Golden Goal: Stories of Soccer Legends

Golden Goal #2: Pelé

Brandon Kelley

Just imagine it: a ball flying through the air, into the box, floating towards an attacking player with his back to goal. Reason says the player should try to settle it, or pass it backwards to a teammate with a better shot. But time seems to slow down as instead, he throws his body into the air, lifting his hips up above his head, and his foot arcs through the air to meet the wayward cross. The ball rockets off his foot, over his own head, and into the back of the net, all while the player himself falls down to the ground.

If you think that sounds like something out of a movie, well, you wouldn’t be the only one. The bicycle kick is the most picturesque move in soccer, at once athletically imposing and graceful, a feat of individual brilliance that endures to this day. But in 1968, it wasn’t nearly as common a sight to see. That is, until a man named Pele jumped up into the air.

Brazilian Portuguese Broadcast.

I’m Brandon Kelley, welcome to Golden Goal: soccer’s greatest stars and the moments that made them. In 1968, Pele has already cemented his status as one of the best players the world had ever seen, a legacy that continues today, fifty years later. The legend of Pele still permeates the sporting world, in everything from the man himself parading around at soccer tournaments and FIFA events, to his signature being a plot point in a Will Ferrell comedy.

But what made Pele so great? Well, for starters, he was one of the most prolific attackers to ever live. He officially scored over 700 goals, maintaining an insane rate of a goal per game over a career that spanned two decades. His unofficial goal count, which includes friendlies and other matches not considered to be technically competitive during his career, stands significantly higher at 1,283, which is still the Guiness World Record. His trophy collection is also unprecedented, as he’s the only player to win three World Cups, in 1958, 1962, and 1970.

Essential to Pele’s mystique was his play being captured on television and film. The oldest soccer clubs started in the late 1800s, and the first World Cup was played in 1930, but live soccer during that time was consumed in one of two ways: either in person, or by radio

broadcast. That changed in the ‘50s, when television sets started becoming common fixtures in the average household. The 1954 World Cup was the first version of the event to be televised. And in 1958, a 17-year-old Pele made his World Cup debut with Brazil, scoring a hat trick in the semi-final and another two goals in the final, winning the tournament. If he had been born twenty years earlier, the vast majority of the soccer world might never have had the chance to see Pele play, given he spent almost his entire career in Brazil. Instead, the world got to see Pele in all his glory, and the trickery, inventiveness, and speed that made him so captivating. He was part of the first generation of soccer stars to truly be internationally acclaimed and seen on a global scale.

Portuguese Broadcast of Pele

Pele’s play was made for video, and the endless play and re-play it could offer people. Every game he played in was a highlight waiting to happen. And as such, all cameras in the stadium tended to follow him closely. Which brings us to an International match against Belgium in 1968.

The funny thing about bicycle kicks is that they’re almost always a product of a mistake. Whether a winger crosses the ball behind his attacker instead of in front of him, where he can more easily finish the ball, or an attempted clearance out of the box is miscued, leaving the ball bouncing around in the danger zone, a bicycle kick is almost always a split-second decision, an attempt to clean up a mess as much as it is trying to catch goalkeepers off-guard. And that’s exactly what Pele did when a cross intended to be in front of him floated behind him, catching the Belgium defense, and everyone in attendance, by surprise. He launched himself up, leg cutting through the air like a scythe, before meeting the ball with thunderous force. It felt like it shouldn’t have worked, like most bicycle kicks. And yet, watching Pele do it, the impossible looked artful and effortless.

The bicycle kick wasn’t created by Pele, and it wasn’t exactly new, either. Soccer’s best historians still argue over when and where the first bicycle kick was executed. Some say Chile, while others say Peru, and the first instance could have been as early as 1892. But it was still uncommon enough in the ‘60s that the play became inextricably linked with Pele, and the magic he wrought upon the field. One of the game’s most iconic images of all time comes from that game, a picture of Pele in mid air, with his foot kicked high above his head. And the world, once again, took notice.

Pele would go on to repeat the trick a few more times throughout the twilight of his career, including with his last club as a professional soccer player, the New York Cosmos. But he was far from finished performing the bicycle kick. Director John Huston was so impressed with Pele’s maneuver that he cast him in a fictional soccer-drama alongside Sylvester Stallone and Michael Cain the film titled Victory, or Escape to Victory, as it was also known and marketed. The movie followed a group of WW2 imprisoned allied soldiers who hatch a plan to escape from a German prison camp by playing an exhibition soccer match against a team of Germans. The allied team officially draws the match rigged for the German side, thanks to a last minute, slow-motion bicycle kick by Pele, not to mention a last minute penalty save by Sylvester Stallone. Turns out, even in the movies, the best American players are goalies.

Oh is this the part where I’m supposed to be scared?

The shot was something of a career-maker for the then-retired Pele, who would star in several more low-budget films and educational videos, performing the bicycle kick in nearly every single one. The United States Soccer Federation actually pointed to the footage of Pele performing the bicycle kick from Victory as the ideal execution of the trick. Everywhere you saw Pele on a screen, it seemed like a bicycle kick would soon follow. The man became synonymous with the kick, and the kick with the man, thanks to the magic of pictures, television, and film.

A rare moment, a golden moment, captured on film and preserved to be relived over and over. In slow motion it becomes a soccer ballet, as ball and man soar to a graceful rendezvous in space, creating a goal of beauty. Often tried, it’s a feat seldom achieved, even with a player with the skills and artistry of Pele.  

“In my life...19, 20 years, I made just 4 or 5 good bicycle kicks.”

Would Pele still be considered one of the best players of all time, if not the best, without the bicycle kick? Probably. He didn’t need the bicycle kick when you look at the sheer size of his body of work. But on that night in 1968, Pele transcended what it meant to simply be a soccer player. He became an idea, a movement, and to some, a God. He became an icon. And his symbol was a player in mid-air, foot swung over his head, making perfect contact with a ball.