Pele became a childhood code word for magic, for exotic excellence, for escapism, for sport’s ability to bewitch.
It seemed fitting that the celestial pathways of Dublin’s Blue Panther and Brazil’s four-letter genius, that single word that became a byword for an athlete without flaw, should intersect.
Here was a tremulous twin reminder of just how profoundly the gladiators of sport’s storied coliseums, whether the stage be domestic or global, touch, inspire and enrich so many lives.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s, A Psalm of Life, is a near two century old poetic masterpiece.
Yet this ancient, wise collage of words summons the essence of how the lyrical journeys of a Samba king and a prince of 1970s Dublin engraved something eternal into their audiences’ marrow.
A tattoo beyond even death’s reach.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
The immortal tracks Pele and the Panther left in their wake offer a powerful endorsement of Longfellow’s thesis.
With his athletic grace, a capacity to elevate the union of ball and boot into high art, Edson Arantes do Nascimento weaved his nickname – Pele – into the planet’s cultural tapestry.
Even for those of us too young to have watched him live, he became a childhood code word for magic, for exotic excellence, for escapism, for sport’s ability to bewitch.
In street games, we all longed to be Pele. Borrowing his name was like affixing a canary-shaded superhero cape to our hide.
Suddenly, we could fly above the everyday, rain Technicolor alchemy on the grey streets of 1970s Ireland.
In that same decade, Anton O’Toole was among Kevin Heffernan’s band of torchbearers who illuminated the forlorn byways of their hometown with an electrifying blue surge.
That Dublin side in which Anton was such a selfless and titanic presence pumped high-octane deposits of hope and self-belief into the city’s fuel tank.
They were less a football team than a movement, offering those who gathered in a vast swell of humanity on Hill 16 a sense of identity that had been hitherto unavailable.
Here was the essence of sport at its transcendent best: An ability to unite a tribe, carry them to a higher plane.
Year after year, those in the arena gift us something precious, make the heart beat faster, give us days that live forever.
Lionel Messi’s untouchable World Cup storyline; Katie Taylor or Kellie Harrington circling a roped Olympic ring; Shane Lowry amid the Portrush sandhills; Ruby Walsh piloting another champion up the Cheltenham incline; Henry Shefflin making a hurl sing; David Clifford donning his wizard’s cloak.
In the album of unforgettable days, almost all of us have several snapshots of a sporting afternoon or evening with a healing power that made all our troubles melt away.
Your county winning an All-Ireland, your club winning a country championship; Italia ‘90; Munster or Leinster conquering Europe; Ken Doherty or Alex Higgins or Dennis Taylor at The Crucible; Stephen Roche on Alpine slopes; Sonia, Paul McGrath, Padraig Harrington, Barry McGuigan, Brian O’Driscoll, Joe Canning, James McCarthy, Lee Keegan.
A day when Manchester United or Liverpool or Shamrock Rovers of Glasgow Celtic propelled you up and above the clouds, made you feel weightless and wildly alive.
When we are ailing, sport offers medication for the soul.
When we feel trapped, imprisoned in the everyday, it provides an escape hatch, a jailbreak from the mundane.
For all that it has been polluted by money and politics and corruption and playacting and greed, here is a landscape above which we find precious rays of sunlight, a license to dream.
The lives of Pele and Anton O’Toole brought music to our world.
I was hardly alone in submitting to tear after tear while watching the documentary on Anton, masterfully stitched together by the Bankos Tales Productions team.
Not merely because he was among my closest friends, but because it was a reminder of lost youth, of the treasures of memory, of how the clock ticks relentlessly on.
The scenes from David Hickey’s garden, Anton’s team-mates gathered in conversation, the imprint of the years clear to see, were glorious and precious and heartbreaking.
Pele’s heart stilled just days after Messi, his successor as an author of the impossible, conquered the mountain where the older man three times planted the Brazilian standard.
Across his many sovereign days, Pele declined to submit to the notion of the impossible.
His straining for greatness, like Anton’s, enriched life after life.
They left an immortal track in the sand, the inspirational type Longfellow anticipated as far back as 1838 when he wrote:
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.