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Pelé (1940-2022)

Hey everyone, I know it is a game day and we are focused on that right now, but I felt the need to write this piece. I feel this is one of those rarest of times where a story not having to do with Michigan State would be permissible. Because yesterday, the world lost an icon of the highest level. Being the football (theirs, not ours) fan that I am, and enjoying my new employment as a sports writer, I wanted to try writing something serious. Obviously, feel free to add your own editorial thoughts in the comments.

I am not going to lie, the passing of Edson Arantes do Nascimento stings. Even though we all probably saw it coming, with the regular updates recently of his time in the hospital, it still feels shocking. Those stories were the only news that could possibly have detracted from, and overshadowed, the coinciding World Cup. It did not take long for the articles about Argentina’s championship celebrations to give way to the continued coverage of Pelé’s declining health.

I remember my very first memory of hearing the name, Pelé. I was a young boy, maybe 5 or 6, growing up in the 80’s. I was in the family room with my older brother and a soccer game was on the television. I certainly have no recollection of who was playing. I can’t even say for certain if I knew what soccer was prior to this memory. But there it was on the TV, and I was watching it with my big brother, who started talking about the sport to me. I do not remember anything else he said, but I do remember him telling me that someone named Pelé was the greatest player this sport had ever seen. Even though I was not alive during Pelé’s playing days (his last game was in 1977), what I have read and seen and heard since I first heard about him has given me no reason to contend this statement. So the first thing I ever learned about this sport which I have grown to adore, to me, is the absolute truth that Pelé is the greatest ever.

Listen, we all have been involved in conversations and arguments about who is the greatest player in all the different sports. And some sports are easier to discuss than others (football having all the different positions makes it harder than basketball where everyone is essentially just trying to put a ball through a hoop). Some sports have a very short list of possible GOATs. Basketball has Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Magic. Hockey is even shorter: Gretzky and Howe. When it comes to soccer, there is literally no conversation. Even most Argentinians, those who can put aside their rivalry with, and disdain for, Brazil, will tell you Pelé is the greatest. Even for those of us born after he retired can easily come to this conclusion. A quick look on Youtube to see his greatest goals (apologies to those of you who are going to go look now about the poor quality of most of his game footage) will leave you with your jaw open; his control of the ball and his ability to absolutely embarrass an opponent have never been equalled. It’s like watching Barry Sanders make defenders get all turned around, except now imagine Barry doing that while kicking a ball around between his feet. I will say this here, the sport of soccer requires more athletic ability than any other sport. And Pelé did it best.

Even going beyond watching old grainy footage, you can look at his career accomplishments. Pelé was the first, and still the only, player to win 3 World Cups. Those represent Brazil’s first 3 championships of their all-time best 5. He put Brazil on top of the soccer totem pole, a spot no country has managed to knock them off from. He is the reason the green-and-yellow uniform of his country is the most famous of all uniforms. And his #10 may be the most synonymous jersey number across all of sports, an honor that players of all ages and levels wish to have on their own teams.

It does not end with being the best player of all time in the world’s most popular sport. Pelé used his celebrity status to help him transcend the game. He would begin to make contributions to humanitarian (bringing attention to the apartheid system in South Africa) and environmental (preserving the rain forests) causes. After his playing days, he became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Queen Elizabeth even honored him with knighthood. Pelé was famous for his friendly personality. He was aware of this positive trait, and he exploited it to help bring beneficial change to others. There is a great story how Pelé traveled to Nigeria in the 60’s for an exhibition soccer match during that country’s civil war, and that that game led to a 48-hour ceasefire. It turns out that the story is not true, but the fact that so many have believed its authenticity for so long only speaks to the mythology and greatness of the one and only, Pelé.

So that is it. Thank you for reading this. I hope you are inspired to go watch some Pelé highlights or read about his life. For those old enough and fortunate enough to have seen Pelé with your own eyes, I am jealous; you got to see the rarest of talents.

Rest in peace, Edson Arantes do Nascimento.