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Football matters deeply to Pele and Brazil

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Why Soccer Matters, by Pele with Brian Winter

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Why Soccer Matters, by Pele with Brian Winter, 292 pages, Penguin Group, N.Y., (2014), is a memoir co-written by football's all-time greatest, and it is the perfect read leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. No other book will give you as intimate a view into the soul of Pele and into the heart of the Brazilian love affair with the sport.

In simple language and a very straightforward conversational style, writer Winter translates and delivers Pele's feelings on paper. "I close my eyes, and I can see my first soccer ball. Really, it was just a bunch of socks tied together," Pele tells us in the introduction. Throughout the book Pele tries to show how football mattered to him, to Brazil, and to his teammates. In so doing he tries to make the point that football plays a preeminent role as a motivator of youth and a shared passion of multitudes, that can help unite societies.

The book begins with the recollection that sets the stage for this summer's World Cup, the 1950 World Cup. The last time Brazil hosted the cup was 64 years ago, and for good reason. The 2-1 loss of that final game to Uruguay on July 16, 1950, in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, has haunted Brazilians to this day.

Remembering how his family and friends listened to the radio broadcast at his home on game day, and recalling the moments just after Brazil had opened the scoring, Pele tells us: "I was nine years old, but I will never forget...my father, my hero, so restless during those years, so frustrated by his own broken soccer dreams--suddenly very young again, embracing his friends, overcome with happiness. It would last for exactly nineteen minutes."

In 1950, as in 2014, the Brazilians were favored to win the cup on home soil. In 1950 all they needed was a tie given the cup's format. On that fateful day Friaca put Brazil ahead at the 47th minute, until Uruguay's 66th minute score tied the game. Thereafter Brazil fell behind at the 79th minute and never recovered. Five World Cup wins later no one doubts just how deeply serious a national tragedy it would be for Brazilians to lose a second World Cup on home-soil. In 2014 only a win will do.

Back in 1950, it could take days, weeks, and even months for news to reach every corner of Brazil and of many parts of the world. In 2010, the World Cup Final in South Africa was witnessed by a 3.2 billion-person live television audience. Whatever happens at the Maracana this summer will be known instantaneously by half the globe and soon thereafter by anyone else who could be interested.

After Pele recounts what it was like to live through that 1950 national tragedy, he walks us, as if utilizing a POV camera mounted in his memory's eye, down the paths he lived. We see how he felt the Brazilian National Team earned redemption in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden and world legitimacy in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, experienced frustration at the 1966 World Cup in England, and reached his, and Brazil's apotheosis in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

Right after that 1970 final win, 4-1 over Italy, Pele recalled what stood out for him: "My favorite moment was in the locker room, right after the game. I turned around [and] there was our coach [former teammate Mario Zagallo]. We gave each other a big, long embrace...and I told him 'We had to be together to become champions three times. It could only have happened with you. Thank you.'"

We also get several intimate anecdotes, such as the time his teammate Garrincha, a radio aficionado, shopping in Sweden during the 1958 World Cup, chose not to buy a handcrafted radio because he could "not understand anything that came out of it."

The book suffers from the need to extend the experiences of his top playing days into his more politicized and commercial participation in the sport after his original retirement. Few of his post 1970 anecdotes and commentary (the later third of the book, about 100 pages) are as enthralling as those prior to that watershed event, but most are informative and entertaining. In the end, football is show to clearly matter to a country whose identity is so intrinsically intertwined with the sport, and it is obvious that football was and is Pele's life-long love.

I recommend this book to new and long-time futebol/futbol/football fans alike. If you want an easy yet informed and touching read on the eve of the greatest sporting event's visit to the author's native land, this is the book.

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