe contrive to deposit me here—ha, ha? And that reminds me, please tell your dad thanks for all the jokes he’s texted me this year. What a nice guy.

How did the universe contrive to deposit me, seemingly at random and for no reason, in a literal treasure trove?

Anyway. The reason I’m telling you this story is that I sometimes have the same feeling watching soccer. A sport that is, I think, full of people who would enjoy riverboat gambling, if they ever gave it a try.

How did we end up inside this weird vault full of priceless moments?

How did life contrive to deposit us in such a strange place, inside this frankly quite silly game that is somehow, also, a treasure trove?

6. Flesh and Spirit

In the early 1950s, life deposits Edson Arantes do Nascimento in the youth soccer program at Bauru. His dad’s club. His dad has recently retired.

Poor Celeste will never be free of having a family member who plays soccer for Bauru. First Dondinho, now Edson.

But I should stop calling him Edson. By 1953, hardly anyone is still calling him by his real name. He’s Pelé.

At Bauru, he’s coached by Waldemar de Brito, a former striker for the Brazil national team. Pelé leads Bauru to three straight youth championships. He gets offered a chance to play for a bigger team in Rio. Dondinho thinks it’s a great opportunity, but Celeste says no chance, I am not sending my baby off to a big city by himself. And besides, he won’t be a footballer; he’ll have a stable job. He’ll be a schoolteacher.

But he’s making money now playing soccer. He’s got a little salary from Bauru. In one tournament game, he scores the winning goal, and the team’s supporters invade the pitch and start throwing coins at him. And he feels so proud that he’s able to pick up all these coins and bring them home to his mom.

In 1956, when Pelé is 15, Waldemar de Brito gets him a tryout at Santos. A big club, but one not nearly as far away as Rio. Celeste agrees to let him go.

He doesn’t sleep the night before he leaves. He knows the Santos players from his collection of stickers, so he can picture them, and he wonders whether he’ll be good enough to play with them.

Santos is on the coast. He’s never seen the ocean before. He’s heard that seawater is salty, and he wonders whether that’s true. He wonders what it will be like to finally see the sea.

He’s still, in other words, the same imaginative, slightly fretful kid that we’ve been getting to know. There’s this mix of fun-loving mischief and fastidious anxiety that we encounter again and again through Pelé’s life. He wants to get away with something, but he also wants to be a good person, and he thinks he’ll be punished if he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to.

He wants to steal mangoes, but stealing mangoes might be a sin. He wants to swim in the river, but the currents can catch you and drown you. He wants to skip his homework and play in his hideout, but hideouts might cave in on you.

He wants to fly, but gravity pulls you down.

He plays his first senior match for Santos at the age of 15, on September 7, 1956. He scores a goal.

The following year, at the age of 16, he’s a starter, and he leads the league in scoring.

Just about a year after signing his first professional contract, he’s called up to the Brazilian national team. He scores a goal in his first game, becoming the youngest player ever to score for Brazil—a record he still holds today.

Edson—sorry, Pelé—is not a big guy. He’s about 5-foot-8. But he has this strange quality. It’s not exactly that he seems bigger than he really is. But he somehow seems denser than other people.

Soccer players sometimes strike you as physically kind of ethereal. Cruyff seemed ethereal. Ronaldinho seemed ethereal. Pelé is the opposite of that. He’s like a sculpture made from some rare element—it looks small, but when you try to pick it up, it weighs 600 pounds. He’s compact in the way a collapsing star is compact.

I’m not describing this well.

So here’s what we’ll do. Let’s think about death in comic fantasy novels.

There’s a funny thread in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels—I think it starts in Mort, but I’m not absolutely sure—where Pratchett says we’ve got it all backward where death is concerned. I mean death as in, like, the grim reaper. The physical embodiment of death. A skeleton with the sickle and the black cloak and whatnot. A really funny character in those novels, incidentally.

We imagine that death can pass through solid walls because death is sort of spirit-like and insubstantial and not quite real. But, Pratchett says, death can pass through solid walls because he’s more real than everything else.

