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Pelé: The Autobiography (2006)

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The legend. In his own words. From the poverty-stricken streets of Sao Paulo to an international icon and one of the most celebrated footballers of all time, Pele's life story is as extraordinary as it is enrapturing. With his trademark wit and deference, the legend draws us into a wonderful story lit by insight and humour and encompassing everything you ever wanted to know about the great man himself. From shining shoes for extra pennies at the Baru Athletic Club to triumph in several World Cups, the glory of being on top of the world -- and staying there -- is shared in what is undoubtedly one of the must-read autobiographies of the year. On top of his athletic achievements, Pele has also been a staunch campaigner for human rights and in particular the plight of street children in his home country, leading to an appointment as a UN Ambassador and an honorary knighthood from the British monarchy. By turns addictive, moving and enlightening, this is the ultimate story of the rise of a star and an amazing testimony to how even the lowliest of society's people can reach the dizzying heights of worldwide adoration and success.… (mais)
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Pelé: The Autobiography

With Orlando Duarte and Alex Bellos

Pocket Books, Paperback, 2007.

8vo. 357 pp. Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Preface by Pelé, May 2006. Appendix: Pelé's Goalscoring Career [307-41]. Index [345-57]. 52 black-and-white and colour photos.

First published in Great Britain by Simon and Schuster, 2006.
This edition first published, 2007.

Contents

Preface: Planet Football

1. The Boy from Bauru
2. The Beautiful Game
3. From Santos to Sweden
4. Joy and Pain
5. Target Man
6. Glory
7. The First Farewells
8. Cosmonaut
9. Citizen of the World
10. Family
11. Icon

Appendix: Pelé's Goalscoring Career
Picture Credits
Index

============================================

Football passions flying high in Brazil right now, I thought it was high time to read the story of the most famous footballer Brazil has ever produced. I reckoned it would be a nice relaxation from Shakespeare. I didn’t expect much – and I was wrong. Pelé’s autobiography turned out to be compulsively readable – even I, a very slow reader, could finish its 300 pages in two days – and a good deal more than mere diversion. It is a compelling portrait of somebody who never quite grew up, in the best sense of the phrase. The sense of wonder, the ability to get surprised, the joy of life: all these qualities most of us lose in adulthood. Pelé never did, which is all the more astonishing considering his unbelievable achievements.

Pelé’s story reads like a fairy tale, the American dream made in Brazil. He started as a barefooted kid kicking a football made of stuffed socks through the streets of Bauru, a small town in the state of São Paulo. He finished as three times World Champion (1958, 1962, 1970), the only player ever to have achieved that, scoring altogether 77 goals in 92 matches for Brazil, a national record unlikely to be surpassed in the near future. With his favourite club, Santos, Pelé played for 18 years (1956-74), winning 10 titles in the Paulista (the regional championship) and twice Copa Libertadores (the most prestigious club tournament in South America) and the Intercontinental Cup each, not to mention numerous exhibition tours in the whole world that made the game more popular than ever before. Including friendlies and other non-official matches, he scored about 1280 goals. When he finally retired in 1977, after three seasons in the New York Cosmos, Pelé was given titles like “A Citizen of the World” (United Nations) and “Ambassador of Peace” (UNICEF) and he started traveling even more. He trod on every continent – with the possible exception of Antarctica – and he met everybody. And I really do mean everybody, including three popes, every American president since Jimmy Carter, Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela, you name the person; in New York he “bumped into” Steven Spielberg, met Robert Redford accidentally in the elevator, was painted by Andy Warhol. As I said, you name it. Rags-to-riches fairy tales don’t get any better than that.

The book is written with complete simplicity, engaging intimacy and genuine passion. There is a sort of gentle clumsiness and obscurity running like a leitmotif through all chapters, but that’s something one should expect from a man who expressed himself best, not with pen on paper, but with ball on football field. I don’t speak Portuguese at all and I haven’t read the original, but I have a feeling that at least part of the clumsiness and the obscurity may be due to the translation; now and then it gives the impression of being too literal. This is a minor quibble, worth mentioning but not worth bothering about. The two co-authors probably wrote the complete book, but it is Edson the man, the full-blooded human being who loves football, music, movies and women, who speaks to you in the first person singular, not Pelé the legend, the king, the icon, the greatest footballer in the history of the game.

