Pelé’s first World Cup memory is of his father crying.
This was 1950. Brazil hosted and rolled teams 4-0, 7-1 and 6-1. Before the last match, against Uruguay, the Brazilian players received gold watches with “For the World Champions” engraved on them. O Mundo’s showed a picture of the Brazilian players under the headline: “These are the world champions.” To say that Brazil were the favorites would falsely suggest that this was some kind of contest. It was just the way the future would unfold in the Maracanã, the largest stadium in the world, which was still an active construction zone.
The match was not televised. That would come four years later. So Pele’s father was listening on the radio. Brazil lost.
Several people committed suicide. Pele’s father cried.
It is known as the Maracanazo. The Tragedy of the Maracana.
Pelé: From adversity to world champion
Nelson Rodrigues, the famous Brazilian playwright, wrote: “Everywhere has its irreparable national catastrophe, something like Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”
Pelé made many more happy World Cup memories. He won it three times. 1970, the first World Cup broadcast in color, is remembered mainly because of his yellow jersey. Pelé is pretty much the reason why the number 10 is ‘The Dude’ in football.
World traveler with football in his heart
My early World Cup memories are equally giddy.
In 1994, I ran in after playing in the woods behind my grandparents’ house and my older cousins watching TV. “Who is That boy?” I asked. Of course it was Alexi Lalas. The US was wearing denim shirts. The opposition wore yellow. It must have been the game against Colombia back then Andres Escobar scored an own goal and signed his own death warrant. I ran to play downstairs in the basement.
In 1998 we lived deep in the jungles of Borneo. We had no television, internet, or ice. Every morning I would get the local newspaper and try to read the World Cup news. In fact, this meant that my parents had to translate every other word and often just stared at the goalscorers. I remember Gabriel Batistuta’s haircut and headband.
In 2002, we went to Bali for part of the World Cup, and I watched in hotel lounges or TVs in the back of restaurants. Before the England v Brazil game, my dad took me to an outdoor bar. I had never been there before.
The whole room was turned upside down when Michael Owen scored. Wanton Britons whipped their half-empty bottles over their heads. Beer spilled everywhere. It was sticky. Then, of course, they got much grumpier back then. A handful of people dressed in yellow went forward and danced with a Brazilian flag. Everyone else was booed. I beamed. I had never seen other football fans.
What I especially remember from that World Cup is . An Indonesian man is bouncing a soccer ball. “Kapan Indonesia masuk Piala Dunia?” he asks the camera. When will Indonesia make a World Cup? He kicks the ball to a poster of a chubby Alessandro Del Piero. The ball sucks into the poster and Del Piero comes to life. They kind of play one-on-one, and Del Piero says some things in stilted Bahasa. I’m still not sure what the ad is trying to sell. High fructose corn syrup, I assume. My brothers and I still quote it to each other. Kapan Indonesia masuk Piala Dunia?
The American experience
Nowadays I watch World Cup matches in 4K. Recently I saw one on YouTube TV. On my phone. In a jet plane. About 10,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico. The future is wild.
But sometimes it can feel like we’ve moved from analog to digital. It’s a little too slippery, too sterile. Remember when players had mullets? Those old games just feel a bit more tactile in memory. Like watching in 35mm or listening to vinyl through a Marantz receiver. So what I tried to do, in addition to Exile Content Studios, iHeartRadio and my co-host Nando Vila with The best football podcast in the worldhad dug deep into the nostalgia of pre-photoshopped World Cups and enjoyed a bit of the grit.
After all, Pelé’s father cried. Hopefully your first World Cup memories were a little less traumatic.
The next episode of The best football podcast in the world is all about Mágico González and how his fun approach to the game has made him a ‘cult hero’.
Listen exclusively below and tune in on Tuesday, December 13 to hear the full episode.