A Must-Read: Pelé as a Comedian

Every once in a while you come across writing so good, you can’t sit still as you’re reading it.

There are moments where you think: “Wow, I wish I had written that.” But thinking like that is selfish, and the next thought is this: “I must share this writing with others.”

I came across such a piece of writing last week, and it was Brian Phillips’ masterful essay, “Pelé as a Comedian.” As I was reading through the essay, I felt chills go down my spine. This is how incredible the writing is. I don’t often say that something is a must-read, but this is an absolute must-read. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of football (soccer); it doesn’t even matter if you like sports. You should read this essay if you appreciate beautiful and compelling writing. So do yourself a favor, head over to the Run of Play blog, and read it.

I highlight my favorite passages below…

Phillips begin the essay with a reference to David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” (if you’ve never read it, it is essential reading):

I am thinking about David Foster Wallace’s essay on Roger Federer, the famous one that ran in the New York Times’s now-defunct sports magazine, Play, in 2006. If you don’t remember it for the argument, you might remember it for the title, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” which even back in ’06 felt like a strange combination of terms.

The introduction is vivid and sets the tone for the rest of the essay. Clearly, this is something Brian Phillips will come back to:

But watching him [Pelé] through a complete game, as I’ve done as often as I could over the last two weeks, reveals a player who is neither alienatingly mediated nor tediously flawless: After a while, you’re just watching a famous 25-year-old play soccer, which is not an unusual experience for a soccer fan. And what’s wonderful about this is not that you get to see Pelé humanize himself by missing shots or committing questionable tackles, although he sometimes does both those things, but precisely that you get to watch a player whose game is almost perfect; you get to watch him fulfill the argument of “Federer as Religious Experience.”

This is one incredible analogy:

Unlike tennis, which augments the player’s physical capabilities with a racket, soccer takes an essential physical tool—the hands—away from the player and forces him to compete in a state of artificial clumsiness. Soccer thus emphasizes the limits of the body and the difficulty of realizing intention. When a player does something amazing, we’re apt to see it not as a superhuman feat (he made the ball travel 150mph!), but as a human victory over what’s essentially an everyday difficulty.

And what of beautiful moments in soccer?

If the crisis of having a body is that it’s resistant to our will, soccer exaggerates the crisis, moves what you want to do even further away from what you can do, then gives us athletes who do what they want to anyway. That may be why moments of beauty in soccer, compared to those in other sports, nearly always feel like consolations.

I love this description of Pelé’s play:

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…

My favorite part of the essay is below, in which Phillips explains a Pelé Moment and how it makes Phillips react:

I don’t know if these experiences are comparable, but watching Pelé over the last few weeks, what I have felt is a frequent, temporary delight that seems to be woven into and essentially a part of my everyday, untranscendent existence. A Pelé Moment might make me shout, or jump out of my chair, but more than anything they seem to make me laugh.

Phillips generalizes here, but it is something I welcome:

You laugh, because it’s exhilarating, and you laugh because the consolation it offers is not a consummate, religious consolation, but an imperfect, fragile piece of momentary happiness. It’s a consolation that was made to make you laugh.

The absurdity, the impossibility of Pelé’s theatrics on the field cannot be ignored, as Phillips writes:

You don’t know it’s about to happen. Then it happens, and it’s impossible even though it’s happening, but it’s happening even though it’s impossible. Everything that’s wrong—the difficulty of controlling the ball, the interposing defenders, the fact that he can’t use his hands—suddenly seems right, because it merely provides the occasion for the astonishing thing he improvises.


And then this beautiful conclusion:

Pelé doesn’t strike me as a religious experience, then. He strikes me as a comedy, or better, as a comedian: not as a stand-up comic or a satirist, but as the opposite of a tragedian, the author of the kind of classical comedy that always ends with a wedding, the kind that revels in turning the order of things upside down so that it can give you the giddy satisfaction of seeing them turned right-side up again.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned above, Phillips’ essay is a must-read. This is one of those rare gems which I consider a work of art. Talk about nurturing a creative genius. I will now read everything that Brian Phillips writes.

(Huge hat tip to @ettagirl, who pointed me to Phillips’ essay)

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