The King of Football, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known to the world as Pelé, was among the notables who passed away in 2022, a list that includes Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Elizabeth II, Sidney Poitier, Bill Russell, Barbara Walters, and many more familiar names as the early television generation begin exiting the planet. They all lived incredible lives, but none more remarkable than the diminutive footballer who dominated his sport more than any before him. At five feet, seven inches, Pelé lacked the stature of the prototypical athlete. But he made up for it with heart and genius. His death caught my attention because I had just understood during the World Cup that football is played with a round ball and nets.
As showcased in the National Football League, American football is a sophisticated version of rugby played with an elongated ball. For most people on the planet, soccer is a misnomer for the sport of football. As a sports enthusiast, I must ration my time spent watching games. I enjoy both college and professional sports. The NCAA basketball tournament, called March Madness, is one of my favorite times of the year. Baseball is my favorite sport, but I enjoy watching the NFL and NBA, usually closer to the playoffs. So, I had not paid much attention to soccer until this year’s World Cup. I was captivated and developed an appreciation for the sport many call the beautiful game. The final between Argentina and France may have been the best sporting event I have ever watched, including NBA Finals, Super Bowls, and World Series.
When I learned of his death, I realized that while I was aware of his greatness, I knew little about the man. I spent time during the holiday break learning about Pelé. He grew up in relative poverty. I say relative because he counted himself among the half of Brazilians who could not afford shoes, but he was not among the third who faced severe food insecurity. Like Tiger Woods, Pelé’s father played an integral role in his development. A knee injury shortened his father’s promising football career, so he worked diligently to transfer his skills to his son. As a dark-skinned Brazilian, he encountered bias and ridicule but transcended all barriers with his incredible skills and determination.
One of the things Pelé appreciated most about football and his career was the ability of the sport to bring people together. Their love of the game and admiration of Pelé led Brazilians of all colors and levels of prosperity to disregard their differences and unite behind their national team. Pele won the respect of his adversaries as well as his teammates. Opponents’ desire to injure Pele and take him out of the games was a backhanded testament to their appreciation and fear of his superior skills. While there have been riots at various football matches, by and large, the beauty of the game is admired by billions. The opportunities for women footballers have been limited but are rapidly expanding.
Sports generally are arenas that transcend many of the biases that plague humanity. They are far from equitable, but we often see teammates of all colors, races, and ethnicities form indestructible bonds of camaraderie and friendship. Fierce competition and rivalries remain part of the games’ excitement, but for many competitors, it ends when the game ends. Watching players of all colors shake hands and embrace after games must drive a stake in the hearts and minds of racists. While sports are not a microcosm of society—professional players are particularly privileged; these tolerant, if not loving, acts raise hopes that racial divisions can be transcended. Sports still have much to do to address their inequities, especially among coaches and managers, but they have come a long way since Jackie Robinson. We are still far from nirvana, but we need to grasp for green shoots when we can.
Watching the collective concern among the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals football players during the tragic injury to Bills’ defensive back Damar Hamlin during Monday night’s football game was a moment when differences did not matter. There was an outpouring of thoughts and prayers on Twitter. The game was eventually postponed after it was reported that he suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated on the field.
Thousands lined the streets yesterday in salute to Pelé as his remains were laid to rest in the Brazilian city of Santos, where he grew up. Sports provided Pelé a stage from which he gave hope to millions across the planet.