Pelé draws a beautifully balanced portrait of himself. He makes no bones that all his life he has been naïve, gullible and sentimental. He trusted some people too much with his business affairs and he lost pots of money. He cried easily and a lot, for instance after the first time he became a world champion or at his second marriage; both cases are documented among the photos (excellent as selection and quality, by the way). He knows that his constant travels and not so infrequent affairs were instrumental in the rupture of his first marriage. But he doesn’t wallow in the noxious morass of remorse and self-pity. He accepts his mistakes with philosophical detachment, tries to learn what he can from them, and moves on. I think this an admirable attitude to life. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”[1] I don’t know if Pelé ever read Huxley’s dystopian classic, but I am quite sure he would have agreed with this attitude to chronic remorse.

Likewise, there is nothing smug or condescending about Pelé’s reflections on his great achievements or fabulous fame. He knows full well the extent of both. He remarks with a fine sense of irony that, after his leaving the team, Santos never played another match overseas, so it’s obvious who was the reason for all those tours around the world. Two things make Pelé’s attitude, if not unique, certainly very remarkable. First, he is anxious to express his gratitude to all these people, family, friends and fans, without whom he never would have become what he is; his special talents are accepted as gifts from God and there the matter ends. Second, Pelé regards his position, one of the greatest sport icons of all time, as a tremendous moral obligation. Some said nobility obliges, others (like Franz Liszt, for one) said that genius obliges; Pelé might well have said that fame obliges, too. If he ever did say this, he lived up to it.

“It is not easy to talk of oneself without offence”, Somerset Maugham once wrote.[2] In his autobiography, Pelé has managed it remarkably well. No mean achievement in itself, this is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to Pelé’s fascinating personality brought to life on the pages, which is really the best thing this kind of book may offer, there are also lots of football history and some intriguing bonuses, all told in the same naïve yet endearing manner.

By the way, an excellent sample of Pelé’s attitude and personality is his handling of other celebrities. It is invariably courteous but never obsequious, sometimes shot through with flashes of humour at the expense of the snobs. My favourite example is Elizabeth II. They couldn’t meet after the 1966 World Cup final, as Pelé dreamed, but two years later the Queen came to Rio, attended a match on Maracana in her honour, and afterwards they met. Pelé was nervous. Of course he was “The King”, the whole world knew that, but now he was about to meet a real queen, one of those with crowns, you know. To make matters worse, some “flunky” from the Brazilian foreign ministry came to lecture on royal etiquette, namely “the importance of waiting for her to speak, of standing still, of showing deference – basically, the importance of draining any humanity from the simple act of two people meeting each other.” The Queen turned out to be relaxed, informal and “completely charming”, nothing like the stuffy aristocratic bore the flunky had prepared him for. This was in November 1968. Nearly thirty years later, in December 1997, they met again, this time in the Buckingham Palace where Pelé was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire.

In regard to the historical part, Pelé has included a number of anecdotes to enliven his narrative of World Cup finals, club level championships and exhibition matches. There are all kinds of bizarre curiosities. Once the Man in Black wanted to sent Pelé off, but there was such pandemonium on the stadium that finally it was the referee who was sent off. Another time Pelé scored a goal and, to his consternation, the goalkeeper broke down there and then; later it became clear that he had made a bet with his friends that Pelé wouldn’t score in his net. For the most part, however, Pelé takes football very seriously indeed. To him, it is a way of living and a form of art. He doesn’t shy away from exposing some dirty tables from its kitchen, though. I want to say a few words only about one of them.

The cliché goes that sport is healthy – unless it’s professional. The joke is so hackneyed that few people stop to consider how monstrously true it is. Pelé had his share of injuries, none of them career-threatening, but several bad enough to incapacitate him for the best part of two World championships (1962, 1966); one wonders what he would have achieved had he been able to play at the top of his physical abilities. It is not generally remembered today that Pelé was injured and didn’t take part in the first two matches from the 1958 World Cup finals. He relates here how it was seriously questioned if he would fly to Sweden at all, let alone play any matches. It makes you think how sometimes momentous historical events, when seen in retrospect, look amazingly tenuous. They might just not have happened at all. As the world well knows, Pelé did fly to Sweden in 1958, played four matches and scored six goals, two of them in the final against the host team, three in the semi-finals against France, and the only goal for the win over Wales in the quarter-finals. He was not yet 18 years old.

