One strange tradition that never fails to deliver is that of a year entering its final days and the Grim Reaper embarking upon a frenzied period of visiting famous names; for Death, the climax of the twelve-month calendar usually consists of breakneck house-to-house calls as though he’s required to fulfil a specific celebrity quota before 31 December and always leaves it till the last minute. Indeed, he left it so late this year that he ended up calling on two exemplary figures in their chosen fields on the same day, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Brazilian football legend Pelé. The latter’s battle with cancer had been publicised and his hospitalisation routinely referenced during the recent World Cup, when Lionel Messi became the latest player to wear the crown that the man born Edson Arantes do Nacimento had copyrighted from the age of 17; in contrast with an anticipated passing that had felt inevitable for several weeks, news that Vivienne Westwood has also died came as more of a surprise, with few beyond her inner circle aware she was fatally ill. Born within six months of each other, one was a king and one was a dame, and both left an indelible mark on 20th century pop culture that will long outlast their mortal remains.
At a time when access to football played beyond Europe was minimal to say the least, the World Cup was the only real window to the global game available to football followers in the UK and on the Continent – and even then it could be something of a logistical challenge for it to reach British and European screens. If the tournament was staged in South America – such as Chile in 1962 – the fact that broadcasting’s satellite age was still a twinkle in Telstar’s eye meant games would be shot on film and then rushed to a waiting plane; in 1962, TV viewers over here had to wait an unimaginable two days after the Final itself was played before they actually got to see the match transmitted on the BBC. Four years earlier, at the least the contest was a little closer to home, staged in Sweden. This was just the sixth World Cup tournament, and up to that point the Jules Rimet trophy had only been held aloft by three countries – Uruguay, Italy and West Germany. Brazil had reached the Final on one solitary occasion – 1950 – and had suffered an inconceivable loss on home soil to Uruguay; they felt it was their destiny to win, but despite their dazzling flair, Brazil never seemed able to leap that final hurdle to immortality. And then, in 1958, they unveiled a prodigy.
In 1958, the 17-year-old Vivienne Swire had relocated from her birthplace in working-class Derbyshire to begin student life on a jewellery course at Harrow Art School; on the other side of the world, Edson Arantes do Nacimento – who had emerged from a poverty-stricken corner of Sao Paulo – was the great discovery of Brazilian club Santos and was a year into his international career when the World Cup in Sweden came calling. Rapidly on his way to becoming a household name in his own country, Pelé (having adopted the time-honoured Brazilian tactic of going by a nickname) was Brazil’s secret weapon in 1958. Although he didn’t make his debut until the third and final group game, by the time the team entered the knock-out stage – which in those more manageable days of just 16 teams was the Quarter-Final – he scored the only goal against Wales; in the Semi-Final Vs France he netted a hat-trick and the rest of the world sat up and took notice. In the Final, he scored twice as Brazil hammered the host nation 5-2 and finally fulfilled their destiny by getting their hands on the most coveted prize in football. Overnight, the teenager had become a global superstar.
Four years later, Pelé’s reputation had grown to the point where Santos had received numerous tempting offers for their greatest asset from a string of eager English and European big guns – including Manchester United and Real Madrid – but had held firm, with the Brazilian Government declaring him an official national treasure in order to prevent his export. He kick-started Brazil’s defence of the World Cup in Chile with the expectations of a nation weighing heavily on his shoulders, but suffered an injury early in the tournament and played no further part in the contest; despite Brazil retaining the trophy without him in Chile, Pelé fared even worse in England in 1966, exposed to the worst ‘professional tackles’ of the era as he was kicked out of the competition by Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders; the holders exited at the group stage and Pelé vowed to never grace the global stage again. Whilst all this was happening, Vivienne Westwood had walked out on her first marriage (from which she took her surname) and had set up home with Malcolm McLaren, a partnership that would prove fruitful for both. Although earning a wage as a primary school teacher, Westwood was already designing her own clothes, and by the early 1970s she and McLaren had opened a boutique called Let It Rock on Chelsea’s King’s Road, one that specialised in vintage Teddy Boy gear from the 50s.
As Westwood and McLaren were establishing themselves on the King’s Road, Pelé had relented from his decision of 1966 and was back in the Brazil line-up for the Mexico World Cup in 1970. Like Maradona in 1986 and Messi in 2022, this was Pelé’s chance to justify his reputation before a global audience, and he – and his team – didn’t disappoint. Even now, over half-a-century later, that Brazil side is still acknowledged as arguably the finest team ever to win the competition; indeed, so overwhelmed were FIFA by Brazil’s performance that they allowed them to keep the Jules Rimet trophy forever as they became the first country to capture it for a third time. Yes, Pelé was the star man, but he was ably supported by players whose names evoked Renaissance artists – Jairzinho, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto – and who played with an artistic flair unparalleled in the history of the game. Prior to the Final, the game of the tournament came between Brazil and defending champions England; Brazil won 1-0, but the match is chiefly remembered for Gordon Banks’ miraculous save against Pelé – as memorable a moment as Pelé’s attempted goal from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia. Brazil defeated Italy 4-1 in the Final, with the opening goal coming from the man himself; it was Pele’s last game in the World Cup, retiring from international football a year later and resisting efforts to coax him out of international retirement in 1974.
By the mid-70s, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren had renamed their boutique ‘Sex’ and had begun selling the kind of fetish gear normally unseen outside of Soho backrooms; Westwood was certainly ahead of her time, considering such gear is now commonplace with gimps on dog-leads entertaining toddlers on Pride parades. They then tapped into a craze amongst impoverished London art students (including a certain Johnny Rotten) for wearing ripped clothes held together by safety pins; the two strands combined and created the Punk look, which – when stitched to the music produced by the band McLaren managed, The Sex Pistols – ended up selling a lifestyle. It was the springboard for Westwood to become Britain’s most renowned and radical young designer, and she never really looked back. As Punk was bubbling on the King’s Road, Pelé had done the unthinkable and relocated from Santos to the US, helping to launch the North American Soccer League in the colours of the New York Cosmos. Hip Americans who were finding football a hard sell instantly warmed to the fact a black man was considered the planet’s finest footballer, and even though Pelé was arguably past his best at 35, he still outshone most of the competition on the stateside field of play and didn’t finally retire for good until 1977.
Whether an elder statesman still selling his sport around the world or an established fashion designer attaching her profitable name to whichever cause she sought to promote, both Pelé and Vivienne Westwood had become global brands by the time they simultaneously bowed-out of the spotlight and both are pretty much irreplaceable, however many pretenders to their respective crowns they survived in their lifetimes and will continue to withstand in death.
© The Editor