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Pele talks to ESPN FC about Brazil's decline, pressure on Neymar, more

Pele feels like Brazil is slipping behind its rivals as the Selecao prepare for the Copa America and Olympics this summer.

In an interview with ESPN FC, the world's most famous soccer player talks about the disappearance of jogo bonito, the upcoming Olympics and Copa America, Neymar, Johan Cruyff and his own standing in the game's pantheon.

Even now, nearly two years removed from Brazilian soccer's darkest day, the pain lingers, etched indelibly like a psychic scar on the face of the country's greatest player.

"I am sad just talking about it," Pele said, referring to the Selecao's epic 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup, a beatdown made all the more soul-crushing by the fact that Brazil was the host nation.

"I cried watching that game and not just because of the score. I cried because I do not know what happened to the joy of Brazilian football."

The man who personified jogo bonito across four World Cups was in New York to promote a new biopic about the provenance of his genius, "Pele: The Birth of a Legend." Now 75, Pele is less sprightly -- a recent hip operation makes the simple act of walking a challenge -- but when it comes to flogging the brand, he is as indefatigable as ever. (In the span of 48 hours, he attended the film's gala premiere, did a half dozen TV interviews, took turns with Usain Bolt cutting the ribbon on the opening of an upscale watch store on Fifth Avenue and held regal sway over a youth soccer clinic.)

But it is in talking about the spiritual home of the modern game where he becomes most passionate, shaking his head about the sad decline of Brazil's once-fearsome reputation.

"Maybe this summer in the Olympics and Copa America, we can remind the world of how Brazil plays soccer," he says, "but it will not be easy. I fear we have lost our way." He is sitting at a table by the window of his hotel room, shafts of fading sunlight from Park Avenue falling across his face and casting it half in shadow.

What follows is an interview for ESPN FC that ranges over his health, family, the death of Johan Cruyff, the Olympics, the future of Brazilian soccer and his standing in the game's pantheon.

David Hirshey: The last time I saw you was a couple of years ago shortly after you had been declared dead by a tweet from CNN...

Pele: [laughs] I think Maradona made up that story!

DH: So how are you feeling?

Pele: OK. I had an operation in Brazil on my right hip and it didn't work, so now I am seeing American doctors to fix it.

[At that point, another visitor, the legendary Brazilian youth coach Wilson Egidio, comes over to greet his old friend and the two engage in a bit of playful banter in Portuguese.]

Wilson Egidio: [pointing to a cane propped up against the wall nearby] Is that yours?

Pele: [laughs] Those are my new soccer shoes.

WE: Have you seen your grandson play yet? [Pele's grandson Malcolm DeLuca plays on Egidio's U-11 team]

Pele: No, but I have seen video. He's got good skills and a strong shot, but I tease him that if he wants to be like his grandfather, he needs to trim down.

Brazil were transcendent in Pele's era, winning three of four World Cups, but have lost their flair in the modern era.

WE: Have you heard about Lais? [Lais Araujo is the first girl to emerge from one of Pele's favorite charities, the Favela Project in Salvador, Brazil, and come to the United States to play soccer.] She's going to University of Florida on a full scholarship and just got called up to the U-20 Brazil World Cup team.

Pele: [beaming] I am very proud of her. Marta can't play forever and our women's team needs new blood.

DH: Not as much as Brazil's men's team...

Pele: Yes, Neymar cannot do it alone. You saw what happened in the World Cup when he couldn't play against Germany.

DH: Why are there not more Neymars in a country that had four players of his quality in one team [Brazil's 1970 World Cup winners] and three in another [the 2002 champions]? Where have all the "Samba Boys" gone?

Pele: Myself, Gerson, Rivelino, and Tostao were all No. 10s and yet [Brazil coach Mario Zagallo] wanted us all on the field at the same time, so he created a formation that could accommodate us. Then in Japan, we had Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo who all had great flair, and we won again. But today we have a coach [Dunga] who doesn't care about individual expression. Or what we call ginga.

(Ginga means "sway" in Portuguese and was originally the exuberant spirit that flowed through the Brazilian game. It dates back to the colonial period when slaves arrived from West Africa to Brazil and developed ginga as a way to keep their minds off their hard labor. Pele was the first player to integrate it into soccer at the 1958 World Cup when, as a 17-year-old debutante, he used his body-swerving skills to run riot against the Soviet Union in the semifinal and Sweden in the final, forever burning the rhythmic style into the global psyche.)

DH: The idea of ginga occupies a pivotal role in the movie. It wasn't until the last two games of the 1958 World Cup, when Brazil was up against physical and direct opponents, that coach Vicente Feola allowed you to throw off the shackles of his disciplined tactics and play with that swagger. Is that true to life?

Pele: Yes, Feola had never trusted his players to express themselves but after a 0-0 draw with England in the group stage, he realized he had to try something different. So he put me and Garrincha in the lineup. Now we have a similar situation with Dunga, but he only has one player with ginga: Neymar.

Neymar will only feature in the Olympics for Brazil, a decision Pele agrees with entirely given that they are hosts.

DH: It was recently confirmed that Neymar will play in the Olympics but not in the Copa America. Do you agree with that decision?

Pele: Yes, we are hosting the Olympics and it is important that we have a good showing so people will stop crying about the World Cup disaster. I see where Dunga only chose four out of 23 members from the World Cup team, but I still worry that he does not have enough creative players to support Neymar and all the pressure will be on him -- just like it was in the World Cup.

DH: Are you suggesting that the likes of Fred and Hulk were not creative players?

Pele: [laughs] They were Scolari's [2014 World Cup coach Luiz Felipe Scolari] kind of players -- they run and they battle but there is no ginga. Other South American countries like Argentina, Chile and even Ecuador now play more beautiful soccer than Brazil and you saw what happened in the last two Copa Americas. We lose to Paraguay on penalties!

DH: Speaking of beautiful soccer, Johan Cruyff passed away not long ago. Did you ever play against him?

Pele: No, he came along after me but I saw him play many times, and I would put him alongside [Franz] Beckenbauer, [George] Best, [Alfredo] Di Stefano and [Cristiano] Ronaldo as the five greatest European players in my lifetime.

DH: Just Europe, not the world?

Pele: In the world, I would also include Maradona and Messi.

DH: Where would you rank yourself in that group?

Pele: I had two periods in my career when I played with Coutinho at Santos in 1962 and with Tostao in the national team in 1970 where I think I was the best. But it is a different game today and Messi and Ronaldo are still playing so the argument is not over.

What was over was the interview. For the second time, Pele's bodyguard shouted at me to "wrap it up" and I sensed by his tone that the bullet-headed gatekeeper wasn't making a suggestion. In years past when I have been with Pele and I was preparing to take my leave, he leaned in for a hug and said "be well, my friend." But on this day, he remained sitting and reached up to clasp my hand before bestowing the usual benediction.

It was only a half-hour later, while having a beer with Egidio in the hotel bar, that it occurred to me why Pele had not stood up. It's the same reason why there's not a hint of grey in his hair or any noticeable excess pounds on his still compact frame.

You cannot be one of the most famous people in the world for almost 60 years without possessing a certain amount of vanity. So Pele waited until all the paparazzi and journalists were long gone before beginning the arduous journey from his hotel room to the front of the hotel, where a black SUV waited to whisk him to his apartment. And now as I glimpsed him clacking painstakingly across the lobby's marble floor using his new "soccer shoes" for balance and leaning heavily on his hulking bodyguard, I realized how difficult it must be for Pele to accept the absence of ginga in his own step.

David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.


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