Pelé (Edson Arantes Do Nascimento)

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PelÉ (Edson Arantes do Nascimento)

October 23, 1940

Pelé, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in the town of Tres Coragőes in Minas Gerais, Brazil, is widely regarded as the greatest soccer player in the history of the game. Affectionately called "the black pearl" or simply "the king," Pelé rose from a life of bitter third-world poverty to become an international celebrity and one of the most committed, accomplished, and respected athletes of all time. For not only did Pelé revolutionize and popularize the

game of soccer; he also used his fame to heighten public awareness of poverty, improve the working conditions of Brazilian soccer players, and spread the message of equality through soccer.

Born to João Ramos do Nascimento, a professional soccer player, and Dona Celeste, Pelé, initially harbored dreams of becoming an aviator. Emulating his father and teammates from the Bauru Athletic Club (BAC), Pelé began playing soccer at the age of eight with neighborhood boys in his hometown of Bauru. Pelé and his friends relished in their own amateur matches played with a makeshift ball, fashioned from stuffing a large sock full of newspaper as neither Pelé nor his teammates could afford to buy a soccer ball. Like other children among Brazil's working class, Pelé sought employment. He supplemented his father's meager soccer earnings by alternately working as a shoe-shine boy and as a meat pie vendor. Although poverty informed much of Pelé's daily existence in Bauru, he was not numbed by it; rather, poverty gave Pelé keen insight into the human condition: "Poverty is a curse that depresses the mind, drains the spirit and poisons life Poverty is being robbed of self-respect and self reliance. Poverty is fear. Not fear of death, which though inevitable is reasonable; it is fear of life" (Fish, pp. 1415). It would be this realistic, yet compassionate sensibility that would form Pelé's later political and humanitarian work.

In 1955, at the age of fifteen, after winning the BAC Junior Victory Cup, Pelé was recruited by the local soccer club Santos, a testimony to his prodigious talent. In 1958, at the age of seventeen, Pelé was selected to the Brazilian national team to compete in the World Cup tournament in Sweden. Scoring a memorable goal in the final game against Sweden, Pelé's World Cup debut was stunning. Pelé had little time to revel in Brazil's victory, for the following year he began serving his one-year mandatory military duty. In 1960 he returned to Santos, and the team toured throughout Europe, playing against soccer clubs in Denmark, Italy, and Portugal.

While Brazil emerged victorious once again in the 1962 World Cup tournament, Pelé was sidelined by a nagging groin injury and forced to watch his team compete from the bench. The highly anticipated 1966 World Cup finals proved to be both disheartening and demoralizing for Pelé and the Brazilian team, as Brazil failed to emerge from the group stages.

In 1967 Pelé's Santos team went on a tour of Africa that, for Pelé, was a life-changing experience:

It was with very strong and strange emotions that I first saw Africa. It was a completely different experience from seeing the cities of Europe. Everywhere I went I was looked upon and treated as a god, almost certainly because I represented to the blacks in those countries what a black man could accomplish in a country where there was little racial prejudice. (Fish, p. 203)

So greatly was Pelé revered by Africans that when he played an exhibition game in Nigeria that year, the country's civil war ground to a halt, a formerly warring nation now rapt at the sight of Pelé on the soccer field. As Pelé stated: "To these people, who had little possibility of ever escaping the crushing poverty in which they found themselves, I somehow represented a ray of hope"(Fish, p. 203).

Though Pelé generally maintained that Brazilian society was free of the kind of racism that crippled American society, in his autobiography he recalls the tragic tale of his first love, a young Portuguese girl. As school let out, then twelve-year-old Pelé watched in horror as the girl's father accosted and spanked her in front of Pelé and all of their classmates for simply sharing an innocent friendship with the young Pelé who, immobilized by humiliation, endured the man's racist verbal abuse as well (Fish, pp. 103104). Pelé also cites the media frenzy surrounding his 1965 marriage to Rosemeri Cholbyas, evidence of Brazil's

racial prejudice, for the press made much of their interracial union.

