For Pelé (1940-2022)

To describe a sport as an art may appear to be exaggerated. And yet the mastery of sporting technique married to creative imagination does engender moments of artistry.  And while this may not be analogous to the art of painting or sculpture or literature, those arts which are able to create for us a lasting and meaningful place, a home, beyond what we make as objects to be used and exhausted (Hannah Arendt), it can share with the performing arts the creation of moments which defy time.

It may be equally problematic for some that we celebrate the footballer Pelé’s artistry, both because, some would say, he is after all only a footballer and also a less than heroic figure politically. We leave the latter evaluations to the judges of moral rectitude. And for those who can see nothing more than “football” – the current commodified spectacle that passes for the game today (as so much else) – in Pelé’s play, we cannot not pretend to cure the blind.

And as for Pelé the “historical” figure, he was both the agent and the offering to the transformation of football into a global spectacle. The young, poor black Brazilian rising up from misery through skill and creativity is a story that moved many, millions even, both inside Brazil and beyond. And his transformation into something more than just Pelé is also part of the story that has only just recently displayed itself in the obscene spectacle of wealth and power that was the Qatar-Fifa World Cup.

For Pelé, or for those who grew up with his art, we share the words of the writer Eduardo Galeano and the words and music of Gilberto Gil, Jackson do Pandeiro, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque and Pelé with Elis Regina.


A hundred songs name him. At seventeen he was champion of the world and the king of football. Before he was twenty the government of Brazil named him a national treasure that could not be exported. He won three world championships with the Brazilian team and two with the club Santos. After his thousandth goal, he kept on counting. He played more than thirteen hundred matches in eighty countries, one game after another at a punishing rate, and he scored thirteen hundred goals. Once he held up a war: Nigeria and Biafra declared a truce to see him play.

To see him play was worth a truce and a lot more. When Pelé ran hard he cut right through his opponents like a hot knife through butter. When he stopped, his opponents got lost in the labyrinths his legs embroidered. When he jumped, he climbed the air as if there were a staircase. When he executed a free kick, his opponents in the wall wanted to turn around to face the net, so as not to miss the goal.

 He was born in a poor home in a far-off village, and he reached the summit of power and fortune where blacks were not allowed. Off the field he never gave a minute of his time and a coin never fell from his pocket. But those of us who were lucky enough to see him play received alms of an extraordinary beauty: moments so worthy of immortality that they make us believe immortality exists.

(From Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow)

See articles in The Coversation, The Nation, Brasil de Fato and a video report from Democracy Now, for discussions of Pelé and Brazilian politics. David Tryhorn’s documentary Pelé is worth a watch. And stepping back, the website has an excellent collection of pieces on football.

And yes, we can’t resist, to conclude, Pelé the player …

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