By Fred A. Reed
No, it most emphatically isn’t!
The death on December 29 of Pelé, one of those few individuals immediately identifiable by a single name, following on the heels of Morocco’s valiant showing at the Qatar World Cup, should have dispersed all doubts or hesitations.
And breathed, on a strictly personal level, life into the long-dormant yet still smouldering coals of memory.
The story I am going to tell begins thusly: In early March 1961 a Varig Brazilian Airlines plane landed in Honolulu to refuel and take on passengers. The aircraft, a four-engine propeller-driven Lockheed Constellation was on its way eastward, to Tokyo. Seats on the plane were cheap, as transcontinental flights increasingly relied on jets. The low ticket prices were a boon for the three young Canadian women who boarded the flight, the continuation of a round-the-world journey that had begun in Toronto two weeks earlier and would end (and continue in other ways) for one of them in Athens seven months later.
The three travellers, looking forward to high adventure, were taken aback when the airline insisted that they provide their personal weight, in addition to that of their luggage. They consented and, svelte of silhouette, hurried to board and be on their way.
(I was familiar with the aircraft, having flown in one from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago when, in October 1960, I left home, family and country behind, having fallen under the spell of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis.)
On boarding, they immediately noticed the prevailing state of semi-chaos in the cabin. Baggage was strewn over the seats and clothing hung from the overhead luggage compartments. The through passengers who had departed Brazil two days before lolled on the seats, but looked up attentively as the three made their way through the rear cabin toward their seats in the front.
By now the alert reader will be asking her/himself: how does the author know this? How, indeed, does he know what followed?
The answer: he, like any self-respecting journalist (later, not then, of course) had a reliable eye-witness source on board that very aircraft: the young lady—with the trisyllabic name Ingeborg—whom he would encounter months later in Athens, and who would become his/my life-partner of sixty years and counting.
On that Varig Airlines flight, known to neither Ingeborg nor the author of these lines, the sport known as ‘football’ entered—unexpectedly, as do all good things—our lives. For its passengers were, in their immense majority, members of Santos FC, Brazil’s preeminent football team, whose incontestable star was and Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known throughout the inhabited universe as Pelé.
From Honolulu to a refuelling stop at Wake Island, and then on to Tokyo and Hong Kong the intrepid trio would encounter the Brazilians on the street and in tourist venues.
Fast forward to the summer of that same year. Santos FC arrived in Greece by way of Italy and Germany for three games with the host country’s top teams. On June 30 the Panathinaikos squad, the Athens home team, faced off against the Brazilians.
I know this because I was there. The Greek team then played at its original, ancient and rickety stadium just up the street from my very humble room on Armatolon kai Klefton Street, on the northern slope of Mount Lycavitos. The Cretan students with whom I’d fallen in were as knowledgeable and infectiously enthusiastic about football as they were about politics, and I was their eager and willing student.
“Come along with us, Fred,” they would have said. “You don’t want to miss this!”
The atmosphere in the small, intimate stadium was electric, Greeks being then as now prime conductors of high-voltage enthusiasm. The crowd had come to support the home team, of course, but they’d really turned out to see the world’s reigning football superstar. He did not disappoint, scoring the winning goal in Santos’ 4-3 victory.
Two days later, Santos played its final match in Greece, meeting another top team, Olympiakos, at the latter’s stadium in Piraeus, the port of Athens, where I’d landed six months earlier on the first leg of my journey into voluntary exile.
Olympiakos was then Greece’s preeminent football team, with an international reputation and a fiercely partisan fan base that would throng the stands of its home field, Karaiskakis Stadium, for every match. It was there that Pelé and Santos tasted defeat.
It was in Piraeus port that Jules Dassin set his classic Never on Sunday. Of course the film was a hymn to the beauty and infectious personality of the star and later Dassin’s wife, Melina Mercouri. And, through the music of Manos Hadzidakis, Τα Παιδια του Πειραια (The Boys of Piraeus), sung by Mercouri as she lounged in her boudoir wearing a satin peignor, to the Olmpiakos football team.
By one of those coincidences of which our lives are constructed—Coincidence? Really?—Ingeborg and her companions had seen that same film in Bangkok not long after meeting Pelé and the Santos FC team. The weather was sweltering and they had sought shelter in an air-conditioned movie theatre. The film, in its Greek version, was shown with Thai subtitles. But its verve was unmistakable.
Its nominal hero, the Grecophile intellectual Homer Thrace, of Middletown Connecticut, played by Dassin, had travelled to that ancient land to discover for himself the ‘Greek spirit’ and ascertain why it had declined, the latest iteration being the American puppet government that then ruled (and still, with a few brief exceptions, rules) the country. Having failed to ‘convert’ Mercouri, who plays the whore with a heart of gold, to philosophical if not physical purity, Homer returns to the U.S. Mercouri and her numerous admirers dive headlong into the waters of Piraeus harbor as his ship sails.
Into that same harbor I would sail, to that ancient land that knew everything, had tried everything and seen—for better or for worse—everything. Meanwhile, as I cheered for Pelé against the home team, Ingeborg, having met Pelé in the Orient and danced with the team manager in Hong Kong, was slowly making her way toward the rendez-vous in Constitution Square, in the heart of Athens, that would shape our lives.