You don’t walk through solid matter because you’re less substantial than matter. You walk through solid matter because it’s less substantial than you.

The key is being more embodied, not less. And that’s how it looks when you watch Pelé play. Like the comic grim reaper of Discworld, Pelé passes through ranks of defenders with ease because he is more physically, solidly real than they are. It’s as if he’s playing in a special spotlight that leaves everyone else in a little bit of shadow. Everyone else looks translucent around him.

How else do you explain the fact that he scores in nearly every game he plays when he’s still, literally, a child?

How do you explain the fact that while he’s still a teenager, he sets a scoring record in the Brazilian domestic league that still stands today?

How do you explain the fact that he sends fans into raptures, seemingly by accident, without meaning to?

What is the source of this joy? Where does it come from?

7. 1958

In 1958, at the age of 17, Pelé is called up to play in his first World Cup. Two years earlier, he was consulting his sticker collection to learn what top-level soccer players looked like. Two years earlier, he was kneeling down on the beach at Santos to taste the seawater to find out whether it was really salty. Now he’s crossing the ocean to play for the Jules Rimet Trophy against the best players on earth.

In so many ways he’s still the same kid. The same nightmares. The same fear of the dark. He’s excited for the trip because—for the first time in his life—he gets to fly on an airplane. The 1958 men’s World Cup is played in Sweden. It’s a long trip.

They stop in Rome first to play a couple of friendlies against Italian teams. Pelé walks around the Vatican for the first time and goes to Mass.

They fly over the Swiss Alps. He watches the snowcapped peaks drift by below.

He loves Sweden right away. Everything is so well organized. The hotel is so comfortable—that little note of fastidiousness again. When the team goes out dancing, he meets a girl named Ilena with blue eyes and blond hair, and they have a little romance while he’s in the country.

Being at the World Cup is so much fun.

But he’s nursing a knee injury. He’s rehabbing it as hard as he can with a painful regimen that involves boiling-hot towels. But the doctor keeps him out of Brazil’s first match, against Austria, and their second match, against England.

Before the third match, against the USSR, he’s able to play in practice games again. Pelé and the great Brazilian star Garrincha, whom we talked about in last week’s installment, are both playing for the reserves, and they absolutely destroy the first team.

The third game is against the USSR. Pelé’s name is on the team sheet. The Soviets are one of the tournament favorites, and when he steps out onto the pitch, he’s shocked by how big they are. The opening whistle blows, and he officially becomes the youngest player ever to play in a World Cup.

Brazil wins the match 2-0, and Pelé contributes an assist. The win puts the team through to the quarterfinals. But Pelé is mad at himself because he hit the post with a shot and missed a couple of chances he felt he should have converted.

In the quarterfinals, Brazil beats Wales 1-0. Pelé scores the winning goal. He’s less mad at himself. In the semifinals, Brazil beats France 5-2, and Pelé scores a hat trick. He scores all three winning goals. Now he’s not mad at anyone.

Being at the World Cup really is a lot of fun.

Time for the World Cup final. Brazil vs. Sweden. June 29, 1958.

It’s a dark, cloudy day. Pelé is 17 years, 249 days old. There’s a minor crisis before the match because Brazil and Sweden both famously wear yellow—one team slightly more famously than the other team. One of them will have to change shirt colors. Long story short, it’s Brazil.

But what color will they wear? Someone says white. The players recoil in horror because Brazil wore white in the 1950 World Cup final, which they lost to Uruguay—that was the day Pelé saw his father cry.

Quick sidenote. Technically, that match was not the 1950 World Cup final. Technically, there was no 1950 World Cup final. You know how I’m always saying FIFA loves a group stage? In the 1950 World Cup final, it had a group stage for the championship.

Those SOBs actually did it. Took the top four teams and put them in a round-robin. Personally, I say no thank you to that concept. But honestly, I have to hand it to FIFA just for following its heart. The “fuck everything, we’re doing five blades” of World Cup group-stage organization.

