Book Review: Why Soccer Matters – Pelé and Brian Winter

We take a deep dive into the autobiography of Pelé, one the world’s greatest ever footballers, co-authored by Brian Winter.

July 16, 2015. Exactly 65 years after his 79th minute goal ensured a historic victory for Uruguay, 88 year old Alcides Ghiggia, the last surviving player from that final, passed away.

That afternoon in 1950

Rewind to July 16, 1950. Brazil was a nation confident of their ability to bring home the Jules Rimet trophy, with the final versus Uruguay considered a mere formality by even the press. The hosts, one point ahead of their opponents, needed to avoid defeat, while for the latter it was a must-win situation. Rio’s mayor had already delivered an impassioned speech ending with “You, who I already salute as victors!” with a victory song at the ready to perform after the final.

The sentiments weren’t entirely unfounded. Brazil’s intimidating attacking style was without a fitting response, while Uruguay, in their previous two games, had drawn with Spain and narrowly won against Sweden. Moreover, they had beaten Uruguay 5-1 in the Copa America held in Brazil just the year before. For all the Brazilians in the official crowd of 1,73,830 (actual is estimated to be over 2,00,000) at the Estadio do Maracana on that day, there was only one outcome.

The Brazilian media weren’t prepared to handle what transpired on 16th July 1950 at the Maracana

Bauru, a small municipality in the state of Sao Paolo, had to contend with radio coverage; it was only Rio that had benefited from the first-ever televised broadcasts in the country during the tournament. Among its residents was a nine year old boy, hopeful and excited. After Friaca scored for the home nation in the 47th minute, it was as if the dream was even more of a formality. That dream came crashing down in a 13 minute span that saw Uruguay score two and go on to lift the Jules Rimet trophy. It was the first time he’d seen his father cry. The boy was so upset that he rushed to his father’s room, stood in front of the photo of Jesus on the wall and cried. He railed and questioned why Brazil had lost, why they were “being punished”; then convinced himself that if he’d been there, he wouldn’t have let Brazil lose. If he’d been there, Brazil would have won. He went to his father, calmer, and made a promise –

“One day, I’ll win you the World Cup.”

The boy was Edson Arantes do Nascimento and it wasn’t an emotional spur-of-the-moment fancy of a young, bitterly disheartened boy. He would indeed go on to help Brazil win their first World Cup and then some. Written in conversation with Brian Winter, Why Soccer Matters is a simple narrative with short chapters, even shorter paragraphs; almost snapshots in time. It’s an easy, interesting read, but if you pick it up expecting an autobiography of the man, you’ll be disappointed. (Though, if you are like me, I’m also warning you that the word “soccer” abounds, so better prepare your nervous system). This is about the larger picture, about Pelé being the first true “global superstar” and the challenges and positives. It’s about a rapidly changing world and how that has affected the global reach of the sport, how the Brazilian was instrumental in the formation of the American soccer league, his contributions as an ambassador of the game. There are plenty of topics discussed within which lead to others that I’m very keen to explore; players and historical events and football memories. However, released as a precursor to Brazil 2014, this book mainly structures its narrative around the 4 World Cup tournaments that shaped Pele’s life as a kid, a player, an ambassador of the game (Brazil 1950, Sweden 1958, Mexico 1970 and USA 1994), and talks about Brazil’s preparation as hosts for 2014.

Pelé: First steps

Born in 1940 to Dona Celeste and Joao Ramos do Nascimento aka Dondinho, Edson was named after the inventor (mistakenly misspelled); the electric light bulb having just made an appearance to their town. There was a bit of footballing pedigree there, though tragic. Dondinho still holds the only goal-scoring record in Brazil not held by his prodigious son – 5 headers in one game – and who knows what would have happened if a terrible injury had not cut short his very promising career? Maybe it was because of what had happened to her husband, but Dona Celeste wasn’t a fan of Pelé “wasting his life” on “something as trivial as football”. It was something she wouldn’t have a choice about. Like her son said,

“Soccer can be both generous and cruel. Those who fall under its spell never really escape.”

