All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80
Note from BBT: I can’t say with any certainty when I first heard the name Pelé, but I do know it was some time in the late 70s. As a child, I was an avid sports fan and prided myself on being a walking sports encyclopedia. I could remember birthdates, points per game averages, batting averages and rushing yards of players in the three most popular American sports as well as any sports journalist. To keep up with stats, teams and players, I always asked my parents to buy me sports books and I remember having at least two subscriptions to Sports Illustrated magazine.
I had many favorite sports heroes, but my favorite player was the legendary Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J, the high-flying forward of the Philadelphia 76ers. The first book I remember reading in my life was about Dr.J, and like any black kid growing up in the ‘hood, I wanted to be like The Doctor. I played all three of the big three most popular team sports in the United States, basketball, football and baseball, and when I wasn’t playing, I was glued in front of the television watching the games, both professional and college. (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
I also watched boxing matches and was aware of other sports such as soccer, hockey, volleyball, bowling, etc. I reguarly went bowling or watched my father’s weekly bowling events, but sports such as soccer and volleyball I would only play when I was required to participate during my school’s gym classes. I only knew one black family that advidly watched hockey and soccer just didn’t interest me.
Even not being into soccer, I still knew who Pelé was. He was the first Brazilian I ever knew of. At such a young age, I hadn’t come to understand how black people ended up in so many countries in the Americas but you didn’t have to know where they were from to recognize that non-American black people looked like people in the family and my neighborhood. (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
As soccer wasn’t a sport that caught my attention, I didn’t know anything about Pelé when he began to play for the North American Soccer League with the New York Cosmos, but I couldn’t help but note all of the hoopla there was in the media about his arrival in the US. Pelé would appear on the cover of an issue of Sports Illustrated at that time wearing the green and white of the Cosmos. From the reports I read about him, he was supposed to be like Dr. J of soccer. As I had only seen photos of him and had never actually seen him play, I couldn’t develop an opinion on this.
There were at least five things that Dr. J and Pelé had in common and, if I were to really think about it, I would probably find many more. One was playing for teams located in New York. Dr.J had constructed his image as one the most exciting basketball players in history playing for the New York Nets of the old American Basketball Association, the ABA, the rival league of the NBA, the National Basketball Association. Erving’s last year with the Nets was also the ABA’s last year, the league folding in 1976 due to financial issues. Erving was in his prime at the age of 27 when he would join the 76ers for the 1976-77 season. (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
On the other hand, Pelé, at age 34, had joined the Cosmos in the twilight of his career. I didn’t know it, but the man whose real name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento had already won three World Cup titles, an incredible feat for a single player. The second thing they shared was, similar to Erving joining the NBA in Philly, Pelé arrived in New York with high expectations from fans and the league. Thinking back, another thing the two had in common, at least for me, was the fact that I had missed the best years of both. Although both athletes were still great, by the time Erving had joined the NBA and Pelé had joined the NASL, I had no way of knowing their prior careers. In Doc’s case, ABA games didn’t gain television exposure and Pelé played his career up to that point in Brazil, plus soccer wasn’t very popular in the US. (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
Erving had carried the declining ABA for many years and, as the ABA hadn’t received much media attention, people really hadn’t seen vintage Erving and, with his arrival, it was expected that he would not only bring a championship to Philly, but also revitalize a league whose popularity had declined in the years before he joined the 76ers. Similarly, it was hoped that Pelé could do the same for an NASL that simply couldn’t compete with the big three American sports.
This hope that Pelé could make soccer more popular in the US was matched by his salary. Joining the league in 1975, Pelé signed a deal that would pay him nearly $1.5 million per year, a staggering amount of money at the time. For the sake of comparison, consider the fact that Erving didn’t reach the seven-figure mark until sometime in the early to mid-1980s. It’s absolutely mind-boggling to realize that a current athlete like LeBron James earns Pelé’s 1975 salary, which was extremely lucrative for the time, in less than four NBA games! (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
Another similarity The Doctor and The King shared was joining star-studded teams. Erving would join a 76ers team that already had higher-scoring all-stars such as fellow ABA collegue, power forward George McGinnis, guard Doug Collins and a host of other players players who had the potential to be all-stars. Pelé’s Cosmos also featured the Italian Giorgio Chinaglia and the West German Franz Beckenbauer. (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
After playing a few seasons for the Cosmos, Pelé officially ended his career in 1977. It would only be when I “discovered” Brazil at the close of the 20th century that I began to understand the magnitude of Pelé’s career. He was nicknamed “O Rei”, “The King” of soccer, and at one point or another, EVERY major soccer star, Brazilian or not, would be compared to the great in the same way that a debate rages today over the possibility of anyone unseating Michael Jordan as the “GOAT” (greatest of all-time) in basketball. Coincidentally, Pelé called it quits in 1977, a few weeks before reaching the age of 37, while Erving, 10 years younger, would retire 10 years later, also at the age of 37.
