Pelé is arguably the greatest football player that has ever lived. But in an exclusive interview with Vision, the Brazilian star explains that his life is less about his own personal successes, and more about the inspiration he has provided to millions of people
Every four years, football fever grips the world. Fans give up time, money – and admittedly a lot of rational thought – in their journey alongside their heroes. The FIFA World Cup is an event like no other, a stage on which legends are made and dreams come true in front of an entranced audience of billions who watch the drama unfold live, no matter the time zone.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup was particularly special because it was returning to the self-styled ‘home of the beautiful game’, Brazil. As an inspirational setting, it is unrivalled and few were more excited at this homecoming than Edson Arantes do Nascimentio, or, as he is simply known around the world, Pelé.
In their latest TV advert Emirates Airline, Official FIFA Worldwide Partner, feature their ambassadors Pelé and Cristiano Ronaldo as they are spotted by respective fans. When an unknowing boy drafts in Pelé to act as photographer, thrusting his mobile at the star for a picture of him and Ronaldo, Pelé simply chuckles. Fame, it seems, doesn’t really matter to him – although the millions of Brazilians who have titled him ‘The King’ might fail to agree.
It was a long and involved trek to get him, but he was the only one worth trying to get to lift the game out of its anonymity into its huge prominence
It was in Sweden, 1958, when ‘The King’ was introduced to the world. A 17-year-old boy from a poverty-stricken part of Brazil, he had honed his skills by kicking rolled-up socks and grapefruits around his streets and playing in a team called the Shoeless Ones. [The name was literal.]
His inclusion in the squad, therefore, was something of a surprise, especially to him. “I didn’t expect to be called up to the Brazilian team. I wasn’t even a regular at Santos [the professional club in São Paulo].”
But from the moment he cracked a shot against the bar in his first minute it was clear that he was an inspired choice.
Brazil played a type of football at that tournament with which the world was unfamiliar. They dribbled and passed their way around bamboozled European opposition using skills that made all other tactics seem positively prehistoric.
“Back then the Europeans had never seen anything like it,” he recalls. In particular, they had never seen anything like his goal in the final against the Swedes.
A cross came into the box that Pelé controlled with his chest before flicking it neatly over an oncoming defender’s head and volleying it into the corner. It was sensational. The first of two he would score as Brazil cruised to their first World Cup victory 5-2.
In just over a year he had gone from selling peanuts in the street to becoming the youngest player to win a World Cup medal.
“When we arrived in Sweden, many people didn’t know much about our country at all, and when we won the World Cup that year ... we felt we helped put Brazil on the map for the rest of the world to notice.”
The world didn’t just notice. It swooned. Until this point football had been a turgid, ugly, aggressive game and this Brazil side had flipped that completely on its head. They didn’t just show an alternative way to play, they marked a complete shift in style. Everybody wanted to play like Brazil. Clubs as far and wide as Iceland and Japan started enquiring after Brazilian players. Their football had transcended national boundaries.
Pele would go on to score 127 goals for his home club Santos in 1959, and over a thousand in his career. His Brazil side would win three World Cups between 1958-70, and with each success the world became more and more enamoured. In the 1970s a survey showed that Pelé was the second most recognised brand name in Europe. The first was Coca-Cola.
Santos was invited on tours and its players were lauded as heroes. Football was the export that took Brazil to the world. The grace, skill and passion of the team were not just a way to play, but a reflection of them as a people. Of Brazil, as a nation.
“Football is a sport for everybody,” Pelé insists. “No matter your size, height, origin, and religion or demographic, people come together to play and watch the beautiful game all around the globe. I believe it still has the power to transform and unite.
“I have travelled throughout my entire life to bring people together through this beautiful game. The sport has been very good to me and I always want to give back. I have always used my footballing fame to send positive messages and help make changes for our people, especially with the work I have done with the Pequeno Principe (Little Prince) Children’s Hospital in Brazil, along with charities and organizations that I support like Unesco, Unicef, Amfar, the Special Olympics and the FIFA campaign against racism.”
While modern day footballers can sometimes be regarded as prima donnas, Pelé never forgot his humble roots, freely admitting that he is most happy when with his mother as “I am Edson, not Pelé.”
“After I finished my football career, I went back to school because I knew I was missing something essential in my life,” he says, recalling the words of his own personal role model: his father.
“He got injured and could not fulfill his football dreams, but I was so lucky to have him as my father. He taught me a lot about life and football. My father always said, ‘Don’t ever think that you are the best. You need to train hard. You need to be prepared. You need to respect your opponent. You must stay healthy. Only then will you be able to be a great player.’”
With that as his mantra, Pelé recognised that he could do more than just entertain people; he could inspire them.
One amazing example of this occurred in 1967, when Santos were invited to play an exhibition match in Lagos. At the time Nigeria was in the middle of a bitter civil war, but when Pelé and his Santos side visited, both sides called a ceasefire so they could watch him play.
That a group of men raised in poverty on the back streets of Brazil could travel the world and bring some semblance of peace using just their feet was incredible, and a fact not lost on Clive Toye, General Manager of the New York Cosmos [a football club based in New York City].
After the 1970 World Cup, Pelé looked to bring the curtain down on his career, but Toye got in touch to make him an offer. Football, or soccer, as it was known in America, hadn’t really grown in the same way it had elsewhere, and Toye wanted to see if Pelé could change that. He set him the task of ‘cracking America’ alongside other footballing statesmen, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia.
He had honed his skills by kicking rolled-up socks and grapefruits around his streets and playing in a team called the Shoeless Ones. [The name was literal.]
“It was a long and involved trek to get him, but he was the only one worth trying to get to lift the game out of its anonymity into its huge prominence,” says Toye.
Unsurprisingly, it worked. Within two years, players registered in the U.S. Soccer Federation increased from slightly over 100,000 to nearly 400,000. NASL attendance soared, and by 1977 a Cosmos play-off match drew 77,000 fans. Pelé transformed New York Cosmos from a team of roughshod amateurs into one of the best teams in the land. “It was the transfer coup of the century,” wrote author Gavin Newsham in his book, Once in a Lifetime. The incredible story of the New York Cosmos.
Pelé retired again after the 1977 season, playing a final exhibition game before 75,000 fans broadcast to 38 nations. Few would have begrudged him the opportunity to reflect on a job well done at that point. But, with his father’s words echoing in his ears, he has spent the latter part of his life pursuing philanthropic causes, with particular focus on under-privileged children – he has signed contracts to teach soccer to young children in 115 countries.
As his former teammate, Mengálvio said: “Pelé’s star will never burn out, because even after all these years since we’ve stopped playing, he is still shining wherever he goes.”
Pelé smiles. “I am still in good health today so it’s a blessing for me to have the opportunity to keep promoting football and meet the younger generation. I travel to places where I have gotten to meet four generations of fans and I thank God that I am able to do that.
For him, life hasn’t just been a tale of personal success. It has been a blueprint for how talent, application and belief can provide inspiration for others. Be it as a teenager lighting up Europe, at his zenith entertaining America, or as a statesman in the present day, he has consistently relied on talent and hard work to set an example to others and encourage them to seek those skills within themselves. His personal joy comes in seeing that achieved.