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A Great Revelation Was Afoot
Ian Thomsen
November 29, 1999
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November 29, 1999

A Great Revelation Was Afoot


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The world's greatest soccer player is a child. He is sitting on the grass as if on vacation from school, not even 150 pounds, squinting into the sunlight. "A skinny little black boy," Pel� will say of himself years later.

In this and other photographs from the time of his World Cup debut, the teenage Pel� offers little hint of the man who will win three world championships and score a Ruthian 1,280 goals in 1,362 games. His shyness and undeveloped features are products of an impoverished childhood spent in Baur�, a railroad junction in southern Brazil. Pel� grew up without shoes, and thus his precious feet are flattened and wide and much older in appearance than the rest of him.

When he was 10 years old, Pel� and his friends stole peanuts from a warehouse with the dream of cashing them in for soccer boots. They were hiding their loot in a cave when it began to rain heavily, and they were overtaken by a mudslide that swallowed up one of the boys. The survivors formed a team known as the Shoeless Ones.

Pel�'s emergence at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden was as dramatic as any sporting event of the century. Now, four decades later, Brazil, with its record four World Cup titles, is the undisputed leader of the world's most popular sport, but until Pel� came along, the Brazilians had not won anything.

At 17 he was the youngest player in the tournament. At that time his great talent was just a rumor internationally. An injury to his right knee, suffered in a pretournament tune-up, kept him on the bench for Brazil's first two World Cup games. The tension within him grew as he waited for the chance that might not come. Then the team doctor cleared him to play, and he was inserted into the lineup for the final game of the opening round. Within four minutes of his debut he was banging at the door of the Soviet goal, rattling the woodwork with a terrific shot. Pel� assisted on the second goal in Brazil's 2-0 win. In the quarterfinals four days later he scored the only goal in a victory against Wales—"my most unforgettable goal," Pel� would say years later, because it set Brazil on a course for its first world title and marked his first step in becoming the world's most famous team athlete.

In the semifinal Pel� unveiled all his skills. After France tied the game at one in the ninth minute—the first goal allowed by Brazil in the tournament-Pel� grabbed the ball out of the net and sprinted back upfield for the restart. There were still 81 minutes to play, and here was this teenager acting like a quarterback in a two-minute drill. "Let's go! Let's get started! Let's quit wasting time!" he shouted, waving his elder teammates into position. They stared at him, and then, together, they scored the next four goals, three of them by Pel�.

Before he completed his hat trick, Pel� was tackled viciously on his frail right knee. "I went down, my knee hurting like the devil, and then rolled over to glare at the player with pure hatred," he would recall. No substitutions were permitted in those days; had Pel� retreated to the sideline, his team would have played with 10 men and the tackier would have been rewarded. Pel� would have none of that. Minutes later, when he saw the same defender closing in on him, Pel� flipped the ball over the villain's head—a "hat" move, as the Brazilians called it-scampered around him and blasted the ball into the net before it touched the ground.

Over the three concluding rounds of the World Cup, culminating in Brazil's 5-2 victory over host Sweden in the final, young Pel� would score six of his country's 11 goals. After many of them he would sob uncontrollably: He could not quite believe that all would turn out well. To him the game moved slowly, as in a trance, and each time he achieved his objective it had the effect of shaking awake the barefoot child from his feverish dream, which in fact was not a dream at all.