In 1969, during the Santos match against Vasco da Gama, Pelé scored his historic one-thousandth goal, which he dedicated to Brazil's young, poor street children, weeping as he entreated the public to "Remember the children, remember the poor children" (Harris, p. 75). At this point in his career, Pelé was already an international superstar, yet, his humility, compassion, and conscience enabled him to continually relate to those suffering the crushing effects of poverty.

Pelé and the Brazilian team were eager to redeem themselves in the 1970 World Cup tournament. The Brazilian team emerged victorious, going undefeated throughout the tournament, culminating in a finals victory over Italy in which Pelé scored one goal and assisted on two others. In 1970 Pelé also began planning his retirement from international football. On July 18, 1971, Pelé played his final game with the Brazilian national team in the famed Maracana stadium, against Yugoslavia. The match was an emotional one, with the crowd, over 180,000 strong, chanting: "Fica! Fica!" meaning "Stay! Stay!" Brazilian fans were not the only ones to express their sadness at Pelé's impending departure; dignitaries and heads of state such as President Richard Nixon and England's Queen Elizabeth also bid Pelé farewell.

In 1972, Santos experienced several changes in management, among them the firing of Pelé's mentor, Professor Mazzei. Pelé's contract with Santos expired that same year and, as part of his renegotiations, he agreed to play one of his two remaining years for free, his salary to be donated to charity. It was also during this time that Pelé and his Santos teammates met with the Brazilian president to discuss the need for a national soccer players' union. The following year, on May 25, 1973, Pelé played his final game with Santos.

The 1970s continued with Pelé signing lucrative contracts with Pepsi to conduct soccer clinics in 150 countries, and with the New York Cosmos soccer team. While Pelé was not eager to immigrate to the United States and join a failing team, bad business investments and the threat of bankruptcy forced him to sign with the Cosmos. According to Pelé, his work in the Pepsi-Cola-sponsored clinics, which took him to countries in Asia and Africa, was a tremendously gratifying experience that strengthened his own belief in the potential for unity across racial lines:

My trips for Pepsi-Cola put me in direct contact with children of all races and colors in all countries. It constantly reminded me of a truth I had always knownthere are no differences between children it was our hope that the children would learn to understand the only differences between football players was in their skills, not in the color of their skin or the slope of their eyes. (Fish, p. 296)

Armed with his belief in soccer's potential to unify people of all races, Pelé stipulated that the Cosmos' parent companyWarner Communicationssponsor a soccer school for the impoverished children of Santos, Brazil. As for Pelé's contribution to the Cosmos, it was as stunning as his 1958 World Cup debut. Pelé improved the team's record and more than doubled average attendance, from eight thousand to twenty thousand a game. At the close of his career with the Cosmos, Pelé's farewell game was played against his beloved Santos; he played the first half with the Cosmos and the second with Santos, his second and final farewell to his "beautiful game."

The 1980s and 1990s found Pelé receiving several honors and translating his soccer fame into a career in public service and politics. He was named "Footballer of the Century" by the members of the Football Writers' Association of London in 1983. In 1994 he was appointed Brazil's minister of sport for four years. During his tenure with the Brazilian government, he tirelessly advocated on behalf of Brazilian soccer players, culminating in the passage of the so-called Pelé Law, which provides regulations for the sport in the interests of professional athletes. In 1998 the Queen of England bestowed an honorary knighthood upon Pelé. In 1999 he was honored at the World Sports Awards of the Century and named Footballer of the Millennium, and in 2000 The International Football Association (FIFA) honored him with the Player of the Century award.

See also Soccer


Fish, Robert L., with Pelé. My Life and the Beautiful Game. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.

Harris, Harry. Pelé: His Life and Times. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000.

Marcus, Joe. The World of Pelé. New York: Mason-Charter, 1976.

Mason, Tony. Passion of the People? Football in South America. London: Verso, 1995.

larose parris (2005)