Think of an athlete who was so incomprehensibly talented that they became a worldwide ambassador of the sport—the type of star so transcendent that they become a catalyst for an entire game's worldwide popularity. Now think of their latter-day lives. Babe Ruth died young after a post-retirement decade's worth of failing to find even the remotest purchase in any managerial, coaching, front-office, or broadcast aspect of baseball. Michael Jordan's has been defined by performance-art-calibre fashion choices and aging-competitor bitterness, and haunted by a Hall of Fame speech whose lingering effects include a bitter reputation and one especially unflattering meme. Muhammad Ali is sick and tragically silent.
Yet the man most synonymous with football still maintains. Granted, Pelè's had the obligatory celebrity string of marriages and divorces, a few embarrassing money mishaps, bouts with contentious political views, and a son with criminal ties. But his late-career and post-playing role as an ambassador for his game seems to define him more than anything, and by the standards of his fellow legends it has been fairly short on marring humiliation. The goofiest things that come most immediately to mind re: Pelè are the Simpsons joke about his "soccer and acting camp" and the postscript to New York Cosmos documentary Once in a Lifetime, which appended a "cha-ching" cash register sound effect to an explanation of why he wasn't interviewed for the film. Other than that, you'd probably have to dig in the Brazilian tabloids to get any dirt.
But wait: Pelè did release a few records. The connection between futbol and Brazilian pop music seems pretty natural from the perspective of an outsider whose pop-cultural knowledge of the nation is defined primarily by those two things. And hell, Jorge Ben's 1976 cut "Ponta de Lança Africano (Umbabarauma)"—an ode to a favela-born, sure-footed superstar not unlike Pelè himself—might be one of the best songs about sports ever written ("See how the whole city empties out/On this beautiful afternoon to watch you play"). Still, Pelè's youthful enthusiasm and focused energy couldn't manifest in the studio as it did on the field, right?
Here's the thing: I don't know Portuguese. I do have a decent-enough collection of MPB (Musica Popular Brasiliera), mostly of a stretch that ranges from late '60s Tropicalia to early '80s funk, but it's still a fairly dilletante-ish stack of entry-level essentials. And while there's no confusing Edson Arantes do Nascimento for Milton Nascimento to even my half-trained ears, the catch here is that Pelè's kind of hard for me to figure out as a musician. He's stated that playing the guitar and writing songs was his favorite way to pass the time between games—"a lot of time hanging around team hotels doing nothing," he told the Guardian in 2006. And a glance into his discography reveals a few notable results of that boredom-fighting woodshedding: a 1969 single with Brazilian pop superstar Elis Regina, a 1977 collaboration with Sergio Mendes for the soundtrack to Francois Reichenbach's largely forgotten documentary Pelè, and a 2006 album of smooth jazz-inflected bossa songs titled Pelè Ginga, which features a collaboration with legendary singer-songwriter turned Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil.
Starting backwards from Pelè Ginga, which you can cop new off Amazon for less than its shipping costs, might predispose you to think you'll be in for some old-man-voice schmaltz. But Pelè Ginga is both more obscure and less preposterous than albums of its peculiar background typically are. Pelè's supremely relaxed singing voice isn't especially resonant or transcendent, although it radiates a certain "yeah, bet you didn't know I could do this" charm. Still, the production makes the whole enterprise sound a lot closer to K-Mart muzak tapes than, say, peak Chico Buarque.
If the production keeps it from being the latter-day answer to Rosey Grier's remarkably adept Soul City, its soothing competence also keeps it from being a point-and-laugh kind of disaster. And, again: I don't know Portuguese, which means I am missing a lot. These songs could all be Blowfly-dirty and I wouldn't know. I have little to really go on except the secondhand knowledge that five of the songs on the album are about football. It is a competent entry in a genre I know little about, sung in a language I don't speak. I know: definitive. Anyway, it is not a novelty record.
That's also the case with Pelè, the soundtrack LP that features The Black Pearl reclining on the Giants Stadium pitch in his New York Cosmos kit, beaming as he holds up an acoustic guitar. How much of that guitar Pelè actually plays on this album is debatable—Oscar Castro-Neves, a regular with Mendes' band since the late '60s, gets sole credit, there—but he did both compose and sing the main theme, "Meu Mundo É Uma Bola (My World Is a Ball)," as well as "Cidade Grande," which he later re-recorded with samba singer Jair Rodrigues.
Both are among the most laconic-ass songs you'll ever hear—woozily sumptuous downtempo bossa numbers that are as pretty as they are sleepy. If the music he plays here was any indication of how the man himself moved on the pitch, he'd have been swarmed before he reached the midfield; there are pandas that would consider this music too drowsy. At least here, in the context of the soundtrack LP, it's easier to figure out which songs are actually composed to evoke what the man was actually capable of as a player.
His 1969 single with Elis Regina, "Perdão, não tem," is another mellow bossa-pop number, written by Pelè with a duet in mind. This is ostensibly to help distract from his fairly flat singing voice, which is a bit easier to pinpoint as amateurish at this early stage in his recording career. This song and its clunky, semi-conversational b-side "Vexamão"—where Regina can't stop laughing mid-line—are breezy little things: kind of pleasant, mostly inconsequential, and what you could expect from two supremely talented people, one of them a supremely talented singer, spending some second-take goof-around time in the studio. If I didn't know better, I could swear Pelè was trying to keep his voice as low-key as possible to avoid fully committing to anything that could possibly make him look embarrassed.
Which brings us to one thing Pelè claims in that Guardian piece that stands out: "There were a lot more [musicians] for whom I wrote tunes," he states, "but I never let them say it was me… I didn't want the public to make the comparison between Pele the composer and Pele the footballer. That would have been a huge injustice—in football my talent was a gift from God, music was just for fun."
This posits the whole notion of Sportscore in its purest form—taking a side-track hobby half-seriously, to the point where even the stuff that gets released mass-market can be shrugged at by its creator as a bit of harmless screwing around in case it faceplants. It also hints at Pelè's remarkable, unprecedented role in this particular arena: here we have finally found Sportscore's only ghostwriter. Is "Ponta de Lança Africano" some secret autobiographical ode to himself? Probably not. But weirder things have happened to unlikelier people.