Book review: Why Soccer Matters, by Pelé

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 11:52am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:38pm

Why Soccer Matters
by Pelé
3.5 stars 

Guy Haydon

Pelé was the first - and remains the pre-eminent - global soccer superstar.

The Brazilian, known simply by his nickname, is still revered as the best ever player of "the beautiful game" - despite the undoubted talents of stars such as Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and today's icons, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Pelé's continued reputation, at age 73, is even more remarkable because his 20-year career ended in 1977. He won an unprecedented three World Cups: in 1958, aged 17, then again in 1962 and 1970, and scored 1,283 goals in 1,366 matches for Brazil, Brazilian club Santos and the New York Cosmos. He has never faded from the global consciousness.

Timed to coincide with this summer's World Cup in his home country, Pelé's Why Soccer Matters is an engaging look at five momentous World Cup tournaments in his lifetime. First, Brazil 1950, the last time the nation hosted the tournament, then Sweden 1958, Mexico 1970, the US 1994 and now Brazil 2014, which will be watched by at least 3.2 billion people - half the world's population.

His book is at its best in its evocative, pre-stardom section: his poor, barefoot upbringing in the rundown city of Bauru, before Edson Arantes do Nascimento - named, but mistakenly misspelled, by his parents, after inventor Thomas Edison - became Pelé.

"I close my eyes and I can still see my first soccer ball," he says. "Really it was just a bunch of socks tied together, 'borrowed' from neighbours' clothes lines." His scoring prowess as a boy meant he spent long periods of games in goal, to give rivals a chance. His efforts, reminiscent of local goalkeeper Bilé, led friends to use it as his nickname; they mispronounced it "Pelé", and the name stuck.

Pelé was listening to the radio with his family on July 16, 1950, as Brazil, heavy favourites to win the World Cup final, led Uruguay 1-0, but were defeated.

"I was nine, but will never forget the feeling; the euphoria, the pride, the idea that two of my greatest loves - soccer and Brazil - were now united in victory … It would last for exactly 19 minutes. I, like millions of Brazilians, had yet to learn life's hard lesson: in life, as in soccer, nothing is certain until the final whistle."

He touches on his rise to global stardom while helping Brazil win its first World Cup in 1958. "For a boy like me, it was all pretty overwhelming," he writes. "Not on the field - there, I was always in control - but off it. So the persona I adopted was a kind of defence mechanism. Having Pelé around helped keep Edson sane."

Ghostwritten by journalist Brian Winter, this 292-page, polished, leisurely paced revision, touches on all the topics you'd expect - his years playing in the US, as a government sports minister, and his surprise backing of the US, not Brazil, in the 1994 World Cup bids.

"We had a limited window of time to ensure soccer's future in the world's richest country … the Brazil of that era was in no condition to host a World Cup," Pelé writes.

Yet his quick flick through the years would have benefited from a little more grit; overall it's a little too polished, full of bland, carefully considered comments. Too often Pelé skims over matters of interest, such as Brazil's military dictatorship during his career, when leaders demanded certain players make the 1970 squad. Ever the diplomat, he says nothing controversial.

A sharper focus with more passion - something he clearly had as a player - would have fired his muted musings into life.