Pelé’s shimmering legend was forged in the heat of the 1970 World Cup finals | Jonathan Wilson

The displays that brought worldwide affection came in a tournament that has a mythic place in the collective memory

Football is rarely just football and footballers are rarely just footballers. Pelé was a brilliant forward, a player of grace and imagination, of explosive pace and extraordinary balance, but that is not why his death on Thursday caused such a widespread sense of loss. Nor is it the three World Cups or the two Copa Libertadores he won. To respond to the question of why Pelé mattered with a list of attributes or medals is to miss the point: he mattered because of what he represented.

But to define what he represented is almost impossible, not least because, particularly once his playing career was over, his capacity to represent almost anything made him an advertiser’s dream. He existed in a perfect commercial space, somebody of stature and charisma who was somehow also a blank canvas, capable of promoting almost anything, from Puma to Pepsi, Viagra to diamonds made by heating his own hair under extreme pressure.

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