Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am

You and I have no idea. None. There are really only a few people in the world who do and their names are Ali, Jordan, Tiger, Beckham and, of course, Pele. Some young, some old, but all sporting icons and all, save David Beckham, arguably the greatest to ever play their chosen sport. Beckham gets into this exclusive club because of his fusion of bad haircuts and sporting greatness.

They are all instantly recognisable globally as well as undeniably charismatic and wherever they appear pandemonium ensues. It can often seem exhausting and a bit of a burden but the diva in them desires and demands it. The crush of humanity and pop of flashbulbs reassures them and all entrances must be properly choreographed. Security is ever present and on high alert. But unlike Jordan, Beckham and Tiger, Pele and Ali are transcendent. They are the capital I in icon. With Ali sadly debilitated and incoherent these days, the burden of transcendence falls squarely on Pele. Fortunately, he is up to the task.

At the age of 70, Pele is back in the game. He has been named honorary president of the reincarnated New York Cosmos. The Cosmos were among the most famous teams in the world back in the 1970s with Pele as their centrepiece but when the North American Soccer League folded in 1984 the Cosmos were basically done as well. Now they are looking to get an expansion team in Major League Soccer and the big sell is on.

Whether it's MasterCard, Viagra or the Cosmos, Pele is a superb salesman and as the Cosmos blew into Asia with stops in Singapore and Hong Kong this week he was naturally front-row centre. Media access was limited so it was decided to have one big bang-up press conference and, mystifyingly, it was also decided I should be the moderator. I don't mean to be jaded or cynical, I just am. Still, seeing Pele in action should be a trip nonetheless.

All of it went down under the stately grandeur of the Peninsula hotel where the shiny fleet of Rolls welcomes guests and visitors alike. Upstairs in a function room there is an enviable spread. The coffee is simply sublime and all the crusts have been conveniently snipped from the sandwiches. Try the salmon. Oh damn, that's tasty. You need a crowbar to get more media in this room, it's heaving at the edges and there is an unmistakable feel of a happening in the air. The anticipation is palpable and our guest of honour is running just a few moments late so I step outside and wait. Finally, a couple of burly cats amble down the hallway and behind them is the man himself, dutifully smiling and shaking hands.

He is surprisingly small in stature, surprising because he lives in black and white newsreels where in his most glorious sporting moments he is riding on someone's shoulders, towering over the pack. But not here, not now. There is, however, buoyancy in his gait, a little glide in his stride and I can't help thinking if it's due to the Viagra. After all, if you are going to sell a product then you have to use it, right? I'm looking at my notes for the press conference and there is nothing under erectile dysfunction so I quickly scrap that train of thought. His entrance is quickly choreographed and when I re-enter the hall to formally introduce him I am swallowed up in a sea of blinding light and suddenly possessed with a single thought: please, tell me my fly is done up.

The greatest soccer player ever enters on cue and pandemonium ensues. He immediately makes a beeline over to me to shake my hand and I can't help thinking about all the dumb things I could do with the world's media squarely trained on me. Maybe give Pele a wedgie or an elbow to the ribs, that might be newsworthy. But then I remember that no one is here to see me or my antics so sanity returns. I am scoping out the room though and realise there cannot be more than 10 people in here who were old enough to have seen this guy play and I am one of them.

He does his thing for close to an hour. Enchanting, charming and whimsical, Pele is remarkably comfortable in his iconicity. And then he is gone under another a hail of blinding light and security guards. I find myself a quiet spot and decompress for a good 15 minutes. Every time I close my eyes a flash goes off. It's an unyielding glow when you get close enough to touch the flame of fame.

But this is not Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan caught in the glare of a train wreck. This one is different. It's an iconic hue and I am not certain I would want to change lives with Pele. Sure, temptation is served up piping hot 24-7. Your wish is our command so peel me a grape and get naked honey while I revel in my greatness because this is all so incredibly intoxicating. I mean, who among us has not fantasised about taking superstardom for a stroll or two?

A few blocks away from Pele's hotel is the Temple Street night market. It's a semi-seedy hub of shops and characters that tourists find oddly compelling. If Pele gets restless and decides to stroll over at midnight it might help deal with his jetlag. But it can't happen and it won't happen, at least not without a phalanx of hangers-on and security. There is seemingly little spontaneity in his life. He's a prisoner in a glided cage trapped by his transcendent fame and dealing with it quite well, thank you.