“We are not going to lose,” declared mature goalie Antonio “Tota” Carbajal to a throng of Brazilian, Mexican, and international journalists in Viña Del Mar on the last Tuesday of May 1962 in his fourth World Cup. His bold prophecy reeked of grandiloquence and bluff, but at the same time, served as a much-needed pep talk for an embattled Mexican soccer team, who faced defending world champions Brazil and Pelé in their opening match of the Chile World Cup.
Mexico’s preparations for the tournament had been ill-tempered, with a 2-0 defeat against Czechoslovakia and a 8-0 hammering by the English in London. In addition, Mexico’s World Cup record was not distinguished: they had lost to Brazil at both the 1950 and 1954 World Cups, also in opening games, at 4-0 and 5-0 respectively. Mexico’s grandest achievement on the biggest stage had been a paltry 1-1 draw against Wales at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
“Though players form the Mexican team with ordinary fútbol, a lack of ball domination and not a bit of depth in play,” read a damning verdict in leading Brazilian daily Jornal do Brasil before the game. “Two players stand out: [Raúl] Cárdenas, who knows how to use the ball well and [Salvador] Reyes, who has a notion of striker play. The other players are commoners of limited ability, who only do the trivial: defenders block and strikers shoot towards goal.”
Those denizens of sterile soccer turned out to be unfazed when playing Brazil the next day. The brave Mexicans squandered a handful of good opportunities and forced Brazil into a tactical rethink to conceal the weary legs of its veterans with Mario Lobo Zagalo playing a far deeper role than anticipated in Brazil’s 4-3-3 system.
At 21, Pelé was the best soccer player in the world.
For almost an hour, the Mexicans defended courageously before Pelé undid them. With a simple but brilliant cross from the right, he picked out an unmarked Zagalo, who headed the first goal. Then, after 73 minutes, Pelé indefinitely titled the match in Brazil’s favor with a goal of stupendous proportions, a right-footed solo past four defenders and a ferocious left-footed strike.
At 21, Pelé was now the best soccer player in the world, highlighting his metamorphosis from a skinny 5’8″ teenager, whose nifty skills up front and tears on Nilton Santos’s chest had conquered Sweden in 1958, into a more cerebral and more dynamic athlete, who formed the lynchpin of Brazil’s starting lineup.
In the first half, Pelé showed a sense of implicit egoism, holding up play and caressing the ball in lieu of quick exchanges and combinations with Vava, Garrincha, and Zagalo. He hit the woodwork with a scorching free kick from just outside the box. After the break, Brazil upped the pace with Pelé gravitating towards the ball frequently. He showed pace, poise, strength, balance, and incredible vision to guide the defending world champions to a relatively easy 2-0 victory.
He charged through the Mexican defense with the ball obediently dancing around his foot, displaying slick, sinuous movement and killer instinct to score Brazil’s second goal, an exploit the leaner Pelé of 1958 and the bulkier Pelé of 1970 would not have accomplished. The goal was reminiscent of his wonder goal against Benfica in the final of the World Club Cup earlier that season.
Pelé simply encompassed soccer.
Pelé had already scored twice in the return leg in Lisbon to put the tie well out of the Portuguese club’s reach, but completed an improbable hat trick, collecting the ball in the midfield before nutmegging Eusebio, slaloming his way past three defenders and poking home the rebound from his own shot. The home fans stood and applauded such a tour de force. Pelé would later deem this match the greatest performance of his career.
The goal against Mexico was emblematic of Pelé, a player in pristine form at the peak of his playing days. He embodied, for the first time perhaps, the notion of a modern-day player, even of today’s super athletes, like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He artfully brushed the ball and intelligently outmaneuvered opponents, all while being the fittest player on the field. Pelé simply encompassed soccer.
But an injury prevented the Brazilian from further excelling at the 1962 World Cup. He also suffered from brutal tackling at the 1966 World Cup. And so came the denouement of Pelé’s Brazil career, a classic play in three scripts, at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The hero rose again and presided over three weeks of immeasurably fine football from the Brazilians, the final against Italy forming a fitting apotheosis.
Global audiences never had the chance to watch the boy from Três Corações in his prime in the early 60s, when TV was not yet in vogue and before he became the beefy star of 1970. They may do well to remember in this increasingly Messi-shaped universe that it was Pelé who toured the world with Santos and Brazil, projecting, to acclaim, how present-day players should play and excel in a game littered with Pelé posers and sub-geniuses.