Feature

The price of super stardom

Pele is expected to be released from hospital on Wednesday (AEDT). (AAP)

Both Pele and the Beatles - whose careers started and ended at an uncannily similar moment in history - paid the price for transcending the realm of stardom in and era that was discovering globalisation.

On July 7th 1957, with little more than 30 senior games under his belt and still a few months short of his 17th birthday, Pele made his debut for Brazil, scoring his side's goal in the 2-1 defeat to Argentina in Rio's Maracana stadium.

The previous day, at the church fete in Woolton, Liverpool, the 16 year old John Lennon met Paul McCartney, two years his junior, for the first time. The rest, of course, is history – until, hundreds of hits and a thousand goals later, their decade came to an end. In April 1970 McCartney announced the break up of The Beatles. A couple of months later Pele made a glorious farewell to the stage he had made his own, winning the World Cup for the third time with a team that still set the standard for Brazil sides. The closeness of the dates is uncanny.

"Coincidence," I was told many years ago by a man in Brazil I had not seen before and have not seen since, "is God's way of showing his existence." As a non-religious soul, I have problems with this. Then again, as Ronnie Lane, a near contemporary of Lennon, McCartney and Pele once mused, "I ain't a superstitious fella, but it worries me." Though perhaps in this case, perhaps awe is a more appropriate reaction than concern. Because, with Pele and The Beatles we are blessed with a similar phenomenon.

The two belong under the same heading – worldwide dealers of the new democratic dream. Globalised media carried their exploits everywhere. The one time shoeshine boy from small town Brazil and the scouse kids from the wrong side of the tracks, propelled by talent, luck and circumstances to the position of working class heroes to the world – truly something to be.

Nothing comes for free, certainly nothing this powerful. "The more real you get, said John Lennon in a famous meeting with Muhammad Ali, another giant from the era, "the more unreal it gets." Lennon, of course, ended up paying the ultimate price for having such an effect on so many people. He was shot dead by a crazed fan at the age of 40.

But we are talking about a level of fame from which no one can emerge completely unscathed. One way of another the bill presents itself.

In the case, of Pele, the price of fame was evident in an interview he gave around a decade ago, when he was asked about his fellow 1960s icons. The interviewer mentioned The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Che Guevara and Martin Luther King. Pele added Ali to the list and told Marcio Mara in the Jornal do Brasil in 2004: "I have no doubt that Pele was superior, more popular than The Beatles and all of them. Che Guevara and Luther King had political connections, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, unfortunately, got involved with drugs. I keep traveling and I know that people still speak of Pele. It's a bigger thing, of sport. There's no involvement with politics or drugs. The image that I transmitted was positive for everyone, I left a very good message." 

The comparison with Martin Luther King, in particular, is patently absurd. King laid down his life in the name of the advancement of his people and of humanity. Pele, meanwhile, has tried in recent years to gain credit by saying that he took a political action – he boycotted the 1974 World Cup as a protest against Brazil's military dictatorship. I am aware of no credible source who takes this claim seriously. If this was the reason for Pele's non-participation, then he certainly kept quiet about it at the time, revealing it only at a safe distance, once the military regime belonged to the past and a consensus had been constructed agreeing that it was a bad thing. Pele's declaration is of a man who appears to have something of a long range relationship with reality.

I was angry with him when I read this. In time, I have become more tolerant. How on earth could it be otherwise? Of course he has a somewhat awkward relationship with reality. By necessity he is insulated against it. The price of being Pele is that basic freedoms – wandering out to get a quiet coffee and read the paper in a café – are denied. Reality has to be kept at arm's length, because everyone wants a piece of him. That space around him is liable to be filled by yes men and sycophants, or those trying to make money out of him. How to preserve balance in such a strange cocoon?

Pele can surely be forgiven for the occasional unwise declaration. It is the price we all have to pay for the pleasure that he gave to millions and the dream that he inspired in so many all around the world. His great contemporaries The Beatles put forward the argument that all you need is love. Pele then made the point that if you add a ball and a team to the equation, then the possibility of joyful expression is increased.