Liam Mackey: All hail the King of Kings

My favourite football-related line this week appeared in an agency report from the United States which archly observed that a newly unveiled statue of Pele in Rio “bore a close resemblance” to the great man.

Liam Mackey: All hail the King of Kings

My favourite football-related line this week appeared in an agency report from the United States which archly observed that a newly unveiled statue of Pele in Rio “bore a close resemblance” to the great man.

You might think that such should probably be the least one is entitled to expect of a life-size sculpture of a living legend but, as we know, from Georgie to Maradona, football has had a somewhat troubled relationship with this particular art form, as exemplified by the infamous tribute to Ronaldo at Madeira Airport which contrived to make him look less like his perfect airbrushed self and more like our own Niall Quinn, albeit just after the long fellow has perhaps been dealt a sharp rap on the back of the head with a rubber mallet.

The new statue of Pele is by no means the first of its kind, and not just in his native Brazil. Reflecting his stature as a football icon and global ambassador for the game, the planet is liberally strewn with solid, three-dimensional representations of ‘O Rei’ including a gold-plated one in Kolkata which captures him in mid-overhead kick.

Since that was unveiled at a time when Pele was the marketing face of Viagra, the tabloids had a field day with their headlines and photo-captions: here was proof, they chortled, that he could still “get it up” and “get his leg over.”

Funnier by far from the same period was the experience of colleague Paul Lennon who sat in on a conference call interview with Pele, prior to which all the journalists taking part had been sternly warned that they would be allowed only three questions each, one of which had to be about The Product.

Pele was clearly on message too because when our man made bold to squeeze in an additional football question, he found himself being reprimanded down the line by one of the most recognisable voices in the world: “But, Paul, you have not yet asked me about erectile dysfunction.”

One to tell the grandkids, for sure.

I thought I’d stumbled on another one for the ages myself when I was fortunate enough to interview Pele during a promotional visit he made to Dublin in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup. “There will never be another Pele,” he assured me, “because my father” – and here he smiled and mimed a scissors with his fingers – “has had the snip”.

Unfortunately, any thoughts I might have been entertaining about another world exclusive for ‘Scoop’ Mackey and The Sunday Press were rather rudely undermined when, even in those pre-Google days, a cursory flick through the clippings file was enough to confirm that this was a little riff he was happily rolling out for pretty much every journalist who came within hailing distance of him at the time.

A footballer's life: 2 Stephen Henderson

The unveiling of the latest statue, at the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Association, is the first in a series of events which will mark the 50th anniversary of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph, in which Pele opened the scoring in the 4-1 victory over Italy in the final with a towering header.

You are sure to be reading and hearing much more about that tournament as the summer approaches, with few who remember it unlikely to be moved from their position (still shared by this then 11-year-old distant observer) that here was the greatest World Cup of them all, won by the greatest team ever, starring the greatest player of all time. (Oh, and not forgetting the greatest team goal ever scored: the dazzling fourth in the final, with flying full-back and captain Carlos Alberto supplying the coup de grace from a telepathic Pele pass after a multi-player build-up).

Clodoaldo, who initiated that move with a mesmerising bit of keep-ball deep in his own half, was at Thursday’s ceremony in Rio, along with some of the other stars of that magnificent team, including goal-a-game Jairzinho.

Sadly, Pele, whose deteriorating health means he is now unable to walk unaided, was there only in his own gloriously retro image: a full-colour version, in the iconic canary yellow and cobalt blue strip, of his 29-year-old self as he was in 1970, the year that marked his third World Cup win – the only player still to do so - having sensationally made his debut on the biggest stage at the age of just 17 in 1958, scoring twice in the final when Brazil beat Sweden 5-2.

While I can just about get my head around the notion that the rock gods of the swinging 60s are now in their creaking 70s – as one wag recently noted, it’s about time we started seriously considering what sort of world we’re going to leave Keith Richards – the irrefutable fact that Pele will turn 80 in October still somehow seems to defy logic and common sense, if not the very laws of nature.

But that’s only because memory and, now thankfully, YouTube, ensure we still have access to ample documentary evidence of Pele as an athlete and footballer in the prime of his life, a genius for whom almost nothing seemed impossible on the field of play.

For sure, there are compelling cases to be made for Messi and Maradona and Best as the GOAT. (And, very early days, I know, but if we’re talking about brand-new potential successors, it has to be said that this boy Haaland looks like he could go a long way too).

But Pele was sui generis. And to those who are always quick to suggest that the game was slower, less sophisticated and, in many ways, less demanding in his day, well, all I can say is that since he was head and shoulders above the best the rest of the world could offer at the time, it’s simply scary to think of how much a player of his supernatural ability would thrive in an era of sports science, immaculate pitches and enhanced refereeing protection.

He was and still is the King of Kings.

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