(I can’t resist adding a brief “patriotic” nuance. My national self-esteem, such as it is, was not exactly flattered by Pelé’s harsh remarks about Dobromir Zhechev, a famous Bulgarian defender, who “seemed to mistake my ankles for the ball” during the 1966 World Cup finals. To be honest, though, Mr Zhechev was notorious for his uncompromising play against famous strikers, so Pelé’s accusations are very likely true.)

This is a book mostly about football history, to be sure; but in no way does it lack weightier issues. Among countless other things, Pelé talks of religion, racism, family, politics. This is where his childlike perception of the world shines through and makes the book something rather special.

Brought up as a Catholic who was obliged to attend mass and fear sin in all of its wicked forms (especially sex), Pelé has always remained a deeply religious man. When he says, as he does at least half a dozen times throughout the book, that God “had an eye on him”, there is such a ring of sincerity that he never sounds self-righteous or arrogant. I find his remark that nobody can remain an agnostic all their lives just as silly as his wacky suggestions about changing the rules of the “beautiful game” (kicking throw-ins, no walls for free kicks, things like that). But I truly admire his religious tolerance. If Pelé has any prejudices whatsoever against agnostics and atheists, they certainly don’t show on these pages. Nor is he one of those militant Catholics who are obnoxiously passionate about the “true faith”. He respects all kinds of spiritual beliefs. He endorsed countless brands, from coffee to vacuum cleaners, that tried to capitalize on his name, but he had some inflexible rules: no alcohol, no cigarettes, no religion. The first two are obvious choices for a professional sportsman; the third, not so.

He is emphatic about the obsession with sin that was instilled in him from an early age. It is amusing, and at the same time saddening, to read how he was seriously worried about going to the beach in Santos, because most women there, naturally, wore bikini and he had been thought that this is grossly immoral. Beware of women who show so much flesh! Wicked creatures they are! Finally, however, Pelé reached the admirably secular conclusion that there was nothing wicked in bikini for it was the proper dress for the beach. As for God, he even has the audacity to show a touch of irreverence. “Was God having some kind of joke?” he wonders when he reflects that his son, the son of one of the greatest goal scorers in history, should become, of all things, a goalkeeper. It does look like a divine joke!

Family was – and is – just as important for Pelé as football. This says a lot. Unfortunately, “Family” is by far the weakest chapter in the book. It is almost entirely concerned with the legal troubles his eldest son got into, allegedly because of money laundering and drug traffic. The events were fresh at the time of writing and the nearly hysterical tone of the chapter doesn’t add to the value of the book on the whole. I am pleased to say, though, that shock value is not among the “merits” of this autobiography. Pelé does mention the sordid wrangling over the paternity of Sandra Machado whom he at last recognised as his daughter although he found her book on the subject “hurtful”. Nor is he pleased that Rosemeri, his first wife, wrote a book about their relationship in which she made so much fuss about pre- and extramarital affairs. But that’s all. He doesn’t dwell on these matters, much less write whole books about them.

On the other hand, the book contains countless testimonies of Pelé’s love for his family. References to his father and mother are invariably full of gratitude and love, even though his mother was a strict disciplinarian when he was a kid and she objected to career in football; his father never amounted to much as a player, but he gave a good deal of wise advice his son treasured and profited from. Fatherhood was a “revelation” to Pelé. His first child was born in January 1967, some half year after the shameful disaster at the World Cup finals in England. He came to realise that no matter what disappointments he may face in his profession, he could always go back to his family for consolation. Affairs and flings never changed that. The divorce did, but he remained in constant touch with the children from his first marriage. At the time of writing he was trying to spend more time with the children from his second wife and avoid the mistakes he had made before. “Fame has many rewards, and I’m grateful for them”, he writes touchingly, “but it would mean nothing without my family.”

