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FROM WIZARD TO EMISSARY

Why soccer matters By Pelé, Celebra, Rs 699

Why did Hublot — the official time-keeper of the 2014 World Cup and Harbhajan Singh’s sponsor— set up a meeting between the Indian cricketer and Pelé in Brazil recently? Because business and pleasure meet seamlessly in modern sports. Apart from enjoying the football — surely the sun and the sea too — Singh let it slip in an interview with The Telegraph that he had asked Pelé to visit India: “The Indian Super League kicks off this year, so he could be its face....” Pelé, given his legendary status, is the face of football. No footballing event, be it the iconic World Cup or a nascent league, can hope to prosper without his blessings.

So, it isn’t surprising to discover that quite a few chapters in Why Soccer Matters — not your usual autobiography or memoir but an account of some of the milestones in the footballer’s life, co-written with Brian Winter — are dedicated to Pelé’s ambassadorial skills. He is credited with revolutionizing American soccer by deciding to turn up for Cosmos in the twilight of his career. Truth be told, Pelé’s intentions to play in America were not purely altruistic. A mountain of unpaid debts made it difficult for him to decline the lucrative offer. One also wonders whether it is possible to fail in a venture that has the support of Steve Ross — he owned Cosmos — and his Warner Communications. In fact, Pelé’s praise for Ross and his giant corporation raises the suspicion that he endorses the philosophy of brute corporate force: “If Steve Ross and Warner Communications wanted to do whatever it took to get a famous Brazilian soccer player to play for their little team in New York, nothing was going to get in their way.” Of course, this is not unexpected from a man who remains enthralled by the “American ability to promote charity, business and sport at the same time.”

Pelé’s unflinching faith in corporate social responsibility and state welfare is touching. For he is truly an ambassador with a heart. He cries during his farewell games. He also sheds tears when he learns of the murder of children in the Candelária massacre. Little wonder then that Pelé joined the Establishment, allowing the Brazilian state to milk his popularity and launch quite a few populist programmes. One such was known as the vilas olimpicas. Under it, families were paid a monthly stipend of a few hundred dollars if their children continued with their studies. The scheme was a phenomenal success; so much so that even Bill and Hillary Clinton paid a visit. It is only when President Lula discontinued the programme that Pelé apparently became aware of the pitfalls of politics. But he remains convinced that the fruits of football can make the world a better place. Unfortunately, his football-crazy nation has been forced to make do with a particularly rotten basket. For even though the sport gets richer by the day, there are no signs yet of Brazil’s problems — poverty, inequality, crime, to name a few — disappearing.

The chapters that are more enjoyable are those that refer to Pelé’s wizardry on the football ground. Lovers of the game will enjoy the detailed descriptions of matches played during Brazil’s golden years in the World Cup. For instance, the passage in which Pelé describes Gordon Banks leaping to save his header — considered to be the best-ever save in a World Cup — is memorable.

The anecdotes that do not concern football are poignant too. In Sweden, Garrincha, we are told, refused to buy a radio — a first-world novelty then — because “the voice coming through on the little radio was...speaking in Swedish”. (Garrincha refused to believe a team-mate who assured him that the voice will start speaking in Portuguese once they were back in Brazil.)

Football, too, retained an element of naivety. This was a time when in a bid to adopt a scientific approach towards enhancing physical endurance, team doctors did not think twice about pulling out players’ teeth. Endorsement deals were unheard of as well. When Tetra Pak asked Pelé to endorse its products, a horrified Dondinho — Pelé’s father — asked him whether he was an athlete or an actor. Significantly, rudimentary technology also meant that teams could not rely on recorded evidence to examine their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to play a free-flowing game. This makes us wonder whether the death of Jogo Bonito can be attributed to Brazil’s adoption of the defensive, dour European style of playing.

But the story of the Beautiful Game is also a story of seduction. The World Cup in 1950 was used, just as it has been this year, by the political regime to deflect global attention from a myriad problems, some of which continue to afflict Brazil even today. Pelé, perhaps unknowingly, has been part of a mischievous plan to bewitch the world.