DOHA, Qatar—Pelé hangs over this World Cup. He is not here, no, but there was a report the Brazilian legend had been moved to hospice, and that caused an outpouring of adulation and well wishes. Thankfully, a hospital in São Paulo refuted the report in words freighted with the unavoidable weight of history.
“Edson Arantes do Nascimento was admitted to the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein last Tuesday for a reassessment of chemotherapy therapy of the colon tumour, identified in September 2021,” read the statement. “He is still undergoing treatment and the state of health remains stable. He has also had a good response to respiratory infection care, with no worsening of the condition in the last 24 hours.”
Stable is good. Still, Pelé is 82, had a tumour removed last year and will only live forever in the metaphorical sense, so outpourings of adulation are OK. On Twitter, French megastar Kylian Mbappé simply wrote: “Pray for the king.” Pelé long ago achieved a sainted quality, with his playing legend and easy sense of grace. So for now, it is like he hangs over the tournament.
The spirit of Pelé is here, too, and not just in the yellow of Brazil.
Lionel Messi has become the sainted figure in Qatar. Argentina’s fans came en masse and every match is a swaying, singing, adoring devotional. This is Messi’s final World Cup, and there is a nostalgia to him that can’t apply to his contemporaries. Cristiano Ronaldo is celebrating goals he didn’t score, and Brazil’s Neymar is, as Pelé once more or less described him, complicated. In the non-sainted category, the end of Uruguay’s Luis Suárez at the World Cup was celebrated in real time.
But Messi is finding joy in it. In the round of 16 against Australia Saturday night, it was still scoreless when he decided to harry Aussie left back Aziz Behich. He chased Behich, outmuscled him, and as the two men reached the sideline Behich reached back and grabbed Messi’s jersey, and they jostled. Behich stared Messi down with angry eyes — probably a mistake, in hindsight.
Off the throw-in, a high ball came flying back to Messi and he welcomed it at his feet, quieting it with grace. He waited a moment for a yellow jersey to approach and then took off toward the box, passing the ball to his left and running still with those whirring little legs of his. And when an Australian defender up ahead stepped out toward the ball, Messi had found a space that nobody else occupied and veered into it, and the ball found him again. From there, he didn’t need a cannon. He just stroked it precisely into the corner of the net, and Argentina led.
That wasn’t the best part, though. The best part was how at 35, in his 1,000th match, Messi was electrified again. His second half was full of clever attacks, defensive jabs, a run down the middle of the field with the ball stuck to his feet like in the old days, the bustle through the minefield. Messi conjured chances for teammates, too — Lautaro Martínez was tin-footed more than once.
It was thrilling to watch. Pelé got the stuffing kicked out of him regularly, but he always said to play with joy, and Messi was playing with a ferocious joy, which isn’t always easy when your nation rides on your shoulders. Maybe it’s easier when your nation is lifting you up.
“The union and bond we have is something beautiful, and it’s what the national team should be,” Messi said later. “It’s unbelievable how they live every single match, how they transmit passion, energy and joy. We’re thankful.”
“We really worked hard not to be in awe of him,” said Aussie coach Graham Arnold, “but he’s remarkable.”
Messi is easing into that Pelé-like iconic slot now, too: rarely one to cause controversy, generally graceful, a global business brand. (Though in fairness, Pelé wouldn’t even endorse beer and Messi, who gives less thought to the health of the young people, endorses anything from beer to Saudi Arabia.) And people want Messi to win.
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Mbappé is the closest thing to Pelé at a World Cup, again.
In Russia four years ago, the Frenchman became the first teenager since Pelé to score in a World Cup final. Sunday night, he broke a tie with the Brazilian great for the most World Cup goals before the age of 24 with two absolutely cartoonish strikes in a 3-1 win over Poland. On the first, Mbappé delivered with such unshakable authority that you’d swear he knew it was in before he struck it; on the second, he simply turned in a tiny patch of space and zoomed the ball as if he was a god with a hammer: top corner, a rocket.
“He scored fantastically,” said Polish coach Czesław Michniewicz. “No coach knows a recipe to stop Mbappé right now.”
Mbappé is like an F-16 in a game full of biplanes. Like Pelé, he has skill overlaid on a physical dynamism that makes him feel like a man from the future. Pelé finished with 12 goals in 14 World Cup matches; Mbappé now has a preposterous nine — the same number as Messi, one more than Maradona or Ronaldo — in 11.
When Pelé has spoken about Messi’s place among the greats, he tends to make it a technical conversation. Maradona could use both feet and his head, but didn’t have Pelé’s athleticism, and Messi has less ambidextrousness and doesn’t head the ball. As a player, Mbappé’s outrageous all-over talent and preternatural calm have been compared to Pelé.
In a way, this is their tournament right now: Messi as the emotional favourite, Mbappé as the best player in the world amid an uncertain field full of hopefuls. Hopefully in São Paulo, Pelé is watching, serene and content, eager to see how the tournament ends.
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