This feature is part of Virtuoso
When Maria Callas strode onto the stage as Elvira to perform at the magnificent Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1949, her breathtaking vocal range took operatic performance to a whole new level before the most demanding cognoscenti in the world.
Every momentous performance demands the correct occasion to achieve the maximum impact and, in 1958, on a rain-soaked terrain at the Rasunda Stadium in Sweden, a young 17-year-old Brazilian footballer was about to deliver a display of footballing skill that would reshape history and restore pride and a sense of nationhood to the inhabitants of Brazil. The footballing order was about to be demolished by a kid from Três Corações.
Brazil barely scraped through to the World Cup in 1958. Nevertheless, a new multi-racial squad was emerging, amongst them a young black Brazilian by the name of Edson Arantes Do Nascimento but who the whole world would know as Pelé by the tournament’s end.
Brazil, determined to leave nothing to chance in their preparations for Sweden, employed the services of a psychologist to test the mental strength of the team at the training camp. Pelé didn’t perform well, being judged as “obviously infantile” and “did not possess the sense of responsibility for a team game” the psychologist reported, based on drawings he had been asked to make. Even worse, his teammate Garrincha had been judged to be an “idiot”. Whilst psychometric testing may be standard practice in football today, the assessments used here were deployed when recruiting bus drivers in São Paulo. Brazil never lost a match in which the two played together.
Pelé arrived in Sweden still suffering from the effect of a knee injury and seemed unlikely to play although he was now participating in team training sessions. Brazil, after beating Austria and drawing with England, needed to win their final group game against the USSR. Pelé had yet to be selected.
When considering possible future opponents, Brazil coach Vicente Feola praised the Swede Kurt Hamrin, saying “it’s going to be difficult to stop him, he is like a South American.” Nílton Santos, outraged, responded, “Pelé and Garrincha do this shit better than that gringo but you call them individualistic and ill disciplined.” Possibly responding to player pressure, Veola included them both for the USSR game.
In the game against Austria, the Seleção had fielded one black player – now there were three, alongside two of mixed race origin. Brazil were on their way to becoming the first truly multi-racial international football team.
A Pelé-inspired Brazil overcame the dour Sbornaya playing their unique brand of Samba football. The opening minutes of that game in which both Garrincha and Pelé hit the post and Vavá scored have been described as the best three minutes in the history of the game. As Brian Glanville noted, “Genius had overwhelmed mere effort,” as the opposition struggled to deal with the pantherine Pelé. Prior to the fixture, the Russian coach Gavril Kachalin was informed through an interpreter that Brazil were going to play three reserves. He went away happy — he didn’t know that Pelé was one of them!
Pelé became the youngest scorer in the World Cup with the winning goal against Wales in the quarter-finals. Brazil faced France in the semis, a team featuring Just Fontaine, the top marksman in the tournament with eight goals at this stage. However, by the end of the match, Pelé was the man that everybody respected after his stunning hat-trick crushed Fontaine and his compatriots 5-2.
Suddenly, Pelé was the name on everybody’s lips. At the training camp, hordes of young Swedish girls beckoned at the gates begging for his autograph and every reporter wanted to interview this innocent, new, black superstar. It is a tribute to his resilience that he did not lose his focus.
On 29 June 1958, Brazil faced Sweden in the final at the Rasunda Stadium. Despite their outstanding displays, the Seleção still had the trauma of 1950’s Maracanazo hanging over them. Fortune appeared to be against them when they lost the toss and had to don their change strip of blue rather than the vivid patriotism of their yellow kit. Sweden took the lead after four minutes, but Brazil didn’t panic. Pelé hit the post and then Vavá scored two goals to give Brazil the lead. If anybody thought that Pelé would be overawed by playing on the world’s biggest stage, they were about to get their answer.
The second half belonged to one man: Pelé. There seemed to be little danger when on 55 minutes Nílton Santos delivered a cross into the penalty area. Pelé, standing with his back to goal, controlled the ball on his chest and twisted away from the closest marker who was left kicking thin air. He then impudently lifted the ball over the head of the next defender before volleying it past the Swedish ‘keeper. It’s to this very day, arguably the most exquisite goal ever seen in a World Cup final. The level of dexterity, skill, touch and awareness displayed in one so young were simply outrageous.
The appreciative and sporting Swedish crowd now cheered Pelé every time he touched the ball. In the final minute of the game, with Brazil leading 4-2, Pelé conjured up a magical back flick to Mário Zagallo and rose to receive his centre with majestical elevation and power for the fifth and final goal.
As BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme depicted, “Pelé, who has played such a magnificent part in this victory, is just 17.” Peter Lorenzo of The Daily Herald acclaimed, “The wriggling shadow of black lightning with the ball-jugglery of a circus star, leaving a trial of mesmerised head-shaking Swedish defenders in his wake.” So impressed was the King of Sweden that he came down from the stands to personally shake Pelé’s hand.
Brazil’s victory had restored pride to a nation whose identity was intrinsically linked with their football prowess. The curse of the Maracanazo had been lifted. Football had its first black footballing superstar whose majestic skills had ignited the tournament. It is still the most emphatic display of the beautiful game ever exhibited by an individual footballer on such a stage. In 1949, one critic hailed Callas’s operatic performance by proclaiming “even the most sceptical had to acknowledge the miracle that Callas has accomplished.” In Stockholm, in 1958, those words could just as rightfully be applied in heralding Pelé’s stunning virtuosity.
By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp