By Banji Ojewale
When Muhammed Ali passed on in 2016, George Foreman, one of the sport’s fiercest demolition experts, was approached by CBS This Morning crew in the United States of America to speak on his old ring foe. Knocked out by Ali in their unforgettable Rumble in the Jungle duel in Kinshasa, Zaïre, in 1974, Foreman said what the sport had experienced of Ali defied all known approbatory allusions. It wasn’t enough to describe the man born as Cassius Marcellus Clay as the ‘’best fighter’’, he said. According to Foreman: “…To say he (Ali) was the greatest boxer is a put-down…He was bigger than boxing. He was bigger than anything…I got into the ring with him…He didn’t have the best power…the best anything…But his presence…His greatest power was his presence…Nothing like him…’’
Since the death in December of another sports colossus, Pele of Brazil, the world is experiencing the same dilemma: a dearth of expressions to convey Pele into history. Is it adequate to see him as a legend? These days even flash-in-the-plan celebrities get the tag. How about merely dubbing him the greatest in the field? Do our media personnel not slap the adjective on sports and music and theatre people who don’t last beyond a season, those who disappear from the annals after one or two laurels? Now, here come the words, icon and titan. Man has made a sandcastle of these too. Every Tom, Dick and Harry run into them; and they are presumed safe therein until history rumbles in with its hard punches. These words are too commonly used today to colour an uncommon Pele.
But though these epithets aren’t semantically unfit for the greatness of Pele, we must nevertheless qualify them, upgrade them, dress them in robes that would drop the chaff so the wheat can stand out. For, as we say it colloquially, there are men and there are men.
So, how do we shroud Pele, the Brazilian footballer named at birth Edson Arantes do Nascimento? How would history rate him? What superlative metrics, regardless of our subjective opinions, will history apply to settle him? History is said to be impartial; it processes our present and posts it back at the departure of man. It uses as raw resources what we pump or write into her. The enduring record you’ll finally have is your true past, no makeup.
The Australian writer, Steve Douglas, also trod that route in his 1976 book, Kings of Sport. He paraded 20 spectacular sporting ‘kings’ in history, Pele, Ali, Rocky Marciano, Jesse Owens, Vladimir Kuts etc. among them. Presenting the extraordinary exploits of Pele that earned him three World Cup triumphs in four appearances, a feat unprecedented and yet to be equaled more than five decades after, Douglas said baffled medical experts had to subject the footballer to thorough checks for an accurate assessment of his prowess. He wrote:”…Psychiatrists attached to the Brazilian international team…said he (Pele) was of above-average intelligence…Top Brazilian medical experts examined Pele’s magnificent body and came to this conclusion: ’Whatever this man might have decided to do in the field of physical endeavor, he would have been a genius.’ ’’
The Brazilian truly posted preternatural performance. At only 29, Pele had scored his 1000th goal, breaking all known goal-scoring records. Of that goal on November 19, 1969 at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he said:” As I scored that goal I thought of all the poor children on earth, of those who have nothing, of the blind and the deaf whom I want to help during Christmas.’’
The Brazilian Post Office issued a stamp showing Pele netting the historic barrier-breaking goal. He was also presented with a gold football weighing four pounds. Later he unveiled a plaque commemorating the 1000th goal. More accolades came in 1970 as Pele got Brazil’s first goal in the country’s victory over Italy in the final. It was also Brazil’s hundredth in World Cup matches, leading to Brazil’s third victory in the global quadrennial soccer fiesta. Pele was crowned King of Football, 12 years after he had burst onto the world scene as Brazil’s teenage World Cup hero in Sweden in 1958.
Back home, Pele became better known than the President, ‘’more in demand than the most highly paid film stars. He enjoyed the same reverence on the field. Once, Pele succumbed to his base instincts when he was fouled and he retaliated. The referee sent him off. But, see what followed: the disciplinary board overturned the case the player and instead suspended the referee for 30 days! Pele disciplined for wrongdoing? Impossible!
But Pele was human. There were failed marriages. There were children from mistresses. There were reckless investments. There was a time he hobnobbed with Brazil’s ruthless military rulers when he should have spoken against them as his teeming admirers, most of the poor of the land.
This deprived of Brazil and the Church benefited a lot from the enormous income soccer fame gave Pele. For him, God brought him the wealth through kicking the round leather so he could be of help to the helpless, a passion he picked and nurtured from his days at Santos, the famous club he played for for 18 years.
That’s where the real story began. He conquered the world right there at Santos, never leaving Brazil for European teams for recognition. He proved that the denigrated Third World could produce leading lights for the world to celebrate, without leaning on Western props. Pele was not just another player, says Tim Vickery, South American Football Correspondent for BBC Sport. His verdict: Pele was far ahead of his time, ‘’a global icon before football was globalized…he built the World Cup.‘’
That takes us back to Foreman on Ali: some figures step into the scene and the scene wears a new enduring look that transports it into history.
• Ojewale writes from Ota, Ogun State