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Pele and India: how the greatest won over a distant nation

Pele was celebrated not just by Brazil, but by the world -- even those parts of it where very few would have ever seen him play in his pomp. Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Imagine, if you can, India in the 1970s. No internet, no mobile phones, no football on TV (barely any TV at all). We had radio, but unless you were a real aficionado, you heard All India Radio and the BBC. So not much of a global view. The news we got was from the one daily paper, with one sports page, where the foreign sports news was usually a day late. Our cities were not as connected then as they are now; the buzz in one city or town usually stayed there, without going viral across the country as it does today.

Only a few global names permeated this relatively bleak landscape. The BBC, which gave us the news our newspapers might not. Coca-Cola, though even that was banished from India in 1977. And Pele.

The BBC was ubiquitous because radio was ubiquitous; the service was free and you could travel the world with a twist of the dial. Coca-Cola's corporate might ensured its swirly logo was in every paan shop in the remotest corners of the country.

"Anyone in India back then could identify with a barefoot kid practicing for hours with a grapefruit or a rolled-up sock."

But Pele? He was a footballer with - back in the 1970s - his best days behind him, plying his trade first in the Brazil, which might have been on another planet, and then in the equally remote North American Soccer League. Only a handful of fans in India would have seen him play in the flesh; another handful, at most, would have seen any sort of footage of the 1970 World Cup, leave alone grainy B/W clips of his starburst debut on the global stage 12 years previously. His exploits with Santos and Cosmos would have got almost no coverage in the newspapers and magazines of the day. Seen in that context, his fame in this country, where for some he became almost synonymous with the beautiful game, is nothing short of extraordinary.

The only other possible parallel would be Muhammad Ali, who similarly became a buzzword for brawn and bravado. And it's possible that, in both cases, at least part of their popularity came from the autobiographies, released in 1975 (Ali's The Greatest) and 1977 (Pele's My life and the beautiful game); it brought the full-length version of their fantastical stories to readers who thus far had made do with bytes.

But there must be other reasons. Perhaps it was Pele's roots - a black man from humble origins, a shoe-shine boy, familiarly Third World. Anyone in India back then could identify with a barefoot kid practicing for hours with a grapefruit or a rolled-up sock. Perhaps it was his record; even the rookie football fan knew about the 1,000 goals, a number to make the head spin. Perhaps even the simplicity of the name - Pele, rolling far more easily off the tongue than alien polysyllabic Western monikers.

Most certainly it was the Brazilian style of football, o jogo bonito, the beautiful game. This, after all, was what football was about; playing with a sense of fun, a certainty of knowledge that however many goals they conceded, they could (and often would) always score more.

It was not the swagger of the West Indian cricketers of the 1970s, who also had a special place in Indian hearts for their calypso cricket; this was gentle and embracing. Clive Lloyd's side were fuelled by a deep sense of injustice; a decade later, Diego Maradona would have the same motivation on his way to claiming GOAT status. The Brazilians? Their philosophy was symbolised by Pele's ever-present beaming smile. That perception was only underlined several times over in 1982, when the World Cup was finally broadcast in India; we got to see the team of Zico and Socrates and could get a better understanding of what the past must have been.

All of this fandom coalesced into a sort of mania on September 25 1977 when Pele's Cosmos played a match against Mohun Bagan at Eden Gardens. The Bengali media had blanket coverage from the time Pele arrived, three days earlier. 'Pele has set foot in Calcutta' went one headline, with this subhead: 'Uncontrollable crowds: One lakh welcome him'. The story began: "Amid the gleeful welcoming cries of lakhs of people, football's king Pele touched down in Calcutta, the football city." On the morning of the match, the headline was simple: 'Today, all roads lead to Eden'. The next day, after his departure, a rare sports story on the front page: 'Pele gets a royal send-off'.

The match itself was underwhelming, sadly. The monsoon rains had created tricky conditions underfoot and Pele, not wanting to risk injury, played well within himself. So much so that it led to several conspiracy theories - one that Pele had been unwilling to play at all and only the fear of widespread riots got him on the pitch. More unusual, but no less emphatically floated, was the theory that it wasn't Pele himself who'd played but a theatre actor doubling for him.

None of this reduced his popularity, of course. In Kolkata, it took the arrival of Maradona to divide the city; those who loved the impish, controversial boy from the barrios who thumbed a nose at everyone, especially the English, and those who loved the more pure, wholesome Brazilian.

Today, football in India has changed. The nature of football fandom has changed most of all. We now see the best football played anywhere in the world broadcast or streamed live; in a fairly surprising statistic, FIFA said that Indians (56,000 of them) formed the second largest group of fans at the recent World Cup, behind Saudi Arabia. Many of them, and others too perhaps, are already making plans to attend Euros 2024 in Germany. And though our on-field game hasn't caught up, it's fair to say that our fandom is second to none anywhere in the world. The football fan in Bangalore can hold their own on any debate with any football fan around the world.

With that level playing field, then, It's easy to understand why we swoon over Messi; we can watch every match of his, every move of his, sometimes from ten different angles. We have insightful analysts and experts explaining the hows and the whys.

It's much harder trying to understand how Pele could have won over a nation with which he had no direct connect, 50-odd years ago. After all the numbers and the books and the grainy archival film and even the glorious sunburst of that 1970 team, it still doesn't make sense. Maybe, like so many of Pele's goals and assists, we should stop analysing and simply enjoy the moments.