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Diary: Kickin ' it with Brazil's next superstars

David Hirshey Jun 17, 2014
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Apr 7, 2014

The King reigns again in New York City

Even now, at 73, with an artificial hip and a pinched nerve in his back, Edson Arantes do Nascimento can still glide through packed defenses. His movements are more deliberate than those from his storied pomp, but the muscle memory remains intact, enabling him to evade a mob of grasping fans and barking paparazzi with the same economy of motion he used to elude Italy's famed catenaccio in the 1970 World Cup final.

Pele, the original "Great One," was in New York last week to launch his new book "Why Soccer Matters," at a Barnes $amp; Noble on Fifth Avenue and, as always, he was late. By the time he turned up at nearly 6 p.m., the line outside the store stretched two full city blocks with some 1,000 fans having camped out as early as 3:30 the previous morning. They had come from far and wide for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to have an intimate moment with their hero as he signed his latest autobiography -- his sixth in a career that spanned 21 years, three World Cup titles, 1,283 goals and almost as many endorsements.

As the co-author of one of those memoirs -- "Pele’s New World," which was about his years with the New York Cosmos -- I've spent more time than the average stadium waiting for Pele, but it's always been worth it. I am part of the rare American born-and-bred generation to have personally experienced the otherworldly joy of seeing soccer’s first global superstar conjure magic with his dancing feet. Yet judging by the median age of those in line outside the bookstore -- many of them children in retro Cosmos jerseys or twentysomethings in Seleção shirts -- having borne witness to Pele's artistry matters little in an era of grainy YouTube clips.

To the modern generation, Pele is the pre-Internet legend who preceded Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the eternal “Greatest Of All Time" debate. Or else he is the old Brazilian guy who peddles Viagra, looking into the camera and declaring, "Talk to your doctor, I would!"

As I mused over the motivations of the assembled masses, the man himself suddenly materialized, emerging from a black SUV in a tan sport coat, white shirt and black tie. His famous bullet-shaped body was slightly stooped and shrunken but there was a sprightliness to his gait that belied his age.

A roar went up, followed by chants of "Pay-lay! Pay-lay!" and "The King, The King!" as he waved regally before darting into the bookstore and up the escalator to the floor where the signing was to take place. There, a feral horde of photographers awaited him, jostling for position, cameras whirring and flashes exploding. Pele sized them up in the same try-to-stop-me-if-you-can manner he did all his opponents. A quick dip of his left shoulder, a razor cut to his right, and he was in the clear, heading toward his unofficial welcoming party, featuring a couple of dozen family members, business associates, friends and friends of friends. They, too, had been waiting for him but unlike the fans on the sidewalk, they bathed in the warmth of sepia-tinged memories as well as their proximity to a man whose popularity at its peak eclipsed even that of the Pope's.

"Look at this photo," said João De Matos, a dapper, silver-haired man who had been introduced to me as “The King of Brazil in New York.” Fumbling with his iPhone, De Matos focused on a photo of a boyish-looking Pele with his arm around him. "We met in 1966 when he played his first game in New York for Santos,” said De Matos, who owns a string of Brazilian restaurants and travel agencies, and created Brazil Day, New York's answer to Carnivale. "We've been like brothers ever since."

When De Matos glimpsed Pele enter the VIP area, he rushed to greet him but he was a step too late. His face fixed in that familiar intoxicating smile, Pele had pivoted sharply, scanning the room for that sliver of space he could surge through to hug his oldest daughter, Kelly Cristina, and her four children. Several of the well-wishers tried to hurl themselves in his path but he sidestepped the tackles with the kind of balance and determination that Brazil's latest savior, Neymar, would do well to emulate.

After kissing Kelly Cristina and each of his grandchildren, he embraced the Brazilian youth coach Wilson Egidio who kidded him about being late.

"Yes," Pele parried, "but being late is better than being dead." And then he let out the full-throated laugh of a man who had nutmegged the Grim Reaper himself. And in a way, he had. The previous week, someone on the CNN morning show "New Day" had tweeted: "BREAKING: Brazilian former soccer player Pele dies."

