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Before Pelé, The Beautiful Game Was Just Pretty

For many of the younger generation, Pelé is just an icon. The Brazilian master, who passed away aged 82 on the 29th of December 2022, played football long before many of us were born. 

But such was the impact that Edson Arantes do Nascimento had on football, that his four-letter nickname is synonymous with The Beautiful Game.

Actually, before Pelé, it was just the ‘pretty game’, it took artists like the three-time World Cup winner to upgrade it.

Personally, it was Hollywood that introduced me to the world’s first superstar. Growing up, my mom owned the now-extinct business of a video shop. I was five or six when she took over the shop and as a young film-crazy kid I would devour all sorts of entertainment. 

After hanging up his playing boots in the later 1970s, one of the many things Pelé dipped his toes into post-retirement was the movie business.

My parents had earlier introduced me to all sorts of films, my mom loved musicals, and while my late father did too, he also loved Westerns and World War Two movies, so films like The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and The Bridge Over The River Kwai were part of my education. 

And so in 1981 (or 82), I was excited when Victory (or Escape To Victory as it was known when it was first released in South Africa) came out. 

It starred British acting legend Michael Caine and American superstar Sylvester Stallone, who of course at the time was known to everybody as Rocky Balboa. But the third face on the famous poster was arguably the biggest star of them all, and the one who would have the biggest impact on my life — I just didn’t know it yet — and that of course was Pelé. 

© Lorimar 1981

In brief, the movie was a fictional tale of WW2 prisoners of war who use a football match against Nazi Germany to escape their predicament.

It’s a cult classic and Pelé, despite limited acting talent, and not-so-good English, stole the show. I watched it again recently, and still loved every moment, even though I remained unconvinced that Rocky was good enough to be the goalkeeper.

But I was utterly convinced that Pelé was the greatest footballer I had ever seen.

It wasn’t the only movie he starred in and I also remember A Minor Miracle, where he starred opposite the late great actor and director John Huston in a cheesy children’s film where the football star teamed up with Huston’s priest character to help save an orphanage. It’s schlocky and nonsense, but that didn’t matter to then-ten-year-old me.

Of course, it was also about this time that I got to see my first South African icon, Jomo Sono, play. You can only imagine how excited I was to learn that Jomo and Pelé had been teammates at New York Cosmos, and how serendipitous my pathway into loving football was.

While over the years since I have seen many of Pelé’s games and watched so many documentaries and movies about his life, but those two ‘Hollywood’ movies remain the catalyst for my passion. 

We’ve all heard people talk about the X-Factor, and that what is Pelé truly had. He had the skills to match all the greatest footballers, but he had the charm to win over so many who never witnessed him play.

A lot has and will be written about A Pérola Negra (The Black Pearl), O Rei do Futebol (The King of Football) or O Rei Pelé (The King Pelé) and as long as there is football, a lot more will be written.

There will be comparisons with players from different generations, like there has been with players like Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, etc.

But simply put, Pelé was the greatest… first. He was the pioneer, he did it all before the globalisation of football. He did it all before football was televised to millions worldwide. He was a black superstar in a time when there were very few. 

He opened the doors for thousands of future stars, and while many others would have capitulated under the pressure, he rose to the occasion. 

Rob Delport
Rob Delport
Rob Delport is a walking football encyclopedia, having been a mainstay in the Cape Town football scene for years. Rob has previously worked for SABC and various websites and publications across Africa, as well as being the South African Head Researcher for Football Manager and doing a similar role occasionally for EA Sports FIFA. Highly respected, Rob is now a senior iDiski Times website and newspaper writer, and is also responsible for the newspaper's editorial.