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Pelé, a Name That Became Shorthand for Perfection

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Tostão, his old teammate, has said that Brazilian players learn to separate themselves from their identities — that the nicknames by which so many earn their money and their fame grow to be a type of barrier to guard the person from the mania that surrounds them. Pelé added a 3rd layer: his nickname, his trademark, became a synonym not for greatness and even for excellence but for an unimpeachable, scarcely attainable type of perfection.

All of that had been built not on what people had seen — apart from in those unsteady highlights — but on what that they had heard, on what that they had read, on what had been passed right down to them by word of mouth. It was enough to make opponents relish facing him and to attract fans, hundreds upon hundreds of them, to his games, meaningless or not.

That may, after all, have been an not possible standard to fulfill; it’s telling, with Pelé, that he consistently met those soaring expectations.

“We went up together to go a ball,” the Italian defender Giacinto Facchetti said after playing him. “I used to be taller, had a greater leap. After I got here back down, I looked up in astonishment. Pelé was still there, within the air, heading that ball. It was like he could stay suspended for so long as he desired to.” Facchetti’s teammate Tarcisio Burgnich was more circumspect. “I told myself he’s product of skin and bones, like everyone else,” he said. “I used to be flawed.”

The Benfica goalkeeper Costa Pereira met Pelé within the 1962 Intercontinental Cup, the predecessor of the Club World Cup, a gathering between the European and South American champions. “I arrived hoping to stop an awesome man,” he said. “I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the identical planet as the remainder of us.”

That status had been established by the point Pelé arrived in Mexico for the 1970 World Cup. He had already done the whole lot there was to do: He had scored a thousand goals; he had broken countless records; he had decorated the sport with limitless moments of wonder. He was the best there had ever been.

But that was the primary likelihood that hundreds of thousands needed to see him properly, almost for the primary time, not only in a hazy glimpse but in full, oversaturated color. That pass, his final act before he was hoisted onto his teammates’ shoulders, the World Cup in his hands, was not especially spectacular. It was not particularly complex. What made it special, though, what makes it last, was his timing. Pelé’s timing was perfect.

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