Pele’s Breakthrough Gave Soccer a Black Star

Of course, he endured plenty of criticism for not standing up to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for roughly two decades, beginning in 1964 and lasting through Brazil’s victory in 1970.

“A lot of people look less at what he did on the pitch, and more at what he did off of it,” said Paulo César Vasconcellos, a Brazilian journalist, in the documentary. “Off the pitch, he’s characterized by his political neutrality. At that moment in history, that worked against him.”

But not every prominent athlete needs to be a firebrand. And it would be a mistake to cast judgment on Pelé while failing to recognize the deep history of Brazil and how its particular culture shaped and muted Black citizens for centuries.

He was not Ali. Being Pelé was feat enough to push the world forward. A Black athlete who stirred a soul-deep passion in virtually every corner of the world. A Black athlete not just dominating, not just bringing a breathtaking aesthetic to the pitch, but becoming the mold by which all others are compared.

Now we are on to the next.

As fate would have it, in this year’s World Cup championship match defeat, France’s Mbappé netted a hat trick and won the Golden Boot award, recognizing him as the tournament’s top scorer. Black, lithe like Pelé, speedy like Pelé, possessing touch and alacrity and daring that feels oh-so-very-much like Pelé, Mbappé continues the evolution.

In sports, greatness is transposed, and sometimes polished, player to player, era to era. And in soccer, each generational great, each Mbappé or Messi, each Marta or Abby Wambach, each Maradona or Cristiano Ronaldo, each graceful genius who will play the beautiful game of the future, comes created in the mold of Pelé, the one and only.

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