June 15 1975.
For the ten million viewers who tuned in to CBS to watch Pele’s debut with the New York Cosmos at the Downing Stadium, the significance of the occasion was nothing more than the simple anticipation of how special the night will be for the pre-eminent Brazilian star.
Two hundred miles away in Washington DC, the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger was also watching the game but with a smile, only winners know.
You see, away from polite conversations and in the murky underbelly of geo-politics and global diplomacy where coincidence is a bad word and nothing is beyond the reach and sweep of those who seek to influence the affairs of the world, Kissinger the master Realpolitik puppeteer had masterminded Pele’s arrival into American soccer. For him, Pele’s presence in the North American Soccer League was a diplomatic victory.
Two months before the occasion, Brazil, to the horror of the Americans, had gone ahead to sign a multi-billion-dollar deal with the West Germans to build eight nuclear reactors with guaranteed supply of enriched uranium.
Nuclear capability in the hands of an authoritarian military regime in Brazil was something that gave the Americans, especially Kissinger, the architect of Détente and nuclear disarmament sleepless nights. Even worse was that this was also the period when the Non-Aligned Movement and Arab resentment was nearing a fever pitch, and the military leaders in Brazil were moving their country toward that anti-American crowd “in the stands”, so to speak. US-Brazil relations were at their lowest point since World War II.
Never a man to miss an opportunity for global advantage, Kissinger wouldn’t sit this out legs crossed in the dug-out of diplomacy. He met the freshly-retired Pele in São Paulo and convinced him to bring his beautiful game to New York.
Fourteen years earlier, Pele had been declared a national treasure by the Brazilian government; so bringing him to play in the United States required all of Kissinger’s diplomatic schmoozing and dribbling skills. You will find the evidence buried deep in a CIA declassified White house memo. Point seven of the talking points is the revealing statement, “I hope your country doesn’t mind our borrowing you a little while. I know from our own point of view it will be very positive and helpful to the friendly relations between our two countries”.
Pele was already a transcendent hero before Kissinger used the Brazilian’s fame as a tool to thaw the icy relations between the US and Brazil. By the time the two men met in a São Paulo hotel, Pele was 34 and had won the World Cup three times. And with the help of Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto, Tostao, Rivelino, and Gerson, had transformed the game into a truly global phenomenon whose reach and cross-cultural capacity would go on to match blue jeans.
It should not be lost on us that his death comes in the immediate aftermath of the most controversial World Cup in the history of the game. Pele was used to a world where character on the pitch was a building block for global camaraderie. In the post-Pele world, carpetbagging billionaire club-owners pay entitled millionaires with a fraction of his talent to play a game now boosted by technology and accented by glitz.
These days the modern game has become a self-regulating cartel run by sharply-dressed merchants and profiteers, and data scientists. It is, sometimes, unrecognizable from the art form Pele and his generation required us to enjoy. Before high-pressing, formations, pointless step-overs, and the knee-slide came to dominate the game, Pele and his travelling troupe from the slums of Brazil made all of us believe that soccer was the purest diversion from the drudgery of life. Where Pele simply punched the air with a boyish smile to celebrate a wonder goal, these days half-talented frauds do a half-mile knee slide into the crowd to celebrate a tap-in.
Pele was a hero who did not need Yakuza body art to celebrate his parents or make a political statement. Today, players on throw-in duties pull up their shorts to show us the odd body art in support of stray pigeons.
And no VAR can help you recall how Pele and his Brazilian mates disoriented their opponents with body movements that were productive and mesmerizing at once.
If God needed someone to give the devil “sooliya” – the term for “nutmeg” in Ghana, I will on behalf of all you heretics, nominate the boy from the favelas for that task. So long Edson.