Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pele's Brilliance and the Art of Description

Here's something surprising: Brian Phillips, of the great Run of Play, composed a fantastic post analyzing Pele through the prism of DFW's famous "Roger Federer as Religious Experience" article. That isn't the surprising part. Wallace's piece is ripe for analysis and extrapolation. No, the surprising thing is that, as good as Phillips' application and critique of DFW's is, it pale in comparison to this brilliant description of how Pele does work:
There are moments in Pelé’s games when he dribbles straight into a crowd of three or four defenders. He seems to have done that often, though in the videos now it’s sometimes hard to say who he’s playing against or what year it is or even what the score is or how much time is on the clock. He’ll dribble into a crowd of three or four defenders, which is suicide for a footballer, even in Brazil in the 1960s. 


It’s almost impossible to keep the fine control you need to take a decent shot when all the defender needs to do is wallop the ball away from you. Pelé dribbles into a crowd of players who have put themselves between him and the goal and whose whole purpose is to get the ball away from him, to keep him from scoring, which again is infinitely easier than the task facing the attacking player, and often in these situations, instead of trying something dazzling or virtuosic, Pelé will just stop. He’ll come to a sudden halt, with his foot lightly resting on top of the ball, and a ripple of confusion and wrong-footedness will go through the crowd of defenders as it tries to react and not fall over. Pelé will do one of those dancing shivering whole-body fakes he excelled at, dropping his shoulder, say, as if he’s about to lunge to the left, but almost simultaneously hinting right with his hips, and rolling the ball just slightly in a teasing way under his toes. Half the defenders start to guess one way and the other half start to guess the other way, but they recover, they’re professionals paying attention, and then just at the precise moment when it looks like a stalemate Pelé knocks the ball through the semi-opening created by their split-second almost-guess and tears through after it, so that one of them falls over and one of them whips around in the wrong direction, and then he’s one-on-one with the goalkeeper and it’s easy to flip the ball up into the corner of the net, in that afterthought way that characterized a lot of Pelé’s strikes. He leaps up in the air to celebrate, that famous happy hop, and the surprising thing about the way he jumps is always how much he seems to belong on the ground; there’s something physically dense about him, something that looks like it wants to sink, so that you sometimes have the impression that the game is keeping him afloat the way the ocean keeps up a battleship. So he comes down, and you laugh, because you have just seen an intelligence perform the remarkable task of solving the complete problem represented by the presence and position of the defenders and the need to control the ball without the use of hands, and you have seen a body so perfectly balanced and controlled that it could act transparently as the agent of this solution even where the solution itself required timing, strength, speed, and awareness far surpassing what most athletes possess. You have seen a thousand different soccer players face this position, and Pelé probably faced it a thousand times, but even if you were reluctant going in, the effect of the Pelé Moment is that for as long as it lasts you are prepared to swear that no one who ever got into this situation got out of it quite like Pelé.
It's a long quote, but I love how Phillips here gives context and meaning to the variety of Pele's actions, a variety that represents one particular skill-set and form of physical genius. Phillips' video compilation illustrates his points:

I think I'm finally starting to understand what makes Pele Pele.

No comments: