Commentary

Adeus Pele -- my 17-year-old mentor

Pele  — maybe the greatest of soccer players — has left us.

It hurts, feels almost personal to me, for it was Pele who became, during the 1958 World Cup, probably the most important influence in the development of my soccer understanding.

Sixty four years ago, on a friend’s primitive back & white television set, I discovered Pele. You understand — I don’t mean no one else knew about him — but this was an intimate personal matter. Just me and Pele — my discovery of a 17-year-old boy who suddenly appeared in my life and changed my thinking.

Not about everything, of course. But about soccer, which was something rather precious to me. I thought I knew a lot about it ... yet here was this little ant-like figure (and his fellow Brazilian ants) performing miracles of athleticism, of trickery, of skill.

I wasn’t leaping up and down or yelling to wake the town — I’m not that sort of a guy — anyway, how could I possibly get emotional just looking at that little screen? Obviously, I had a lot to learn. But you don’t learn how to be thrilled, really thrilled, that’s an emotion that storms into your life and — maybe it really does do this — leaves you short of breath.

Yes, I was thrilled through and through — at the gut level, for sure, but there was another level of thrill there that I couldn’t really explain or even name.

Those tiny Brazilian figures changed my way of evaluating soccer. Up till then I had unthinkingly admired the physical “it’s a man’s game” attitude that suffused the sport in England.

I knew I was watching something rather different. Still very much soccer, but a greatly improved version. So it seemed to me. Much later, when I had shed the macho approach, I was not ashamed to admit that it was artistry that the Brazilians brought to the game.

And the truly incredible thing about my new 1958-vision of the sport was that one of the most obviously gifted of the Brazilian players was this boy of 17. Pele.

It was bad timing on my part — or on Pele’s part, maybe — because I had already made up my mind to leave England the following year — headed for the USA, where there would be no soccer.

In New York, I did manage to follow Pele’s activities by reading the foreign press. I even got to see Pele and his team Santos in a New York exhibition game. And that was as close as I was going to get until 1972 — I was by then trying to make a living as a full-time soccer writer — when I got a phone call from Phil Woosnam, then the Commissioner of the North American Soccer League.

He told me: Pepsi-Cola is sponsoring Pele in the making of a series of instructional films. A “How to Play” series. Filming was about to begin in Brazil, the film crew was already there, but they were suddenly uncertain of their script, would I drop everything and fly down there tomorrow to help adjust the script — I was barely listening by that point simply panting to say Yes to whatever they wanted.

So I spent something like three weeks in Santos, seeing Pele almost every day, working with him in the Santos stadium, listening to him, working on a script that would reflect his thinking, his experience.

This was an extraordinary opportunity to get to know Pele. But that never really happened. When it was over, I found myself wondering if Pele ever allowed himself to get closely friendly with anyone in soccer.

He was never aloof, always a friendly presence, he did everything required of him with a smile. Consider: here was I, a journalist of little repute, repeatedly asking Pele to repeat his bicycle kick as I felt we were not getting the footage we needed. Pele’s adviser, the wonderful Julio Mazzei — “Prof” to everyone — later claimed that I called for over 50 repetitions. Surely not that many — but whatever the total there was never a complaint, not even a sour look from Pele.

The director of the films needed early morning light for the filming — he would have liked Pele to be ready to go at 07:30. Alas, Pele was a notorious late-riser. A compromise was negotiated for 8 am. The first day of that agreement, I felt that I had to be there earlier than Pele. I turned up at the Santos stadium around 07:45 — in time to see the stadium caretaker unlocking the gates to admit the waiting Pele.

As I approached, Pele turned to me and that beautiful smile was never more bewitching, as he admonished me in his quaint but also lovely English — “You see? I am here. Where are the others?”

Maybe there was a chance for a closer relationship the afternoon I — and others — were invited to visit his house. Which impressed everyone — my favorite part was a large cage full of gorgeous tiny birds in a multitude of dazzling colors.

But the hoped-for chances of chatting with Pele never came. He was not there, and that was that.

So, while the films were a success, I had totally failed to come up with anything that would allow me to write about “the real Pele.”

Back in New York, a year or two later, I got another of those drop-everything phone calls. Pele was in New York, leaving the following day for a quick visit to St Louis, then the acknowledged youth soccer capital of the USA. Did I want to go along? Ahah! A two-hour flight or whatever it was, spent sitting next to Pele — perfect.

Well, I saw Pele briefly at the airport and was greeted with kindly smile. Pele then headed for his first-class seat while I seated myself a good deal further back in the plane.

Then, in 1975, came the major surprise — the Cosmos GM Clive Toye had convinced Pele to play for the team. So I saw quite a lot of Pele over the next two years. But it was always strictly soccer.

By now I had seen a great deal of Pele as a player — most of it thanks to television. Had I been watching greatest player ever? Oh, quite possibly. Frankly, I wouldn’t know.

There was an opinion abroad throughout the 1960s that soccer’s GOAT was Alfredo Di Stefano, the Argentine who played for Real Madrid. I never saw him live. But the two players are all different in style, different in what they can do. Di Stefano, along with supreme skills, seemed to have inexhaustible lung power.

It wasn’t so easy to sum up Pele like that, for his 20-year career — always played at the very top level — gave us two rather different soccer players. In 1958, we saw the wonder boy, muscular and sturdy, astonishingly mature and full of confidence, speedy in both thought and action, and a born goalscorer.

Nothing frightened Pele, he was never - legally - knocked off his game. It did happen in the 1966 World Cup when the Portuguese managed to so badly kick him that he had to leave the field.

But that sad day, and Pele’s subsequent revelation that he had then thought of calling it a day, were actually a prelude to an astonishing final burst of glory. It was World Cup time again in 1970, and Pele was back in the Brazil team. And what a team — one that won all its games with tremendous style and panache — much of that stemming from the majesty of Pele as not only a physical presence, but also as a commanding soccer intelligence.

He could still score — he opened the scoring in the final against Italy, and late in the game provided a sumptuous assist for Carlos Alberto to thump home Brazil’s fourth.

Did Di Stefano or Messi or Maradona do more, or do better? Who knows? But Pele’s legacy is second to none. These are players from different eras. The most significant similarity among them is that they all came from South America. And they were all superb entertainers.

Even so, I’ll let the Europeans — the French — have the last words on this matter of deciding who gets the GOAT honors: autres temps, autres moeurs.

16 comments about "Adeus Pele -- my 17-year-old mentor".
  1. Tom Byer, December 30, 2022 at 9:45 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner, I have read your work for decades with much enjoyment but have never commented on any article. This article about your encounters with the King, Pelé is brilliant! Congrats! 


    Thank you for so many years of dedication to American Soccer. You are Soccer Royalty for America! 


    Regards from Tokyo, Japan. Tom Byer

  2. Kent James replied, December 30, 2022 at 11:28 a.m.

    In my book, PG is the GOAT of soccer writers....

  3. Mike Lynch, December 30, 2022 at 9:48 a.m.

    The Pele Pepsi films were to my generation what YouTube is today to the current generation. Learning by imitation ... dribbling, juggling, heading, volleys, heading, even dive headers. In the mid to late 1970's, Pele video and Soccer Made in Germany is all we had to give us a picture. Of course, playing for the Cosmos played an even bigger role, but I do feel the Pepsi film holds a big placeholder in today's US soccer story. Thanks Paul for sharing. 

  4. Alan Blackledge replied, January 3, 2023 at 1:15 p.m.

    Pele and his films & Toby Charles with Soccer made in Germany along with Soccer America really define a generation of US soccer fanatics! Fond memories of a time when you rarely found the beautiful game on TV or magazines...and this generation Pooh-poohs MLS...how far we've come!!!

  5. Susi Pharmakis, December 30, 2022 at 10:14 a.m.

    Awesome Article! 

  6. Jeffrey Loechner, December 30, 2022 at 10:30 a.m.

    Paul, terrific article, never knew of your role in the film. In college in the early 70's I wasn't a Soccer player - instead I played Water Polo. However, our coach sat us down in 1974 and had us watch this film - which we re-watched many times. So many of the concepts of ball control, shooting, and most importantly comfort and ease with every situation were indelibly imprinted on me.


    There is a part in the middle discussing "learning to head" - that to this day - I remember almost verbatim about "not panicking when it comes at your face", and to "open the eyes and close the mouth" to head. No, there is no heading in water polo, but the mental model of being comfortable when a ball comes at you incredibly fast, then dealing with it with open eyes, changed my water polo game dramatically for the better. And interestingly, in my life, being able to think calmly with eyes open and mouth shut during tense and fast situations it still helps. Thank you for reminding me of this early important lesson - you never know how the words you write will make an impact beyond their initial purpose!  

  7. Paul Knight, December 30, 2022 at 12:33 p.m.

    Yet another superb Paul Gardner read. I seem to recall the Bulgarians also kicking Pelé to bits and eventually off the pitch in a 66 group stage match. Also watched on a small black and white TV.

  8. Peter Mullany replied, December 30, 2022 at 1:49 p.m.

    Is this the Paul Knight from Glen Rock by chance?  if so, hope all is well!

  9. Nick Gabris, December 30, 2022 at 1:32 p.m.

    Great article PG! always enjoyed your articles over the years.

  10. Frank Strazzulla, December 30, 2022 at 1:32 p.m.

    This then-15 year old high school kid in the Long Island burbs became a lifelong fan of the beautiful game when Pele showed up at the Cosmos.  May he rest in peace.

  11. Rocky Harmon, December 30, 2022 at 1:37 p.m.

    The film the The Master and His Method was our go-to....the music, the purity of early morning training, all of it made the King seem like an everyman

  12. cony konstin, December 30, 2022 at 9:53 p.m.

    Hi Paul 

    49 years ago when I started to coach. I remember running down to the Pepsi cola company in the mission to borrow the training movie that PELE made to show it to my players. He is the king and will always be the king. Pele humble peaceful warrior. Always remembered. Never Forgotten. This video below is the film that I showed my players. 

    Happy New Year

    cony
     
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2Z_5Fw3saLc&feature=youtu.be

  13. beautiful game, December 31, 2022 at 3:34 p.m.

    P.G. Thanks for all the BG memories.

  14. Paul Knight, January 1, 2023 at 7:12 a.m.

    Tp Peter Mullaney yes - send me am email would love to catch up. plkgooner@gmail

  15. Paul Ferguson, January 3, 2023 at 10:38 a.m.

    First rate article, I remember Pele being in Scotland in preparation for the World Cup in Sweden. We were out after a playoff and were again left wondering "if only"

  16. Bob Ashpole, January 25, 2023 at 1:33 p.m.

    It's been a month, and I still cannot believe he is gone. RIP.

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