Never one afraid of speaking bluntly or fond of inactive complaining, Pelé knew that to avoid rotten apples one must first improve the condition of the apple tree. Suitably, in 1995 he ventured into politics and spent three years as Brazil’s Minister of Sport. He found the atmosphere belligerent and the experience frustrating. He was shocked to discover that many politicians cared more for their own interests than for the people at large. He fought for changes and faced implacable opposition. He appealed for more transparent business dealings in the clubs and wanted the players to become free agents as soon as their contracts were over. Reasonable demands, one should think. But the football tycoons didn’t think so. After long battles in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital where Pelé lived at the time (and disliked), the so-called “Pele Law” was passed. “I’m not sure if the law deserves my name, since almost everything I wanted to put in it was taken out as it went through parliament”, the former magician with the football observes in his typically no-nonsense manner. One thing that was kept in, and of which Pelé was justly proud, was the so-called “Bosman ruling” (named after the Belgian player who first fought for it). Players in Brazil were no longer slaves to their clubs.

Racism in Brazil of his youth was relatively mild, at least compared to other parts of the world, but Pelé realised that his fame, which he achieved at a very early age, might have softened the prejudice that others, less fortunate than him, probably experienced with greater force. “It is almost like a race apart – not black or white, but famous.” He remembered the shock from his first collision with racism. When he was a little boy, the father of one of his girlfriends put an end to their romance with a rhetorical question that demanded no answer but only submission: “What are you doing with this negrinho?” In terms of racism, as in so much else, Pelé has always been a mighty inspirational force. He was married twice and both his wives were white. He charmingly relates how he had “a little fling” with “a gorgeous Swedish girl” during the World Cup finals in 1958. She was just as fascinated with his black skin as he was with her blond hair and blue eyes. Isn’t this a wonderful example how racial differences, rather than separate people, can actually connect them?

Since in Brazil slavery was abolished only in 1888, Pelé is just a third generation free man; his grandmother, whom he adored, was the daughter of slaves. He was aware that, as a black man, his roots were African, and it was in Africa, during one of the countless tours with Santos, that he experienced most strongly “the strange blindness of racial prejudice”. It’s an amusing but nonetheless telling incident. Pelé was checking in and there was the usual crowd gathered just to glimpse him. The white woman at the reception desk addressed the black policeman nearby and asked him to move the “savages” away from the hotel. Much to his credit, Pelé gleefully recalls, “rather than obeying this order the policeman promptly arrested her” (author’s emphasis). He had his little revenge on the lady:

Because I was famous I must have come to inhabit a different area of classification in her head, but I identified with the people she had insulted, and refused to intervene when her boss asked me to help get her out of jail.

This first trip to sub-Saharan Africa (Senegal, Gabon, Congo, Cote d’Ivoir) in 1967 was an event of signal importance for Pelé. In his words, it “caused me to consider my own sense of identity and place in the world”. He perceptively observes the significant racial impact he made on the Black Continent (the emphasis is Pelé’s):

Being in Africa was a simultaneously humbling and gratifying experience for me. I could sense the hope the Africans derived from seeing a black man who had been so successful in the world. I could also sense their pride in my own pride that this was the land of my forefathers. It was a realisation for me that I had become famous on several different levels – I was now known as a footballer even by people who didn’t really follow football. And here in Africa, as well as that, I was a world-famous black man, and that meant something different still.

I am no fan of quotes from newspapers on back covers, but the Sunday Telegraph really nailed it: “Pelé’s innate dignity and modesty shine through this book”. This is perfectly true – and the best reason to read this book. Each chapter is also prefaced by an apt quote. The contributors to this list make an interesting bunch: some are known only in relation to Pelé himself, such as Dondihno (his father) and Waldermar de Britto (his first coach), others need no introduction whatsoever, for example Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter. Some have been great players themselves, and their fine tributes are perhaps the most important. Tarcisio Burgnich, the Italian defender who was supposed to mark him during the 1970 World Cup final, reflected on his psychological strategy: “I told myself, “He’s flesh and blood, just like me.” I was wrong.” Just Fontaine, the brilliant French striker who scored 13 goals in the 1958 World Cup finals (still a record!), exclaimed: “When I saw Pelé play, I just wanted to hang up my boots.” But I like best the words of Andy Warhol:

Pelé is one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of fifteen minutes of fame, he will have fifteen centuries.

