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 final game, 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 was the favorite would mistakenly suggest this was some sort of competition. It was just the way the future would unfold at the Maracanã, the largest stadium in the world, which was still an active construction zone.
The game wasn’t televised. That would come four years later. So Pelé’s father listened on the radio. Brazil lost.
Multiple people committed suicide. Pele’s father cried.
It’s known as the Maracanazo. The tragedy of the Maracanã.
Pelé: From adversity to a world champion
Nelson Rodrigues, the famous Brazilian playwright, wrote: “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”
Pelé made many more cheerful World Cup memories. He won it three times. 1970, the first World Cup broadcast in color, mostly sticks in the memory for his yellow jersey. Pelé is pretty much the reason why the number 10 is ‘The Dude’ in soccer.
World traveler with soccer in his heart
My initial World Cup memories are similarly giddy.
In 1994, I ran inside from playing in the woods behind my grandparents’ house to find my older cousins watching TV. “Who’s that guy?” I asked. It was, of course, Alexi Lalas. The US wore denim shirts. The opposition wore yellow. It must have been the game against Colombia, when Andres Escobar scored an own goal and signed his own death warrant. I ran along to play downstairs in the basement.
In 1998, we lived deep in the jungles of Borneo. We didn’t have a television, Internet, or ice cream. Every morning, I would get the daily local paper and try to read the World Cup news. Basically, this involved making my parents translate every other word and, a lot of the time, just staring at the goalscoring charts. I remember the hairstyle of Gabriel Batistuta’s and his headband.
By 2002, we went to Bali for part of the World Cup, and I would watch in hotel lounges or TVs propped up in the back of restaurants. For the England-Brazil game, my dad took me to an outdoor bar. I had never been to one before.
The whole place heaved to its feet when Michael Owen scored. Rowdy Brits whipped their half-drunk bottles above their heads. Beer spilled everywhere. It was sticky. Then, of course, they got much grumpier when Ronaldinho retired David Seaman on global television. A handful of people dressed in yellow went to the front and danced with a Brazil flag. Everyone else booed. I was beaming. I had never seen other soccer fans before.
Mostly what I remember of that World Cup is the ad. An Indonesian man sits, bouncing a soccer ball. “Kapan Indonesia masuk Piala Dunia?” he asks the camera. When will Indonesia make it to a World Cup? He kicks the ball at a poster of a mulletted Alessandro Del Piero. The ball sucks into the poster, and Del Piero comes to life. They play a little 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 presume. My brothers and I still quote it to each other. Kapan Indonesia masuk Piala Dunia?
The American experience
Nowadays I watch World Cup games in 4K. Recently, I watched one on YouTube TV. On my phone. In a jet plane. Roughly 10,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico. The future is wild.
But sometimes, it can feel like we’ve crossed over from analog to digital. It’s a little too slick, too sterile. Remember when players used to have mullets? Those old games just feel a little more tactile in the memory. Like watching in 35mm or listening to vinyl through a Marantz receiver. So what I tried to do, alongside Exile Content Studio, iHeartRadio and my co-host Nando Vila with The Best Soccer Podcast in the World, was delve deep into the nostalgia of pre-photoshopped World Cups and revel in the grit a little bit.
Pelé’s father cried, after all. Hopefully your initial World Cup memories were a little less traumatic.
The next episode of The Best Soccer Podcast in the World is all about Mágico González and how his fun approach to the game has made him a “cult hero.”
Have an exclusive first listen below and be sure to tune in on Tuesday, December 13 to hear the full episode.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Sven Simon
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