What Pelé Told Me

The advice the g.o.a.t. gave me before he left the field

Paul Greenberg

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Photo by Sandro Schuh on Unsplash

It was not the most auspicious of occasions to meet soccer’s biggest star. An Apple Store in Lower Manhattan had invited Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known to the world as Pelé to demo a new video game made in his image. The set up of the game was embarrassing. You, the player, took on the role of Pelé and booted your way through a series of digitized soccer pitches. Starting out in a gravel lot in a poor Brazilian favela, you gradually worked your way through the neoliberal soccer maze and, if you booted well, you eventually alighted on the World Cup stage. You could do things to Pelé. Change his hat for example. One option was a sombrero.

This line Pelé said to me has stayed with me. Through my forties and into my fifties as I struggle to move forward and make good on the possibilities left to me.

As the demo unfloded real Pelé sat straight-backed and patient radiating a warmth and dignity that was unmistakable. Finally, after the video game was put away, and the British designer remarked “what an honor it had been to work with Pelé” the center attacking midfielder took the stage and submitted to questions.

Now, until this moment I was not much of a soccer fan. In fact I hated sports. But my son had dialed into soccer in that way that some boys do. Even though he was only six at the time, my son was very much aware of who Pelé was. But he was shy and surely did not have the presence of mind to ask a question. Much to my son’s embarrassment I shot my hand up, locked eyes with the star and asked what was on my mind.

“Pelé,” I started, “a lot of us here have children who are just beginning in soccer. And I’m wondering, do you have any advice for these young people, what they should focus on to be the best players they can be?”

Pelé took an unnaturally long pause, as if he’d never been asked this question before. As if he had been born anew at that very moment. As if he were really thinking about what it feels like to burst into the world with more talent, drive, and feel for the game than any single person on the entire planet. His hands pressed together he…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org