Destiny ensured Pele and soccer share the same birthday week

Posted by Tim Vickery

Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesPele and soccer have plenty to celebrate on their birthday week.

Pele celebrates his 73rd birthday (Oct. 23) in the same week that organised football reaches the ripe old age of 150.

It was on the evening of Oct. 26, 1863, that a group mostly comprised of representatives of elite schools met in a London pub, setting in motion the process by which the Football Association was founded and the rules of the game codified.

It is a point almost too banal to make: no one in that pub could have had the slightest inkling of the extraordinary global ramifications of what they were doing.

The idea behind team sports was rooted in the needs of the English elite. Chancers and adventurers had conquered an empire -- which now needed solid, trustworthy types for its administration. It needed team players -- which collective sports, of which football soon became the most popular, were expected to help produce.

And from these roots, football has gone on to become the game of the people all over the world -- nowhere more so than in South America, which makes it so appropriate that Pele, a leading contender in the "greatest of all time" debate, came into the world almost exactly halfway during the century-and-a-half narrative.

How did football become so important so quickly in South America? After all, it faced some resistance.

As late as 1920 one of the great Brazilian writers was still mocking the arrival of what he saw as an unnecessary foreign gimmick, destined to be nothing more than a short-term fad. Yet within a few years, football, rather than being considered a foreign imposition, had become an important source of identity in several South American nations.

The first point is that the sport was introduced by the British -- the sailors, railwayman, teachers and textile factory owners who made South America an informal part of the British empire. Football arrived, then, blessed with first-world prestige.

But the second and much more important point is that football was quickly re-interpreted by the locals. This, of course, was a time of mass immigration to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay -- the continent's South Cone, where football caught on with amazing speed.

Cities were mushrooming -- and football was the game of the city. The locals came and had a look at the elite playing football and decided to have a go for themselves. And football, of course, has few barriers to entry.

There is little need for expensive equipment; any shape and size can play the game. But the simplicity of football hides an extraordinary complexity. A player on the ball can pass long or short, in the air or on the ground, backwards, sideways or forwards. He does not even need to pass -- he can choose to go for a dribble. There is such a wide range of options open that the one you choose says plenty about who you are -- as you live, so you play.

Football enables different cultures to express themselves through their own approach to the game. And for the South Americans it was not natural to reproduce the hard-running, muscular Christianity school of the British. The local game was re-invented. It was more balletic, full of twists and turns, ideal for the player with a low centre of gravity. It was more individualistic, stripped of the empire-building ideology of the British elite, or the strength and reliability model of the labour-intensive British working class.

Crucially, this re-interpretation led to international triumphs and recognition for a region starved of such oxygen. If the codification of football dates from 1863, the modern international game can probably be traced back to Uruguay’s triumph in the 1924 Paris Olympics. The South Americans astonished the public with the beauty of their play, and repeated the dose, winning a second gold in Amsterdam four years later. It set off a fever for the game, and it was soon clear that football was outgrowing the Olympic Games. A new competition was needed, open to professionals as well as amateurs.

So the World Cup was born, organised -- and won by Uruguay in 1930.

It is no co-incidence that Uruguay were so quick out of the blocks. The country was the first to have a modern welfare state. Progressive social ideas prevailed -- thus on the football field Uruguay were drawing on resources from all sectors of the population before their neighbours. They won the first Copa America in 1916, in which the top goal scorer was Isabelino Gradin, a black player from a poor background.

It was to be some time before Brazil started picking such players -- but when they did football would never be the same. In late 1932, Brazil won a historic victory away to Uruguay, a 2-1 triumph in which the stars were two young black players from Rio de Janeiro, centre-back Domingos da Guia and centre-forward Leonidas da Silva.

Uruguayan football had just turned professional, and the two giant Montevideo clubs, Nacional and Penarol, knew a good thing when they saw it. They signed Domingos and Leonidas -- an external shock that hastened the push towards professionalism in more conservative Brazil. And without professionalism, and the chance to earn a reasonable living from the game, there is no Pele.

For all those people he thrilled with his exceptional talent: happy birthday, Pele. And for the countless millions whose lives have been enriched by the game: happy birthday, football.

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