Pele’s wake and funeral have made it very clear that the story of his life has a local aspect, as well as a national and global one. It is easy for people to think of Pele as the man who did most to build the World Cup, and to make Brazil the first country to win the tournament three times, but the last few days have also made it clear how much he meant to the city of Santos.
His coffin was draped with a flag of Santos as well as one of Brazil and as it made its procession through the streets of the city, a striking number of mourners were wearing Santos shirts. Before he belonged to anyone else, he belonged to Santos.
Pele was not born in the city but after he arrived there to sign for the club at the age of 15 it became his base. By Brazilian standards it is a small city. With a population of under half a million it is dwarfed by the nearby metropolis of Sao Paulo. But it has its own identity; it has a tropical feel, like a mini version of Rio de Janeiro and, as a port, it has a cosmopolitan touch.
Pele arrived as a country boy. He had never seen the sea before and rushed into it to confirm that the water was indeed salty. Santos helped urbanise Pele; it was a good base camp, a halfway house. After conquering the city of Santos he was ready to conquer the world with Santos the club.
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Astonishingly, the small city team could claim to be the best club side in the world during the Pele years. In 1962’s Intercontinental Cup (the winners of South America’s Copa Libertadores vs. the winners of the European Cup) they thrashed Benfica 8-4 over two legs, with Pele scoring five himself. And, even with Pele injured, they overcame AC Milan 1-0 in a playoff (following a 6-6 draw on aggregate) the following year.
Pele and his supporting cast made history, and it is little wonder that he and the city are so closely associated. But was it a forced marriage? The forward attracted a lot of attention from big European clubs, but he was declared a national treasure, and as such he was not allowed to move abroad. Is it a shame? Does it damage his legacy that he never played club football in Europe?
It is at this point that we must be wary of looking at yesterday’s events through the prism of today. We have grown accustomed to the supremacy of European club football, to the idea that the continent manages to attract and monopolize the best players from all over the planet. But it wasn’t always like this.
Throughout Pele’s career, today’s gulf between club football in Europe and South America simply did not exist. The South American game was at least as strong — as Pele himself proved when he ran riot against Benfica in 1962 — and there was no financial chasm between the two continents, which is a modern development as a consequence of global TV revenues.
Pele was not missing out in technical or financial terms by staying with Santos and in one important way he was gaining.
At that time Brazil did not pick players who made their living abroad. That did not only apply to Europe, either. The wonderful centre-back Orlando, a key man in the triumph of 1958, missed the 1962 World Cup because he was busy achieving legendary status with Boca Juniors in Argentina. It was only in the 1980s, as the global market opened up, that Brazil timidly started including European-based players. So spending 18 years at Santos allowed Pele to achieve mythical status in the World Cup.
But there is one sense in which it might be unfortunate that Pele did not cross the Atlantic. After winning the Copa Libertadores in 1962 and 1963, Santos were beaten in the semifinals of the competition in the next two years. And after that they declined to take part in the Libertadores, for entirely rational reasons.
In the days before football became a made-for-TV event, the revenue came from the box office, from people buying tickets to go to the stadium. South America is vast, with precarious and expensive transport links, and it simply was not possible to make enough money from ticket sales to offset the travel costs and still make a profit. As a small city club with a small stadium capacity, Santos had to find a way to pay Pele and his extremely talented teammates. If they were to travel, then it would be to play a number of games rather than just one Libertadores fixture, so the club drew up its own calendar of friendlies, going on tour all over the world.
There were benefits to this, especially in Africa where Santos toured in 1967 and again in 1969. They went to the Far East, the Middle East, North America and the Caribbean, as well as Europe and South America. Much of this was important missionary work for the game. In many of these places, the public had never seen anything to compare.
But it is unfortunate that by abdicating the Libertadores, Santos left the field clear for the Argentine teams at a time when that country was going through a moment where uncompromising and often brutal football took center stage — which soon proved enough to scare the Europeans away from the Intercontinental Cup, a competition that had gotten off to such a promising start.
That 1962 Intercontinental Cup contest between Benfica and Santos had been truly spectacular, an occasion worthy of what Pele judged as the finest performance of his career. Imagine if, six years later, a Manchester United side containing George Best, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law had come up against Pele and company in matches played home and away? These would have been events to stick in the memory of the sport. Indeed, the entire history of club football might have taken a different course.
With the incredible story of Pele we should, of course, be more than thankful for what we received. But it is hard to resist the thought that if Santos had found a way to stay in the Copa Libertadores then we could have even more to look back on with a smile.