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What matters to Pele

Aabhas Sharma 

Pele and Brian Winter
Celebra (Penguin)

304 pages

Most football fans will vouch for the fact that when Edson Arantes do Nascimento - better known as Pele - talks one shouldn't pay too much attention. The all-time Brazilian great has a knack of saying things that don't make sense. For instance, he once predicted that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000. Then, in the 2002 World Cup he claimed that England midfielder Nicky Butt was the best player of the tournament.

He also claims that he has scored 1,283 goals in his distinguished career, but the sobering reality is that he scored 757 "official" goals. He counts a lot of goals he scored in a military football competition when he played for the Sixth Coast Guard! Nevertheless, 757 is still a staggering number of goals - and Pele undeniably is one of the greatest footballers of all time.

So when Pele talks about why football matters in his new book titled Why Soccer Matters, you can't help but be a little sceptical. Co-authored by Brian Winter, Why Soccer Matters is like an abridged biography of Pele that is narrated against the backdrop of five football World Cups.

Pele chooses five competitions that had a lasting impact on him as an individual and on Brazil as a football nation. The first is 1950 when Brazil was expected to win the World Cup at home but lost to Uruguay in the final (not too similar to 2014; at least back then Brazil played with the flair, swagger and exuberance that is associated with the team). Then there are the 1958, the 1962 and the 1970 World Cups - when Pele was in the team that won the World Cup three times. Finally, there are the 1994 and the 2002 World Cups when Brazil was crowned word champions for the fourth and the fifth time respectively.

There are two better and comprehensive written on Pele - Once in a Lifetime and Pele: The Autobiography - that give an insight into Pele's life. If you've read either of those two books, then you won't find anything new in Why Soccer Matters.

Some would say Pele was football's first official superstar - although fans of recently deceased Argentine great Alfredo di Stefano would seriously beg to differ. Pele went on to win three World Cups, which arguably put him on a pedestal; the stories behind winning those three tournaments are documented in detail.

There aren't any controversial comments or moments on which Pele sheds light. Pele in the latter part of his career played for Cosmos FC, and he talks in detail about those years. He talks of how important a role he played in popularising soccer in the United States.

Incidentally, the stories of the World Cup - particularly 1950 - in which Pele didn't play are far more interesting than the ones in which he did play. For instance, after Brazil's loss to Uruguay in 1950, Pele says, the whole country came together. I am not sure if the royal thrashing Brazil received at the hands of Germany in 2014 would have the same kind of effect on the country and its footballers. But Pele in the book talks of that loss having a monumental effect on him individually, as well as on the whole country.

He talks of journalists who equated it to a disaster on the scale of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! But that's Pele for you - slightly exaggerating, romanticising the details and making it sound larger than life.

The chapter on the 1994 World Cup is more about Pele's career at Cosmos than the actual World Cup. In fact, barely two pages have been dedicated to the actual tournament, with the rest all about Pele, Cosmos and the state of soccer in the United States.

Pele's got a good writer on board in Mr Winter, who is a journalist with Reuters. Mr Winter keeps most of the chapters short, and the book is quite an easy read. However, the title is certainly misleading. You might think - like I did - that the book is about what role soccer or the World Cup has played over the years when in fact it's a breezy autobiography of Pele. Why Soccer Matters to Pele would have been a more appropriate title. With the 2014 edition over, if you're suffering from post-World Cup blues, read Why Soccer Matters to keep you occupied till the European football season starts. Be warned, though. As has always been the case where Pele is concerned: it's all about Pele, and no one else.

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First Published: Tue, July 22 2014. 21:25 IST