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Letting It Be: The Beatles, Pelé, and the art of restraint

How could it be that Pelé, with such incredible talent and experience, surrounded by the best team in the world, would decide to not kick the ball?

In the spring of 1969 The Beatles got together to get back to basics. After several years of increasingly complex recording processes and increasingly complex personal and creative relationships, the band was hoping to recapture the magic of their early years: four incredibly talented guys playing music in a room together, without dense layers of studio polish complicating their output.

Many of us know this story, especially if you've seen the Peter Jackson film documenting the recording of what would eventually become the Let It Be album. The Beatles were at the height of their fame and success. In that moment, with as much creative potential as any rock band in history, with unprecedented financial resources and the gravity to summon any musical talent to collaborate on the project, The Beatles could have made any record they wanted. But instead of opting for the multi-tracked complexity of their recent records, the question they decided to ask was: what happens if we just let it be?

One year later, over 5,000 miles away in Guadalajara, Mexico, something similar happened on a soccer field in the semi-finals of the 1970 World Cup. Brazil’s Pelé, one the greatest attacking players in history, made a run down the center of the field. His compatriot Tostão looked up and played a ball into the space in front of Pelé, leading him directly onto goal. The opposing goalkeeper, Uruguayan Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, sprinted out to meet Pelé and hoped to get a foot on the ball before Pelé could score. What happened next has been called "the greatest goal never scored," making it perhaps the world's greatest-ever non-goal. It was a play so inventive, so incredible, so skillful that only a master could produce it–a non-goal so good it's even got its own Wikipedia entry.

With a perfect pass placed in front of him, with only the keeper to stop him, on the biggest stage imaginable, Pelé, perhaps the most talented soccer player of all-time, decided to nottouch the ball. To let the ball roll past him and the keeper while everyone in the stadium (including Mazurkiewicz) expected Pelé to shoot. To let it be.

As the ball rolled past Mazurkiewicz, who was now several yards out of his box and completely exposed, Pelé sprinted forward to retrieve the ball and quickly shoot before the keeper could get back into position. Although he got to the ball with what appeared to be enough time and space to hit an accurate shot on goal, somehow the ball bounced wide of the post and out of bounds. Maybe the sight of a Uruguayan defender covering the goal threw Pelé off, maybe he was just surprised to have so much space after his daring non-touch had worked. But somehow this inventive, counterintuitive play didn't result in a goal–a goal that would have certainly been one of the greatest ever scored in the World Cup, which would make it one of the greatest goals ever scored in the history of the world.

A dummy in action. Player A lets the ball roll past him to Player B, who shoots on goal. Defenders C and D were drawn in by the dummy and are now exposed.

It's precisely their willingness to take their hands off of the process that makes Let It Be so iconic, as it's Pelé's instinct to let the ball roll that makes this non-goal so memorable.

How could it be that Pelé, with such incredible talent and experience, playing with the best team in the world, would decide to notkick the ball? Was it the same instinct that Paul McCartney and The Beatles had in 1969 to eschew the studio wizardry of the era for a lighter or non-existent production touch? How did these icons of creativity know that in the biggest moments, sometimes giving up control can set you free? Soccer, and sports in general are often defined by what a player does with the ball. Dribbling, passing, even defending are built on the idea of taking action with the ball. It’s this element of surprising inaction that makes what’s known in soccer as a “dummy” so interesting: a player lets the ball play past them when the world expects them to take a touch, make a pass or take a shot, subverting the expectations of opponents and viewers. Dummies work so well because they draw defensive attention to a player that appears likely to take action on the ball. A good dummy forces a reaction by the opposing team that pulls them out of position or requires an adjustment that leaves them vulnerable to an ensuing attack. At its most direct a dummy can lead to a goal right away, if the player performing the dummy draws attention while letting the ball roll to a teammate who has a clear, undefended shot at goal. Indirectly, dummies can lead to a transition of play from one part of the field to another that stretches the defense and makes their job harder. In the context of an entire game, a well-executed dummy can make defensive players hesitant to apply the same amount of pressure when a player is receiving the ball later on. Whether the impact of a successful dummy is seen immediately or cumulatively throughout a game, it’s one of the most fun and unique non-goals to behold.

The 1970 Brazilian World Cup team.

Most Beatles fans would agree that Let It Be is not the group's best record. There are moments of excellence like "Get Back" or "I've Got a Feeling" but there are also too many half-finished or ill-conceived songs that make the record a bit of a let-down from The Beatles' incredibly high standards. But even though it's not one of their most highly-regarded albums, it produced moments that are just as legendary as anything The Beatles ever did: the audacity to strip their sound back to its essentials, the spontaneity to perform a live show on the rooftop of their studio in the middle of the day, the culmination of inner turmoil that launched them all into their own individual pursuits. It's precisely their willingness to take their hands off of the process that makes Let It Be so iconic, just as it's Pelé's instinct to let the ball roll that makes this non-goal so audacious and memorable. It’s a rare moment of inaction that rivals any moment of action on the soccer field.

The Beatles went back into the studio for one more record after Let It Be, and the resultant Abbey Road was full of the kind of action we love from The Beatles. Multi-tracked vocal harmonies and dense layers of traditional and experimental musical sounds were a big part of The Beatles’ last record together (George Harrison wheeled his own custom-made Moog synthesizer into the studio for the sessions), just as Pelé went on to take plenty of action with the ball, winning the 1970 World Cup and scoring against Italy in the final, which would be his last. Famed for their industry as much as their quality in the early years of their careers, it’s interesting that these famous moments of inaction took place in the final stages of both The Beatles’ and Pelé’s creative journeys. Could the early Beatles, playing several shows each night in the nightclubs of Hamburg and putting maximum effort into their studio work, imagine taking their foot off the gas to rediscover their creative magic? And could Pelé, the youngest person to ever play in a World Cup Final at 17, imagine that every time he touched the ball he’d set the stage for the most famous non-touch in the history of the game? Dummies only work when defenders have an expectation that the offensive player will actually play the ball, which is why dummies from the most renowned creative minds come at such a surprise and make such a lasting impression. Only through such prodigious action could a surprising moment of inaction be so impactful.

Paul McCartney claims to support Liverpool and Everton "equally" and is obviously lying.

In following years we've seen plenty of similar plays that result in actual goals. This one from Jesper Blomqvist, this recent play from Real Madrid, The Strokes first album, etc. A hands-off, lighter touch has been proven to be an excellent way to score great goals. But there will always be the original moments when creative geniuses decide to strip down their performance, creating non-goals more brilliant that the ones that make it to the back of the net.


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