Saturday 23 October 2010
Brian Viner: Even at 70 Pele, the perfect 10, is still the undisputed king of Planet Football
The Last Word
Never, in the attainment of three score years and 10, has the word "score" been as appropriate as it is in the case of today's birthday boy, baptised Edson Arantes do Nascimento and known to his family as Dico, but to the rest of us by another four-letter name.
There are those who would anoint another No 10, Diego Maradona, as the finest footballer who ever lived, yet on Pele's 70th birthday it surely amounts to lèse-majesté to deny the great man that distinction. Even my sons, born almost two decades after he retired, know that Pele was the greatest. They know too that the most cherished item in their father's rather out-of-control sporting library, which long ago claimed all available shelf space and now looks like a kind of book version of the Giant's Causeway, is a copy, signed "to Brian, with best wishes", of Pele's 2006 autobiography.
I also have a battered, unsigned copy of Pele: My Life and the Beautiful Game, written with Robert L Fish and first published in 1977, when Pele's remarkable career had entered a glorious twilight at the New York Cosmos. It is notable for Fish's somewhat excitable and syntactically imperfect foreword, in which he tells us that more people know Pele's "name and face than any other person who has ever lived... he has visited 88 countries, has met with 10 kings, five emperors, 70 presidents, and 40 other heads of state, including two Popes".
In Nigeria, Fish adds, "a two-day truce was declared in the tragic war with Biafra so that both sides could see him play, [and] the Shah of Iran waited three hours at an international airport just to be able to speak to him". Not content with hagiography, Fish even veers towards homo-eroticism, declaring Pele a fine poet, an excellent musician, and possessor of "the most perfect physique of any athlete in the world". Oh, and he "speaks fluent Spanish, quite passable French and Italian, and is rapidly attaining fluency in English, as well as being remarkably expressive in his native Portuguese".
Clearly, the publishers went to Robert L Fish for compliments. In fact, Pele's poetry – of which the book includes some examples – is more Mark Hughes than Ted Hughes, and his English has long struck me as surprisingly faltering, given how much time he has spent in the United States. There have been a few scandals and embarrassments, too, along the way, and it would be as wrong now as it was in 1977 to present him as some kind of god. On the other hand, to have been famous for more than 50 years, and still to have such a claim on the affections of the entire footballing world, and to be the bearer of a name perhaps more evocative of great sporting deeds and bygone sporting times than any other bar that of Muhammad Ali, makes Pele worthy of a happy birthday toast from us all.
Practice pays off, but playing helped make Derek deadly
The Johnners Club, run by the Lord's Taverners, congregated in the Long Room at Lord's on Thursday evening, to celebrate the memory of the late Brian Johnston and at the same time launch the England and Wales Cricket Board's spin programme. Spin bowling is cricket's most arcane and enthralling art, yet even now, even in the wake of Shane Warne, its least heralded. Thursday night's marvellous do went some way towards redressing the balance, Christopher Martin-Jenkins expertly conducting an interview with John Emburey and "Deadly" Derek Underwood, who were present in their glad rags, and with Andy Flower and Graeme Swann, who were beamed in from Loughborough, via video link.
The intensive training camps these days represent a rather different cricketing world from that inhabited by Underwood, who pointed out that his own preparation amounted to five overs in the nets, a few catches and a Benson & Hedges. Then again, he was also, when asked by CMJ to declare his proudest achievement, able to cite a couple of 10-wicket hauls in Test matches at Lord's, something no other bowler has ever done. Maybe that's because Deadly's actual Test match preparation was not so much a quick turn in the nets and a smoke but something more valuable than all the sophisticated sports science available at Loughborough, namely county cricket.
Sporting life beyond Rooney Tunes
Like all football enthusiasts, I have been fascinated by the latest burst of Rooney Tunes, the cartoonish capers of Manchester United's unpredictable striker. And yet I can't help wondering what story would warrant as much coverage at the front of our national newspapers as all this has in the back pages. The assassination of a president? Man landing on Mars?
Whatever, it seems important to remember that our beloved game is not just about Manchester United, or indeed the Premier League, and with that in mind let me alert you to the story that dominates the back pages of this week's Hereford Times, where there is not so much as a syllable about a 24-year-old Scouser, but plenty about the thrilling comeback mounted last Saturday by the Football League's bottom club, Hereford United. Managerless following the departure of Simon Davey, and currently in the charge of the club physio, Jamie Pitman, Hereford were 3-0 down at half-time at Northampton Town, yet stormed back to win 4-3. Out here in the Welsh Marches, that's the story of the week.
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