For hours and hours, he and his father worked on football fundamentals at their most basic (dribbling, shooting, passing the ball), Dondinho insisting on his son being able to do everything equally well with both feet, on being able to keep his eyes open to be good at headers and keeping the ball as close to his body as possible while dribbling. He was always a scrawny lad and somewhere both of them knew that he wouldn’t be the tallest player on the pitch; it was silently decided that he would just have to be more skilled, to learn to make the ball an “extension of himself”.

“I loved soccer. I loved the feel of the ball on my foot, the sun on my face, the camaraderie that came with great teamwork, the electricity that ran through my veins when I scored a goal. But most of all, I loved the time that I spent with my dad.”

“I think he just loved the damn game – and wanted to pass that love along to his son.” (on his father and his dreams)

“…that love has never faded. It’s deep inside of me, like religion, or a language you learn from birth. My dad’s gone now. But the amazing thing is that, all these years later, I still can’t separate my love for soccer from my love from him.”

Growing up in a family where he was just the third generation born free, Pelé and his siblings wore secondhand clothes, sometimes stitched from sacks used to transport wheat. They had no money for shoes. His first ball was a bunch of socks tied together, later a grapefruit or a couple of old dishrags, even bits of trash.

“Just a ball – or something like it. Therein lies much of the beauty of the game.”

And yet, he reminisces, that they never went hungry, and their mother in particular insisted on the right, moral way of doing things. They were given a strong set of values and work-ethics, the importance of working hard and earning their way (he worked part time as a 7 year old, after borrowing money from his uncle Jorge to buy a shoe-shine kit)

A career synonymous with success

The young lad was so good that his teams in local games started winning by large margins, and even the older players refused to play against him. A strategy was devised. He would play the first half in goal and play offense in the second. His efforts between the sticks were reminiscent of local goalkeeper, Bile. Again, he was fated to get a name because of a misunderstanding. Bile became Pelé, and voila. A future superstar was born.

Brazil's 17- year-old star Pele, center, weeps on the shoulder of goalkeeper Gilmar Dos Santos Neves after Brazil's 5-2 victory over Sweden in the final of the World Cup tournament in Stockholm. (l-r) Garrincha, Orlando, Pele, Gilmar and Didi.
Brazil’s 17- year-old star Pele, center, weeps on the shoulder of goalkeeper Gilmar Dos Santos Neves after Brazil’s 5-2 victory over Sweden in the final of the World Cup tournament in Stockholm. (l-r) Garrincha, Orlando, Pele, Gilmar and Didi.

To fans of my generation, it is so easy to forget that Sweden 1958 was Brazil’s first-ever World Cup title. On June 1958, they erased some of the demons from that night in 1950, but it wouldn’t be an easy journey, and this section remains one of my favourites from the book. It is equally interesting to read about his multiple attempts at retiring from the sport, his multiple resurrections (Mexico 1970 being the crown jewel example), the transformation of the talented young superstar to a more mature leader, a team-player in an era when professional sport was truly taking root, his move to America and his experience in the world of USA soccer, the birth of his “global icon” persona at a time when the concept of endorsements was still quite new, his fall through bankruptcy, his rebirth and rise.

“Not just an opportunity to play soccer, but also to change the whole culture in one of the world’s greatest and most important countries”

“I guess I was truly in the right place at the right time”

USA’s awakening to football can be mapped to Pelé’s stint at New York Cosmos

When you consider facts, his generation’s seen the most intense change over their lifetimes, and not just within the sport (can we imagine a time before yellow and red cards, or TV telecasts and match footage, for instance?). The world’s changed, and much has changed with it. But, to a large extent, we are almost immune to the feeling now, and it’s easy to forget how overwhelming it must have been back then.

“But this was a young world, a rebellious and anarchic world, and the frenzy that constantly enveloped us – exciting, flattering and occasionally somewhat scary – seems almost inconceivable to me today.”

