The shoeless ones who humbled the world

The shoeless ones who humbled the world

Published Jun. 11, 2014 4:36 p.m. ET

Pelé, Maradona, Eusébio. They are three of soccer’s biggest legends whose goal-making abilities and prowess on the pitch brought packed stadiums to their feet and continue to inspire, decades after their final matches have been played. Born of the most humble of origins in their respective countries—BrazilArgentina and Mozambique—they personify triumph and invoke a powerful sense of destiny that is the mystique of the World Cup. How a sport traditionally played on a wide green field could somehow be reinvented and mastered by barefoot children, kicking makeshift balls in narrow streets and confined spaces, is a marvel that continues to repeat itself with names like Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlosto show for it. As the World Cup returns to Brazil after 64 years, there is no better time to contemplate soccer’s reigning kings, to the backstreets, slums and favelas born.

In the exuberant words of Pelé as written in his 2006 book, Pelé: The Autobiography, “—happy is the child who can play out in the street!” For Pelé those streets were in Bauru, São Paulo where he moved at the age of four with his family. In spite of extreme economic hardship, having a close-knit family instilled a strong feeling of security in Pelé. He spent many sunny afternoons outdoors with his friends, inventing games and kicking around a ball he often made himself, most famously by stuffing paper into a sock and shaping it as best he could into something round. Engaged in endless play entwined with daydreams of playing football as well as his father, Pelé honed the skills and forged the tricks that would transport him from his cul-de-sac “playground,” to Maracanã Stadium. Many of the most celebrated moments of Pelé’s career would take place at Maracanã, including a goal he made during a Santos vs. Fluminense match (Pelé played for Santos) that a local paper had memorialized on a bronze plaque, the gol de placa, which can still be seen at the stadium’s entrance. It reads: “On this pitch on 5/3/1961,Pele scored the finest goal in the history of the Maracanã.”

Like Pelé , many great soccer talents exhibit a passion for the sport as young as 3; Lionel Messistarted playing for a local youth club at the age of 5. Andrés Iniesta, long before becomingSpain’s little magician, when he was just simply little, is said to have referred to his soccer ball as his best friend. For many of those who developed their skills as young street players—Zidane, Ronaldo, Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo—soccer dominated their thoughts morning, noon, and night. What feels like play for these athletes is really intense practice without any rules, just raw talent driven by passion to the point where the ball basically becomes an extra appendage.


That said, there’s no other player whose adoration for soccer bleeds so profusely than Diego Maradona. A child raised in the impoverished area of Villa Fiorito, a slum on the outskirts ofBuenos Aires, Maradona was caught in the thrall of soccer ever since he can remember. Soccer for Maradona was not merely a passion, it was a seduction of Nabakovian extremes, a religious epiphany and a pain-killing drug. Not separately, but all at once. In Maradona: The Autobiography, Maradona recalls his first leather soccer ball that he received as a gift at the age of 3 and slept with clenched to his chest all night. By the age of 9, he had a repertoire of tricks at the ready: nutmegs, back-heel flicks and the sombrero, a trick that involves chipping the ball over an opponent’s head and recovering it on the other side.

Similar to Pelé, and Eusébio of Portugal, Maradona was a devoted son and close to his family, but it seems his only real joy in life was on the pitch. He expresses in his book the yearning of a true artist, “Give me a ball and let me do what I know best, anywhere.” Anyone who has seen the 5’ 5” midfielder’s razor-sharp technique in action knows he was being sincere when he wrote that. Maradona’s most famous goal is also soccer’s most famous goal. It took place at the 1986 World Cup in a match against England and was earth-shattering enough to eclipse a handball committed earlier in that same game. Both moments live on robustly on YouTube. Argentina of course went on to win the World Cup that year and Maradona became an instant divinity in the sport.

Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, aka, Eusébio, is undoubtedly the lesser known of this trifecta of champions, at least among young soccer fans who aren’t Portuguese. Eusébio’s early life has many parallels to those of Pelé and Maradona: a young soccer prodigy, and dutiful son, growing up in an extremely poor neighborhood, who defiantly chose soccer over everything else. Word spread quickly of the boy wonder playing in the gravel lots of Mafalala, who could do anything with the ball. Béla Guttmann, pioneer of the 4-2-4 formation and then manager of Portuguese club, Benfica, flew in to see, and sign the “Phenomenon of Mafalala.” To say it paid off would be an insult, as Eusébio was the antithesis of the mercenary world that sports has become. He was a master of goals—almost one for every 744 games he played in his career—known for outstanding sportsmanship, virtue, intellect and lethal precision on the pitch.

Maybe it’s the homemade balls of socks and paper they make as children, or their audacity to take shots from impossible angles; maybe it’s the way they point up to heaven after one of those shots somehow miraculously makes it into the net. Whatever it is, there’s something about the Romarios of this world, the Ronaldinhos, the Cafus that conjures up magic on the pitch and makes you swear the ball is playing favorites. And why wouldn’t it. Without money, without store-bought clothing or shoes, these children were gifted with a depth of passion for soccer that could not be held down or concealed. When they win, emotions are exalted and the watching world is humbled. For in the smiles of these champions are the reflections of the children who in the shantytowns of their homelands hold the world at their feet.