I recently watched the film, "Pelé: Birth of a Legend," and was so taken with the story of this premier soccer player from Brazil, that I watched it a second time. I had read bits and pieces about Pelé 's life over the years and can well remember going to Yankee Stadium with my father to watch him ply for the Cosmos when he first came to America. I have long felt at an intuitive level that sport at its highest level reveals universal spiritual truths. I am not dogmatic in this assertion and do not obsessively seek to impose this paradigm on every likely occasion. However, Pelé 's story clearly shows that matter is something that spirit is doing and that the physical is an incarnation of an invisible spirit.
Pelé grew up in poverty in the state of San Paulo shining shoes. His father was a footballer and at an early age he played on the dirt with a sock stuffed with a newspaper and tied with a string or a grapefruit. He went to Santos and played for their team when he was fifteen. His first appearance in the World Cup was in 1958 when he was just seventeen. The Brazilian style of soccer is totally unique. They call it "Joga Bonito!"- the art of playing beautifully. Brazil advanced through the early qualifying rounds of the Cup and was pitted against Sweden in the finals. The coach of the team believed that only a set, organized, and predictable defense would defeat Sweden. The film beautifully depicts what changed his rigid attitude. One morning as the Brazilian players are having breakfast, looking forlorn and defeated, Pelé begins bouncing a soccer ball on his chest, off his head, and down his back in the cafeteria. There is a lighthouse in the distance and he points to his players and says "let's go." The players arise in unison and begin advancing the ball in the cafeteria, through the kitchen, down the hallways of the hotel and out into the open space leading to the lighthouse. As they spontaneously dance with the ball and improvise on the fly, the coach watches their brilliance and pure joy. Before the final match he tells his players to forget everything he has said and just play Brazilian soccer- "Joga Bonito!" He says he doesn't know if they will win, but everyone will witness a beautiful style of play. Sweden scores first in the finals, but then Pelé and his teammates come alive as one. The beauty of the film is that the footage of the young actors is superimposed with actual black and white footage of Pelé and his team. The artistry, the joyful exuberance, the spontaneous glory of the Brazilians is a delight to behold. Pelé scored twice and Brazil overwhelmed Sweden 5-2. Pelé was the youngest player ever to win a World Cup. As Brazil is winning on the field, the film switches back to his father and mother and brothers and the whole town witnessing the game. Soccer for Brazil and other countries is a national sport. Pelé 's victory was a triumph for all of Brazil. Their style of playing was not just a physical technique but the embodiment of the Brazilian soul. Pelé went on to win two more World Cups, and even under enormous pressure to leave his homeland and play for other teams, he remained with Santos where he had started. His inner essence, that style that was particular to him and his teammates, was the style and grace of Brazil itself- "Joga Bonito!"
I was genuinely inspired as the credits rolled on the screen. Pelé said once that God had given him a gift. He had to practice hard, of course, and he once said that his father would exhort him everyday with the words "repeat, repeat." Yet what was unique about Pelé is that he remained true to himself- to his own style. He said to a teammate before the finals with Sweden when his coach was unrelenting in his approach: "I can't play like this." Each of us is God's unique creation. Each of us has been given a gift that is unique to us and the challenge in our life journey is to stay true to who we are and let that gift find material embodiment. "Joga Bonito!"