The 1970 World Cup was almost a religious experience. The tournament has gone down in football history as the greatest, most exhilarating exhibition of attacking play ever, and anyone who dares to say otherwise, or so the argument goes, is either “too young to remember” or “too fickle to be taken seriously.” This was the stage on which Brazil’s legendary striker Pele redefined the game, playing football with more exuberance and creativity than anyone before or since. It was the moment when the cult of the Brazilian – football’s worship of anyone with decent ball skills and a life story that starts with kicking soda cans in a favela – took root.
When non-football fans think about football, they generally think about Brazil. That has a lot to do with Pele, arguably the best player of all-time, and – largely because he devoted the last three or four years of his career to self-promotion – a recognizable star. People still love him even though, in the years since 1977, when his playing career formally ended with his second retirement, he’s demonstrated just how banal a retired athlete with guaranteed lifetime fame and a cushy administrative position can be. His post-career achievements include winning FIFA’s Player of the Century gong amid controversy – it took official intervention to stop Diego Maradona from walking away with the title – and deflecting criminal charges after his company robbed UNICEF. Still, clips of his greatest goals are a must for any TV montage worth its salt, and the image of a shirtless Pele lifting the World Cup is one of football’s most iconic.