The television set was a big old picture-tube contraption.
The sequence of moves that you saw that Sunday could not have been more than ten seconds long, but with Murilo’s interruptions it lasted for several minutes as he unhurriedly provided a commentary, pressing play, pause, rewind, play, on what at the time had been commentated on in utter astonishment.
What you first saw was a still image that was immediately identifiable as from the 1970 World Cup, judging by the shorts worn by the Brazilian team, which were a lighter shade of blue than normal, as well as scandalously brief by today’s standards. Tostão, with his unmistakable big head, and wearing the number 9 shirt, was in possession of the ball, being watched at some distance by a guy in a light blue shirt and black shorts. Murilo let the footage play for three seconds, with Tostão in possession of the ball, and when he paused it again Pelé could be seen in the top right-hand corner of the screen, and you felt your stomach lurch as if the movement of the earth had suddenly speeded up, as if someone had switched on a particle accelerator. The old man was providing his homemade commentary: “So,” he said, “just look at this, we can see what Tostão has also just seen, Pelé charging in from the right side of midfield like a wild animal, a panther with the blood of a cheetah.”
The momentum was immediately contained, edited, rewound, played, paused, replayed. The ball left Tostão’s foot, returned, left, returned. “The pass is perfect,” Murilo said, sitting near to you on the sofa next to the open fire, like a child playing with his laser gun. “A milligram more or less of force and it would have been almost perfect, virtually perfect, but no, it is perfect, struck by Tostão from the left of midfield with his left foot on a diagonal line worthy of the man who designed Brasília, just the slightest curve, heading for the centre of the penalty area.” At that moment the image began to move forward again at an extremely slow pace. “Suddenly, all we can see,” the old man’s voice was low and hoarse, having lost its commanding tone of the old days, “all we can see is Pelé running towards a white ball, but here comes the goalkeeper and now the ball is between him and Pelé, nearer to the great black player but increasingly nearer to the goalkeeper, namely the famous Mazurkiewicz, who decides to go into battle and comes out of the penalty area with all guns blazing, not a fear in the world.”
Pausing the image once again Murilo turned his gaze to you. “How old are you, Tiziu? Almost fifty? Oh, you’re more than old enough to know from experience that reason plays no part in this, that our prehistoric hunter brains are able to work out incredibly quickly the calculations involved in a problem of this type, who will get to the ball first. We don’t even call it a calculation any more, since these mental operations are so fast. We call them instinct. Our instincts tell us that Pelé is going to get there before Mazurka, don’t they? But it will be a close thing. The Uruguayan keeper does what he can, entering the semicircle a fraction of a second before Pelé but not in time to intercept the ball. The ball is still in between the two of them, and again we sense, like Mazurka is also sensing, that it is nearer to the black player who is thundering towards it. What the good goalkeeper of La Celeste does then is kneel down and, even though he is outside the penalty area, what else can he do, he opens his arms wide.”
Pelé stripped football to its most rarefied essence. Football became a pure idea, and all of a sudden neither man, nor the ball, nobody at all was behaving as one would expect them to do in this illusory world.”
The frozen image on the old videotape had become distorted. The black player in the yellow shirt and the white player dressed all in black gave the impression that they were going to collide, maybe even merge into one, luminous forms seeking to forget that they were once flesh.
“Look at Mazurkiewicz,” the old man said. “You don’t need to be telepathic to know that he is hoping that Pelé will shoot from right there. It’s what most forwards would do, and then the goalkeeper would have a chance at saving the ball. He can only pray that the Brazilian will not do what a player of his standing will probably prefer to do, that is, go past the goalkeeper to the left, easy enough given his pace, a move that would lead to one of two outcomes: either the goalkeeper would grab Pelé’s legs, committing a foul, or Pelé would complete the move by striking the ball with his left leg towards the open, or virtually open goal, protected only by the defender who, soon enough, is going to enter the frame panting for breath as if he is about to miss his last train, and fall head over heels on the ground. The name of this unfortunate character was Ancheta, just for the record.”
Murilo looked at you, half smiling. His eyes reflected the flames in the fireplace and shone coldly in a way that you didn’t remember ever having seen, a look that already seemed almost posthumous, minute embers inside blocks of ice. “Now I’m asking you, Neto, why didn’t Pelé do that? It was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? Obviously it was, phosphorescent pebbles on the pitch marking a path that he had already followed a trillion times in just the same way, hurtling in from the right side of midfield towards the centre of the penalty area in pursuit of a ball passed to him by Coutinho or Zito, or by Didi, when playing for the Brazilian national squad. But all of a sudden we are in 1970, Tostão passes the ball, and here’s the thing, Pelé by now is Pelé. He is sick and tired of hearing that he is a legend, a demigod, so what has he got to lose by trying to become an absolute god? So he doesn’t do the right thing, he does something sublime. Instead of taking the well-beaten path towards the goal, the dead-cert goal that he had scored so many times before, he opts for the uncertain goal that, as we are about to see, he would never score.”
On TV, while the two smudges slowly merge into one, the ball passes outrageously through them. As if they were porous, the spirit having forgotten flesh in advance of videotape.
“Ha,” you laughed, not so much in surprise, recognising the move seen so many times before but happy, as ever, to see it in action again. You were looking at the TV and Murilo was looking at you, studying your reaction. He seemed satisfied with what he saw.