In terms of the World Cup, back in 1958, Brazilians had to wait for up to a month to see newsreel footage in theatres of Brazil’s win versus Sweden in the championship’s final. In South Africa 2010, about 3.2 billion (about half the planet’s population) tuned in to watch the tournament’s opening game. Through an incident that occurred at his hotel between him (Brazil), the former British sportswriter Clive Toye (New York Cosmos’ general manager) and a Belgian maid, Pelé talks about how it was living through the first rise of a phenomenon we now know as globalisation, and how it was changing the way people made decisions and interacted with one another. How it made possible the spread of his book and coaching movie in collaboration with PepsiCo’s International Youth Football Program and friend, Professor Mazzei – through new technology like the home film projector and VCR.

Post retirement: His hunt for formal education

After retirement, he willingly took up the mantle of role-model, but realised that his lack of education (a sore point that had always bothered him) was a barrier –

“What kind of message did it send, then, that Pelé had never finished high school?”

“In my travels over the years, I had met all kinds of inspiring people: popes and professors, politicians and doctors. I tried so hard to keep up with them, but sometimes it was difficult to know what they were saying. I didn’t think I was lacking in intelligence or good instincts; but I did lack a formal education, and I knew that would only damage me more as time went by.”

He showed great courage in completing his diploma after all those years, even almost failing the swimming part of his physical endurance test! (25 yard swimming exercise) –

“I’d spent all that time fishing in the Bauru River as a child, but had never actually learned to swim in it. I nearly drowned that day!”

As he put it, he had seen firsthand how fleeting fame could be, and wanted to show a better example to all those who idolised him, looked up to him. He wanted to inspire and impart his realisation about sport’s larger purpose.

“As I got older, I was beginning to realise that sport could – and should – have a larger purpose, beyond just goals, passes and championships.”

For someone who has scored 1283 goals in 1366 matches for Brazil NT, Santos and New York Cosmos, he’s remained humble and grateful and aware of all the good and luck in his life; wanting to give back through the very sport that gave him so much.

“During my lifetime, I saw how soccer brought people together into communities, and made them more sensitive to the world around them. I saw, time and again, how the sport improved countless millions of lives, both on and off the field. For me, at least, that’s why soccer matters.”

The book: Essential, but placid

Despite all this, I was ultimately a bit disappointed by the time I reached the last page. Maybe it’s the effect of reading frank and honest, even to the point of brutal, books in conversation with Dennis Bergkamp and Andrea Pirlo, but I found that this book took extra care to be generally non-controversial. True to his cabinet minister position, his role as ambassador and such, Pelé comes across as very politically correct, too much in fact, for the book to be anything but rather “bland”. Though there are some fascinating anecdotes that give us insight into the life and mind of the man, and some lovely gems of detail a serious football fan would enjoy, they are too few, and he errs on the side of safety with either an avoidance of controversial events or well-crafted diplomatic responses. There were also some issues with the language (I suspect this is a translation thing in favour of “Americanising” it more) where the use of words like jokester, Mom, Dad etc jarred the tone of conversation.

The concluding Brazil 2014 chapter is another let-down, but for reasons out of everyone’s control. All the hope and optimism shown by Pelé, on the eve of the tournament that should have heralded the beauty and skill and joy unique to Brazil and its football, takes on sad undertones now. Brazil, hosts for the first time since that painful defeat to Uruguay in 1950, failed at what should have been their redemption on home soil, after all these years. Their tormentors, Germany, went on to win the tournament, and Brazil were left to lick wounds that are doubtful to heal any time soon, no matter how many World Cup titles await in the future.

But, whatever its issues, this is still an interesting one-time read, if not for anything but to get ephemeral glimpses of the man argued to be the best footballer of all time.

“When I look back, it’s not the fame or the money that matter most. What I know in my heart is that soccer was good to me, and great to the world.”

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Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.