Brazil can’t wear white. So some team assistants have to go out and buy 22 blue T-shirts—hey, 22!—and they sew on the Brazilian badges.

During the anthems, Pelé pictures his father anxiously crouched by the radio at home, and he thinks, “I’m not going to let him down.”


Sweden scores almost immediately, via their captain, Nils Liedholm. Nifty little move from the edge of the area.

Five minutes later, Brazil equalizes, via Vavá, which is a delightful thing to say. Via Vavá. It’s like a street in La dolce vita.

Vavá scores again from close range in the 32nd minute—va-va-voom. Brazil leading 2-1 at halftime.

Ten minutes into the second half, Pelé is in the middle of the Swedish penalty area. Here we go.

He’s tightly marked by one defender, and there’s another defender in reserve. But he calls for a long pass from the wingback Nílton Santos. Nílton Santos plays a good ball in between the two defenders. Pelé’s able to control it with his chest while keeping the first defender behind him.

He lets the ball fall to the ground. He lets it bounce once, and then he does something so delightful. You can watch the replay of this moment as many times as you like, and it never stops being surprising, and it never stops making you smile.

As the second defender, Bengt Gustavsson, is closing him down, he chips the ball almost straight up into the air. It looks like a kid doing a yo-yo trick. Gustavsson’s forward momentum carries him right under the ball. Pelé ducks around him so that when the ball comes down, he’s unmarked in the middle of the area. Free to take the shot.

Do you remember the question we asked earlier? The end of the series question? We’re almost at the beginning, which means we’re almost at the end. The question is, Why does soccer bring us so much joy?

What we can say, right now, as the ball is falling through the air toward Pelé’s foot, is that there’s no one simple answer. There are a lot of answers. We’d need way more than 22 goals to explore them all.

But one answer—one of my favorite answers—is that soccer adapts itself to whoever is playing it and whoever is watching it and finds ways to speak to them in their own language. Soccer finds your own private words and whispers them back to you.

I don’t think any athlete who ever lived has inspired more joy than Pelé. And what have we seen about Pelé?

He’s charismatic. He’s a bit of a rascal. He loves a good peanut heist. He loves sneaking out of school. He loves making the fun choice. But he’s also got that side that’s afraid of doing wrong. Afraid of being hurt or punished. Afraid he’ll crash if he goes up too high.

Well, what’s a goal in soccer but a way of doing the fun thing and being rewarded for it? What’s a goal but a way of getting away with something and being celebrated for it?

You score a goal, and you’ve done it, you’ve pulled off your heist, you’ve played your prank, you’ve slipped away from the guard. And instead of the adults and authority figures grabbing you by the ear and taking you home, or making you kneel on dried beans, or stuffing wads of paper in your mouth—instead of God almost drowning you in a river—all the adults and authority figures cheer you on.

God seems OK with it, too.

It’s a sin reimagined as an act of virtue.

I think one of the reasons Pelé is so infectiously joyful to watch is that he experienced the game as a place in which he could express his true nature without fear. Everyone needs one of those, right? Obviously, he had astonishing physical gifts, but it’s more than that. The game was perfectly adapted to let him perform a central conflict in his psyche again and again and again and overcome it. And that’s beautiful.

People felt that story and responded to it every time he scored a goal.

You know, people make fun of Pelé now because he’s so corporate. Because he takes too many endorsement deals or loves money too much or whatever. But look at how he’s programmed. Look at how he grew up. He was a kid who grew up with nothing in a house where the water poured in through the roof when it rained. He was a kid who grew up with a dad who loved soccer and a mom who thought it could never be a stable life.

He was so proud the day Bauru fans threw coins at him because he could take that money home to his mom.

And you expect that kid to have the same attitude toward money and integrity that you do?

I’m sorry, I am footnote-one-see-colonialism-ing any middle- to upper-class American who thinks Maradona is so badass and judges Pelé for being mercenary. You haven’t walked a mile in his shoes. And you couldn’t, because he didn’t have any.

