Lula and Lula and former football player Pelé. Photo: Agência Brasil/cropped from original/ licensed under CC BY 3.0 BR -

Philosophy Football‘s Mark Perryman in search of what the game has lost

This week Brazil is recovering from a large crowd of Bolsonaro supporters storming presidential and government buildings in an attempt to overthrow President Lula. Despite almost the entire crowd wearing Brazil shirts, this was anything but the beautiful game that kit has come to symbolise. Brazilian right wing populism, if it wasn’t ugly enough already, just turned uglier.

Meanwhile last week at Pelé’s funeral it was noticeable how few of his surviving team-mates from the 1970 World Cup squad were present. Furthermore, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were both absent and not many of Brazil’s current stars were there either, Neymar being the most high-profile absentee. Why did they not think the loss of Pelé needed marking?

Wind back to the World Cup Final 1970. Just around the corner my childhood friend Grant Ashworth’s family had recently acquired a colour TV, the first in the neighbourhood. Grant invited all his friends round for a Sunday afternoon, the game on the TV, his mum had baked a delicious cake. I don’t have any distinct memories of the game but I do remember the fun we had, the excitement of watching, in colour, this extraordinarily gifted team, the players’ joy at winning Brazil’s third World Cup, which meant they got to keep it, oh, and that cake. Afterwards we all piled out into the sunshine, Brazil fans, for life.

This was Pelé’s fourth World Cup but it is the one that frames almost all our memories of him and what he came to mean. Sweden 1958, his debut tournament as a 17-year old, was unarguably his greatest tournament as an individual player, and after the ignominy of Brazil losing their 1950 home final to Uruguay the country’s first World Cup win, too.

That was also the first, and to date only, World Cup all four home nations qualified for, Wales the most successful until the teenage Pelé famously  ‘broke Welsh hearts’ after holding out, if anything looking like the likely winners, until Pelé scores the only goal of the match. A game few if any back home would have watched on the TV, let alone in colour. Grainy after-the-event newsreel footage down the local cinema was the best available.

In Chile in 1962, Pelé was injured in the Group stage and played no further part in the tournament, Brazil’s second successive World Cup win. A promising England team made it through to the Quarters, this time it was England’s turn to have their hearts broken, by a Pelé-less, Brazil. And so 1966 promised three-on-the-bounce with Pelé in his prime. Pre-tournament favourites, in both senses of the word, for many, the brutal, clearly targeted and unpunished tackling of Pelé by opposition players put him and Brazil out of the tournament at the group stage. A long forgotten footnote to England’s triumph.

Brazil’s 1970 victory was something else, a team, not just Pelé but Gerson, Jairzinho, Rivelino too, for once they even had a decent goalkeeper, Felix, and the finest World Cup Final goal, of all time scored, not by Pelé, but Carlos Alberto.  This was the beginning of the era of televised football, for the lucky few in colour, but the access to watch at home pretty much universal, in the UK 93% of homes had a TV. The stage for Pelé’s triumph, global TV.

No other team sport comes remotely close to football’s global appeal. The individual sport of boxing is the only sport that comes close in terms of popular reach. It is no accident that when citing the biggest icons of twentieth century sport Pelé would often be coupled with Muhammad Ali. They both meant, and mean, so much for many countless billions. It is futile to juggle an argument of the two who was the ‘greatest’ of them all, they are equals but different.

I sometimes pose the question to students, name eleven past or present Brazilian footballers. Easy-peasy. Now name the current Brazilian President, blank faces. OK Lula has his well-deserved appeal, Bolsinaro his well-deserved notoriety, but even with this week’s attempted coup in Brasília both are names instantly familiar only to a select group outside of their own country and continent. Brazil’s status around the world almost entirely reduced to its football.

Of course this isn’t right, since 2001 Brazil has been grouped with Russia, India and China, the four fastest growing economies, with South Africa added in 2010 to become ‘BRICS’.  The survival of the Amazon rain forest, which is estimated to absorb a quarter of the world’s co2, is central to our global climate’s future prospects. The Brazilian city Porto Alegre pioneered participatory budgeting, for a while a hugely influential, idea on how to build economics , and politics, from the ‘bottom up’.   And that, for a non-Brazil expert, is my just for starters.

So why does Pelé matter? If I was to choose the world’s three most popular figures of the latter part of the twentieth century my choice would be Mandela, Marley and Pelé. OK we can argue over the particularities but few would dispute each had a worldwide popularity of considerable magnitude.  Three black men, from the global south. Politics, music and football, but each had so much more than ‘just’ this to scale that appeal.

Back to Mexico 1970, Brazil v England, Group stage. Tournament favourites vs reigning world champions. In typically English style, a game we lost yet celebrated for the miraculous Gordon Banks save of what was otherwise a certain goal from then the world’s most famous player Pelé. A game that ended with the iconic picture of Bobby Moore and Pelé, stripped to their white and black chests, swapping shirts.

Today we might think nothing of it, but it meant the world back then. Rivals, very different individuals, neither of them campaigners in the mould of Tommie Smith and John Carlos who had raised black power salutes two years previously at the Mexico Olympics. Yet in another way a sight, a picture, every bit as significant. What can be an ugly game, part and parcel of a society in Brazil this week displaying its uglier side, was made beautiful, and promised the hope of a more beautiful society too. Pelé, Obrigado

 Further reading      

Alex Bellos Futebol: The Brazilian  Way of Life

David Goldblatt  Futebol Nation : A Football history of Brazil 

Tony Mason Passion of the People?  Football in South America

Limited edition Philosophy Football Pelé memorial shirt and print available from here 

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Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here


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