“In his refusal to touch the ball, as if suddenly struck with Bartleby syndrome,” he said, “Pelé stripped football to its most rarefied essence. Football became a pure idea, and all of a sudden neither man, nor the ball, nobody at all was behaving as one would expect them to do in this illusory world. Taken by surprise, like the rest of us, Mazurka sees the ball passing to his left and cutting like a knife across the right flank of the penalty area, while Pelé becomes a golden and blue light flashing by towards the opposite side.”
On the TV screen the Uruguayan goalkeeper has his back to the ball, and one knee on the ground, twisting his neck to the right, looking at the forward who is moving away from him, as if a whirlwind has just passed by. And to the left of the frame, a long way from the ball, now inside the penalty area and more blurred than ever, Pelé is starting to modify his stride in order to change direction.
“What Pelé now has to do is dead easy, a piece of cake, isn’t it,” the old man cracked a smile which clearly revealed the shadow of the skull that he would soon become. “He has to brake to radically correct the angle he is coming from, to brake and at the very same moment start running again in the other direction, after the ball now, the man who was thundering along pretending to ignore it. The reign of the pure idea is over, proving to be too sublime to stand the test of time. The material world takes control again with its mass, its acceleration, and all its laws of physics. The guy has to perform a sharp ninety-degree turn without losing speed because, remember, he must get to the ball before his adversaries and still have a good angle from which to shoot.”
Murilo unfreezes the image, Pelé manages to achieve these two feats, fantastic, and he freezes the image again. “He is going to shoot and score, that’s what we are all predicting, everyone in the stadium is on their feet, and their lungs could all have been made of stone,” he said, somewhat floridly, “since they are breathing neither in nor out: he is going to shoot and score. But it turns out not to be as simple as that because Pelé is now on the wrong side of the ball, with his shoulder pointing towards the goalmouth, so he has to kick the ball in a half turn. And it is then, my God, that he makes a mistake. Pelé makes a mistake. He misses the goal that he couldn’t fail to miss, come to think of it, if he were to cement his mythical status for good.”
What you saw on screen, when the pause button was released for the last time, was the following: while Ancheta, having just missed his train, tumbles on the pitch, the ball kicked by Pelé brushes past Uruguay’s right-hand goal post. It crosses the line, a fait accompli, and the greatest player of all walks off sucking an ice cube he has got from somewhere with a slightly vexed but serene look on his face.
The old man stopped the video. He placed the remote control on the arm of the sofa, looked into your eyes again and said: “What happened there, Neto, was simple: Pelé challenged God and lost. Imagine if he hadn’t lost. If he hadn’t lost, the human race would never have slept peacefully again. Pelé challenged God and lost, but what a majestic challenge. That goal he didn’t score is not only the greatest moment in the story of Pelé, it is also the greatest moment in the history of football. Do you understand that? Divine intervention, the lightning bolt of eternity that fell to earth to the left of the radio and TV booths in dear Jalisco’s stadium on 17 June 1970? Well I can vouch for it that that is what happened, I was there and I know. If it was something more than that it wouldn’t surprise me at all, but that was what at the very least happened, and the videotape gives us the pleasure of seeing it over and over again, do you see? Something out of this world, Tiziu.”
Standing up with difficulty, he moved away from the ball of heat given off by the open fire and walked towards the verandah. You went after him. It was just after midday but the winter had arrived with a vengeance. The frozen breath that came from the woods embraced you both and at that moment you pictured your father in Guadalajara, a young man over thirty with Félix’s sideburns, Rivelino’s bushy moustache, drinking beer and eating guacamole, while down here the world as the five-year-old you knew it was coming to an end. It was as if the whole of existence hinged on that summer in Mexico, winter in Brazil, when your father refused to touch the ball, Pelé’s feint against Mazurkiewicz broke the spine of destiny and the world fell apart. There are those moments in life when everything seems to happen at the same time, past and future flattened into the present, as if nothing ever happened before or will ever happen again, everything is continuously happening without the action ever being completed. On the Sunday when Murilo Junior, in his house in Rocio, showed you the goal that Pelé did not score, you realised for the first time in your life that it was the same day – 17 June 1970 – that Elvira had feinted the lax safety precautions on the half-built Joá flyover, hurling herself onto the sea-lashed rocks below. With sudden realisation, as if a butcher’s shop light had been switched on inside your head, you found yourself forever imprisoned in that day, play, pause, rewind, play. As long as Pelé did not score that goal you would be imprisoned in that day, only dreaming that life had gone on. At that moment you looked at your father and relived for the last time, with breathtaking intensity, the old dream of killing him.
“This was because Peralvo never played in the World Cup,” Murilo said, seemingly immune to the waves of death that were emanating from his son, his gaze fixed on the lead-green ridge of the hillsides silhouetted against the grey sky. “Peralvo was all set to be even greater than Pelé, Neto. Life’s a bitch.”
Translated by Lisa Shaw from O drible (The Feint). Reproduced by kind permission of Mertin Witt Literarische Agentur and Agência Riff.
Sérgio Rodrigues is a novelist and short story writer, and a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines including O Globo, Jornal do Brasil and Veja. O drible (The Feint) is published by Companhia das Letras. Read more.
Author portrait © Simone