What you sense when you watch Pelé play is this tiny undercurrent of hesitation. Of vulnerability. Is this … OK for me to do? I’m allowed to do this? I’m allowed to be this good? And then the flood of pleasure as he realizes, yet again, that the universe is going to be generous. He is allowed.

This is exactly what people want from him.

This is exactly what he’s supposed to do.

The ball keeps falling because gravity ultimately pulls you down. But it never hits the ground. He hits it on the volley while it’s still in the air. And it flies past the Swedish goalkeeper, Kalle Svensson, and into the net.

He leaps in the air and bounces like he’s lost all control over his own body.

He scores again, at the very end of the game, with a header. At 17 years old.

When he realizes Brazil has won the World Cup, he faints in front of the goal. Garrincha has to run over and lift his legs to get blood to his head.

When he wakes up, all he can think of is how he can talk to his parents. He thinks, “I’ve got to tell my dad; I’ve got to tell my dad.”

Finally, he breaks down weeping. He sobs on the shoulder of the goalkeeper, Gilmar.

This is how you fly without ever having to come down.

8. The Beginning

Well. You know how the rest of the story goes. Pelé wins three World Cups. Pelé becomes, by some accounts, the first Black global sports superstar. Pelé becomes, by some metrics, the most famous human being on the planet. Pelé becomes the best-paid athlete in the world. Pelé becomes the one soccer player people who’ve never watched a second of soccer in their lives know and love.

The Brazilian national team travels the world. People get down on their knees to kiss the ground where he walks.

Barney Ronay, the great Guardian soccer writer, wrote a piece about him last year that I really like. One of the things he says in the piece really struck home for me. It’s that with later stars, like Lionel Messi, there’s a feeling of inevitability about their careers. The soccer talent scouting machine is so large and sophisticated today that a player with that gargantuan a gift would have a hard time slipping through the cracks.

But there’s no inevitability about Pelé. Pelé could so easily not have happened.

I don’t know about you. I don’t care all that much about scoring records, or who the greatest player of all time is, or any of that stuff. What I care about is that this person played this game in this way. And when you take any moment from the beginning of this story—picture him with his hands cupped on the dirty glass outside the morgue window, or picture him on the beach, seeing the ocean for the first time—the whole story looks like a miracle.

He never plays in Europe. Some big clubs try to sign him, but Brazil passes a law declaring him a national treasure to prevent him from leaving.

Same reason I’m not writing this in Luxembourg.

He retires in 1977 after a stint with the New York Cosmos. He gets older. In the second half of the 1980s, he cowrites a random mystery novel with an author called Herb Resnicow. It’s called The World Cup Murder.

I haven’t read it. Doesn’t look great.

But he also writes an autobiography called Pelé: The Autobiography, which is possibly the best sports book I’ve ever read.

He gets, maybe, a little more comfortable with himself. He gets a little complacent. He starts calling himself the Beethoven of soccer. I told you it would be fun to write an essay about Beethoven. He gets a little too friendly with FIFA executives like Sepp Blatter.

He gets old.

It’s sports. It happens.

But the modern game of soccer is made in his image. And the story of the beginning of Pelé is, in so many ways, the story of the World Cup and the game as we know it.

It’s because of him that we talk about soccer as the beautiful game. It’s because of him that we have the lovely ideal and marketing cliché of Brazil. Every player after him has been judged by the standard he set. He’s the model.

So when you watch the World Cup final. When you watch any game, really—when you watch the next game you watch. And you see the enormously complex and sophisticated machinery of hype and media and money and internationally revered writing infrastructure. Take a second to remind yourself that it all goes back to a barefoot boy named after Thomas Edison, hanging out in the street with his friends, kicking a ball made of rags, and deciding to go see a dead body.

Wrighty's House

‘Rye Lane’ Star Vivian Oparah in the House! Plus, England’s Win and Kane’s Record!

The Ripple Effect

“He Defied Science!” The Frank Lampard Effect

Counter Pressed

UWCL, X-Factor, and ‘Ted Lasso’

View all stories in Soccer