Pele was on board a just departed flight from London when the news went viral so he was blissfully unaware of his reported demise until the plane landed six hours later in New York. His representatives in Brazil, however, had seen the original tweet and within an hour they had forced CNN to retract it and issue an apology.

“Thank God I wasn't on Twitter when the story broke," said Kelly Cristina, "I would have been hysterical. But by the time my father called me, we could both joke about it. I asked him if heaven is all it's cracked up to be and he said, 'Yes, it's just like Brazil.’"

Unlike his previous death by social media -- three years ago, an elephant nicknamed after him met an unfortunate end and the ensuing headlines neglected to mention that the Pele in question was a pachyderm, not a soccer player -- the timing of the CNN report was particularly sensitive. Ever since FIFA awarded the World Cup to Brazil in 2007, Pele has been crisscrossing the globe to spread the gospel of an event his family views as the final exclamation point on his legacy. "For the last seven years, his whole life has been pointing toward this moment," Kelly Cristina explained, "and it hasn't been easy on him with all the protests and attacks on his character."

Back home, some commentators have portrayed their country's most celebrated icon as a shill for the establishment, more concerned with furthering the image of Brazil as the spiritual home of joga bonito than with addressing the soaring income inequality that has divided the nation. All of this directed at a man who grew up in the poorest of slums learning the game with a ball made of bundled rags.

Unfortunately for Brazil's favorite son, Pele's gift for lead-footed opinions matches his glorious ball wizardry. 20 years ago, he picked Colombia to win the 1994 World Cup -- they finished bottom of their group -- and, recently he dropped this gem regarding his nation’s World Cup demonstrations:

"The country can fill up with tourists and receive all the benefits. And Brazil's own people are spoiling the party."

Put far more eloquently by Romario, the great Brazilian striker of the 1990s: "Pele's a poet when he shuts his mouth."

But what his critics fail to grasp about Pele is that for all his corporate hucksterism, there is nothing calculated about his feelings toward the Beautiful Game.

They are inextricably linked to both his and Brazil's sense of self. That is why he is pushing himself so hard at an age when most sporting deities would be content to toss back a few bottles of Ensure. In the past two weeks alone, Pele has touched down in UAE, Japan, Hungary, Poland, Russia, England, Brazil and the United States. It's as if he senses this could be his last lap of honor.

"I am tired,“ Pele tells me when I am finally ushered past the velvet ropes to his makeshift throne, a plain black chair behind a desk equipped with a dozen Sharpie pens. He is savoring the few minutes of peace before the siege of book buyers would commence.

"But at least you're alive," I replied.

"I'm from Três Corações," he said, "I'm a man of three hearts. I'm not so easy to kill."

I told him that when I first heard about the death hoax, I was sure Maradona was behind it.

"He has been trying to kill me for 30 years," he said, laughing. "Fortunately, I am still here." I went on to say that the list of great players he has alienated is no longer confined solely to his Argentine nemesis. Only a couple of years ago, he claimed that Lionel Messi was not deserving of mention in any discussion of the all-time pantheon and that, in fact, the four-time World Player of the Year wasn't even as good as Neymar.

"You have to remember that Neymar is Brazilian and he played for my old club, Santos," he replied sheepishly.

Has the fact Neymar left Santos for Barcelona last year caused him to revise that opinion? "I don't like the way Neymar dives so much in Spain,” he said, “but he is still Brazilian and our most important player in the World Cup. I want him to be the best."

And he wants the same for his beloved homeland. "This is a great opportunity to showcase our country and I am confident the Brazilian people will not let the demonstrators damage everything we have worked so hard for," he said. "It is important we have an excellent World Cup."

Not that he plans on racking up the frequent flyer miles to see many matches. “If I had my way, I would only attend the first and last games and watch the rest at home with my family. I don't need to see lots of games to know what the World Cup is like. I have won three of them."

Just then, one of Pele's associates comes over and asks if he would do one more photo-op before he starts signing books. He stands and walks several feet into an open area just in front of the rope that separates him from the scrum of photographers. As they yell in a cacophony of Portuguese and English to turn his head this way or that way, Pele lifts his right arm and punches the air. "Go Brazil!" he shouts.

For all that he was, and all that he still means to millions of adoring soccer fans, it’s hard not to hope they achieve one last goal for him.

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