Monday, January 26, 2009

The search for ‘new’ Pele. By 1971 it was topical – the King was getting old. If the mark is set high, there is problem: it is not forever, but what comes after the genius? Nothing satisfies – humans are mortal, and death in football comes early. The old player is remembered playing much better few years earlier – it is time to die, or if you don’t like the word – to quit. But you don’t want him to quit – you want him to play as you remember him playing once upon a time. Reason confronts passion. You wait – impatiently – for someone young and new, who will produce such a magic, you will forget old times. Then there is the media… the hype journalists make also confronts reason. Reason says Pele is only one; there are no two players entirely identical. But Pele was so high above everybody else, that the expectations for replacement are… hopeless. To have a younger copy is not good, yet, nothing less is good. Nostalgia tells you the opposite: nobody can be better than Pele. And if you are Brazilian – the torment may lead to insanity. By 1971 the search for new Pele was already frantic. It is still going on on and perhaps it is impossible to trace how many junior players were hailed as the ‘new’ Pele so far. So, welcome the White Pele – or Zico.
Flamengo 1971:
Standing, left to right: Ubirajara Alcantara, Aloisio, Fred, Reyes, Liminha, Paulo Henrique.
First row: Unnamed masseur, Rogerio, Samarone, Ze Eduardo, Zico, Rodrigues Neto.

The picture shows some discrepancies: Flamengo, the most popular Brazilian club, is the ‘poor man’ club. The fans tend to be from the ‘favela’, the slums, and, therefore, stereotypically, in mass imagination,black. The line up is suspiciously white, though. And Zico did not come from the slums. How much mythology is at play here? Garrincha, but not Pele, is associated with archetypical poverty – yet, both are black and coming from poverty. Yet, Garrincha was and is the ‘love of the people’, whether Pele is the King… recognized, respected, but not loved. Yet, neither Garincha, nor Pele played for Flamengo ( Garrincha, I think, did a little stunt with Fla shirt, but not in his best years). Yet, the search was for ‘new Pele’, not ‘new Garrincha’ (an interesting avenue to explore, but not now) – and the white and middle class Zico was one of the candidates. Not so strongly in 1971, but strong enough to stigmatize him somewhat. Zico was 18 years old in 1971 and played 15 games, scoring 2 goals, for the first team of Flamengo. And he was… dropped to the junior team for the next year. At 18 (or 17 years and 249 days old at the beginning of the tournament) Pele was World Champion in 1958. Pele added two more world titles to his bio, appearing in 4 World Cup championships in total. Zico was never champion of the world and his first World Cup was in 1978 – when he was 25. On the other hand, Zico was 33 years old when he played his last World Cup in 1986. Pele played for the last time in 1970 finals – 30 years old and, at least in Brazil, lamented as too old. Pele never went to play club football in Europe, but Zico did. Yet, for a kind of Pele, he went to unbecoming club – Udinese (Udine). Hardly a Pele… the King had to be declared ‘a national treasure’ by the Brazilian government in the 1960s to keep him in the country. If the state did not pay Santos this way, the King would have been snatched by the likes of Real, Barcelona, Milan, or Inter. Udinese did not come close, even by a stretch of imagination, to these clubs. Sure, the King disappointed during the 1966 World Cup, but it was collective disappointment of the whole team Brazil… the King was injured early, and, being the King, blame washed away quickly. As for Zico – he had his lame 1978 World Cup, but no matter how well he played in 1982 and 1986, Brazil did not win another World title. A pale shadow… of which the King himself said that Zico was the only player coming close to him. The White Pele. Unlucky star? Not negative must be white.) Most likely the impossibility of satisfying unreasonable expectations – ‘new Pele’, what the hell is that? A player called Leivinha was also among the endless ‘new Peles’ and he played for Brazil in 1974 World Cup – four years before Zico. Now, who remembers Leivinha? Or may be one should remember him: after all, Pele never won Brazilian championship and Zico did it in 1980 for the first time. Leivinha was Brazilian champion twice with Palmeiras by 1974, and unlike the King and the Negative, he went to play for Atletico Madrid for five years (1974-1979), not for Italian ‘also run’ club or the ‘pensioners’ US league. Football is funny in a way, but in 1971 Zico, one of the brightest players of the 1970s debuted. The closest to Pele. In England, 1971 was the year Trevor Francis was noticed. Not the same expectations as in Brazil – Francis was hope for change, not hope for duplicating insanely high level. The World champions of 1966 were getting old, and youngsters were just the hope of replacing aging stars with new ones. Hence, England was ensured to stay a world football power and may be a champion again. Nobody tried to match 16 years old Trevor Francis to Bobby Charlton (in terms of stardom and high standards, that is, for Francis was centre forward, not playmaker. Then, Zico, a midfielder, was expected to be Pele, an attacker. Go figure.) And England been England in 1971… Francis, unlike Zico, was not a member of top club.
Second from left on the second row in the 1971-72 squad. Similarly to Flamengo above, Birmingham hardly featured any recognizable names that year. England been England in 1971… Birmingham City perhaps up and coming? Alas, no. Francis or no Francis, a mediocre team at best. Yet, Francis was in the first squad already in 1970 – he played his first game in 1971, barely 17 years old. One year younger than Zico. By 1974 he was a national player – not like ‘only promising’ until 1978 Zico. Different football cultures? Different pool of talent? Different expectations or desperations? Yes and no… The fact is, Trevor Francis (although with much shorter hair by then) was one of the great stars of the late 1970s. Like Zico. Like Zico, Francis won exactly nothing with the national team. And nobody would have said in 1971 that Zico and Trevor Francis will play in the same national championship. They did… between 1983 and 1985 both played in Italy: Francis for Sampdoria (Genoa), and Zico for Udinese (Udine). Well, nobody ever called Francis ‘the new Pele’, but in Italy he played for bigger club and longer than Zico. Well… was Trevor Francis a great player? Were Francis and Zico really great, or were they just inflated? Or were they cursed to live so close to legends? Close enough to suffer from unconsciously biased judgment? I love Zico from the 1980s. The one of 1978 did not impress me at all. I hoped highly for Trevor Francis in the early 1970s (must have been the long hair), but he was boring to me in 1980. Where is the truth? What is the truth to a football nut? In a nutshell, Zico and Francis combined do not come remotely close to the joy of watching Cruiff. Yet, both are related mostly to the 1970s, giants of the 1970s. And they started in 1971.