Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Tirelessly courteous, the small, dapper man kept on greeting, smiling and pressing the flesh until late in the evening. Around him buzzed hangers-on, as florid tapestries and heavy marble spoke of an older kind of hierarchy. When he talked, as gracious as the "royalty" he has become, you felt the vast burden of his name and fame. "Wherever Pelé goes, I carry the name of my country. I never, ever want to disappoint my people."

Listening to the most famous footballer there has ever been at the Brazilian ambassador's residence last week, I sensed a brief twinge of alarm. Had nearly five decades of world-spanning stardom turned his head towards that loopy, late-Thatcher style of third-person self-description? I need not have worried. An astute passage in Pelé: the Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) explains that Pelé has grown into "a mythical figure" with "a life of his own". Edson Arantes do Nascimento, a super-fit 65-year-old from Três Corações, now has the task of shepherding this icon of sporting genius and virtue on its spotlit progress around the world. "This is why I refer to Pelé in the third person." In a Mayfair salon, as in Maracaña stadium, the footwork never falters.

For better, or worse, the business of celebrity now governs huge tracts of cultural life. And in the global economy of renown, Pelé ranks both as the great pioneer, and the great survivor. His autobiography - with its warm voice well caught by his writers, Orlando Duarte and Alex Bellos - will need no hyping to anyone, sports fan or not, who recalls the era when the sublimely skilled Brazilians had the festive spirit of the Sixties at their feet. Here, after all, was a soccer idol who finished his playing career - after 1,283 goals, at a New York Cosmos game in 1977 - with a speech from the pitch that ended "Love, love, love!". The Brazilian poet-singer Caetano Veloso then used his words as a refrain: "Of all the songs written about me, I think that one touches me most".

Purely as a sporting life, his book scores smartly and often. Its first half abounds with scenes that light up the swift ascent of man and team to worldwide acclaim as heralds of a talent-driven, racially inclusive future. When the 17-year-old Santos prodigy struck twice to secure the World Cup for Brazil in (and against) Sweden in 1958, there were no phone lines to ring home. His parents were "embarrassed" by the victory parties; they owned no smart clothes to wear.

Pelé has now weathered almost three decades of exposure since he hung up his boots. Scott Fitzgerald said that there were no second acts in American lives; the same often goes for celebs. Small touches reveal a star forever aware of the dangers that beset him - watching his teammate Garrincha as a stupefied drunk on a carnival float was "one of the saddest things I ever saw".

He escaped that fate, which makes the book of huge interest even to readers indifferent to its story of prowess trouncing prejudice. (When he accepted the sports portfolio in 1995, he was "the first black man to become a government minister in Brazilian history".) Pelé has made political and media enemies, consorted with some deeply dodgy partners ("I was good at football; not so good at business") and, recently, suffered a spell of vividly-described anguish after his son Edinho was arrested for as yet unproven links with a drugs baron. This is not the life of a saint, even if its hero has had three Popes avid to bless him.

It does, however, offer uniquely credible advice about the value of staying "polite and kind", "honest and responsible", in the glare of a million flashbulbs. Pelé notes, after the first of his three World Cup triumphs, that "no one had given us any lessons in how to be celebrities". This book handsomely fills that gap. Every dressing-room, let alone every changing-room, should have one.