Note on the Appendix

I am no longer the football fan I used to be, but I am still interested in statistics. When properly used, they can be very revealing. This appendix, like the book on the whole, is something rather special. I couldn’t find anything like it online. (Well, this is not quite true. An expanded but older version, with some useful comments but with some dated parts as well, can be found here.) It is uncredited, but clearly a lot of effort has been put into it.

Apart from a short prefatory note, the appendix consists of one long table that lists every match Pelé played and every goal he scored as a professional between September 7, 1956, and October 1, 1977. The figures are staggering – 1283 goals in 1367 matches – and pretty close to the ones given by Wikipedia. The table is easy to navigate and contains nine columns: match, year, date, Pelé’s team, goals for, opposition, goals against, goals by Pelé, total goals. There are some helpful footnotes which indicate World Cup finals and other important milestones, for instance Pelé’s extraordinary series: in 1961 he scored 23 goals in six matches, on the next year he scored in twenty consecutive matches. The only minor drawback is that there is no indication, save the footnotes, that separates official matches from friendlies; one has to consult the book and Web to fix that.

The prefatory note alludes to the massive amount of research that went into the preparation of this table. As a result, some interesting mistakes were fixed. For example, Pelé’s much-hyped at the time 1000th goal didn’t happen against Vasco da Gama on 19 November, 1969, but one week and three matches earlier (12 November against Santa Cruz of Recife).

One last point I would like to make. Pelé was one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the game, no question about that. But his goals alone don’t do him justice; dwelling too much on them misrepresents Pelé’s versatility, his “extraordinary perception of the game” in the words of Carlos Alberto Torres. No better example of this can be given than the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico. Jairzinho was Brazil’s top scorer at the championship (seven goals), Carlos Alberto was the captain, but the real leader of the team was Pelé, and everybody knew it. Almost 30 at the time, Pelé was for once free of injuries and could finally take part in all of Brazil’s matches. He scored “only” four goals, but look at his assists! In the tough quarter-final against England (then world champions), he was instrumental in the only goal of the match. In the hardly less intense semi-final with Uruguay, he prepared Rivelino’s goal for 3-1 that sealed the match. In the final against Italy, he scored the first goal but gave brilliant passes for another two. “Even his failures were pure genius”, as a perceptive YT uploader has put it. The most famous of these – and, for my money, one of the greatest moments in the history of World Cup finals – is his dummying Uruguay’s goalkeeper. It’s quite useless trying to describe it. Just see it.

____________________________________________________________________________

[1] Aldous Huxley, Foreword to Brave New World (1932) written in 1946.
[2] W. Somerset Maugham, Preface to Liza of Lambeth (1897) for The Collected Edition, 1934. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jun 23, 2014 |
es una autobiografía del rey pelé,libro interesante y muy bien escrito ya que chalala de poli ( )
  maja.dm1 | Feb 13, 2013 |
  robledo | Jan 24, 2008 |
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I'm able to say that I'm a happy man, because I've had the support of so many of you to help me reach where I am today. And it is because of football that I have achieved whatever I have achieved. Every goal I scored, every goal we celebrated, was intensely felt - whether the first of the thousandth.
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The legend. In his own words. From the poverty-stricken streets of Sao Paulo to an international icon and one of the most celebrated footballers of all time, Pele's life story is as extraordinary as it is enrapturing. With his trademark wit and deference, the legend draws us into a wonderful story lit by insight and humour and encompassing everything you ever wanted to know about the great man himself. From shining shoes for extra pennies at the Baru Athletic Club to triumph in several World Cups, the glory of being on top of the world -- and staying there -- is shared in what is undoubtedly one of the must-read autobiographies of the year. On top of his athletic achievements, Pele has also been a staunch campaigner for human rights and in particular the plight of street children in his home country, leading to an appointment as a UN Ambassador and an honorary knighthood from the British monarchy. By turns addictive, moving and enlightening, this is the ultimate story of the rise of a star and an amazing testimony to how even the lowliest of society's people can reach the dizzying heights of worldwide adoration and success.

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