As it was the question of race and the history of black Brazilians that attracted me to Brazil in the first place, it would only be a matter of time before the race question in regards to Pelé would come up during my research. What I discovered was intriguing. While black Brazilians hailed him the one of the greatest, if not THE greatest of all-time, like Jordan, Pelé left much to be desired in terms of the race issue.
In my two decades of researching things of Brazil, I conclude that Pelé must also be THE most criticized figure in terms of racial politics. He has been criticized for his silence as well as the manner in which he has downplayed the issue for decades. Many have defined Pelé’s comments on race as truly embarrassing. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Nascimento constructed his image as a god on the field of futebol, but at a time when athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, John Carlos and Tommy Smith were taking firm stances on race, society and sports, Pelé was missing in action. (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
I remember sometime in the early 2000s having a conversation with a guy named Romeo that I used to work with in a retail store in Michigan. He was also black, but he clearly knew more about soccer than I did. As I had just begun my annual trips to Brazil at the time, we would frequently discuss things about the country. Speaking of Pelé, he remembered once seeing an interview with the soccer great in which a journalist asked him something about being black. (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
According to Romeo, Pelé stopped the journalist, put up his index finger and said, “I am Brazilian!” I can’t confirm this statement, but considering Pelé’s non-positioning on the race factor for so many years, I could imagine him saying something like this. At that time, Brazil, was in the middle of a Military Dictatorship and not only had the country been divulging the myth that the country was a racial democracy, at one point, it could actually be considered illegal to speak out against racism. According to the wording of Law 5250/67 of 1967, speaking out on things related to race and class was a national security issue and considered a threat to the politcal and social order.
For years, I looked at Pelé as a disgrace as a black man for his silence on the clear existence of racial discrimination that had held black Brazilians in their “place” well after 350 years of slavery. A black man, arguably the most famous Brazilian in the world, had enormous influence on society and he could have used this fame and later fortune to become a voice that black Brazilians desparately needed. In the 1970s, 80s and beyond, it was very common for black Brazilians to deny even being black and believing that racism didn’t exist in their country.
There’s no way to know with any certainty how Pelé speaking out on these issues could have affected society, but I now have to see the icon as a simply a product of his time. I consider Pelé’s era, where he came from and where his position as a rich and famous black man placed him. It is a well-known fact that in Pelé’s time, black Brazilians simply didn’t speak on the race issue. Deep down, they knew it existed, but they were taught to deny it or ignore it. Unlike in the US, race wasn’t an issue that black Brazilian families would discuss at their dinner tables, and having been born in that era, in 1940, it would be unrealistic to expect that Pelé would do so.
This is yet another difference between the United States and Brazil that puts into question which society was/is better for black people. In the US, the militancy of black Americans had reached a fever pitch in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of numerous exponents of civil rights and black power. There were organizations dedicated to racial equality, student groups, magazines, music featuring lyrics of protest against racism, films that approached the issue and numerous other areas of society in which people boldly spoke out. It was a time of black revolution.
In Brazil, it was a different story. The most prominent Afro-Brazilian activist of the time, Abdias do Nascimento, went into exile because of it. It was much easier for him to denounce racism in the United States than it was in his own country. To understand the lengths the Brazilian dictatorship would go to protect its image, it even censored Nascimento when he attempted to expose Brazilian racism during the 1977 Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Nigeria. In Brazil of the 1930s, black political parties were effectively prohibited during the first dictatorship and even by the 1970s, even with black people being excluded from so many areas of society, cultural groups such as Ilê Aiyê were advised not to adopt the name “Black Power”, and countless Afro-Brazilian activists were arrested and interrogated on suspicions that would create a similar black revolution in Brazil.
I’m not saying I excuse Pelé’s silence on this issue, but I do wonder how many people would have had the courage to do such a thing at the time. At that time in Brazil, anyone of Pelé stature’s would surely have had to blaze this trail alone. When Ali took a political stance at the height of his career, a number of black athletes stepped forward in support of his cause. I can’t say that at that time, Pelé would have received such support from other Afro-Brazilian athletes. Today, I think this would happen, but Afro-Brazilians have made enormous strides in terms of the race issue in the past few decades that simply wasn’t possible in Pelés time. From various videos and photos, we know that Pelé knew Ali and has to know of the things “The Champ” said in terms of the race issue. I have to wonder what Pelé thought of this in terms of his own politics. But Pelé isn’t a black American and he isn’t Ali.
Here was a black man who rose to a position that was nearly impossible for any black Brazilian. He was globally known, rich, was the pitchman for numerous products and was seen meeting various dignitaries around the world. Perhaps these are some of the very reasons that Pelé would not speak out. Like Michael Jordan, Pelé had the choice of having the world laid out at his doorstep or perhaps losing it all do a controversial political stance. If I were a betting man, I would wager that someone pulled Pelé to the side and had a talk with him about what he could say or do publicly. (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
Besides presumed pressure from Brazilian authorities authorities at the time, I also wonder what types of conversations Pelé had with the likes of American President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. CIA notes document a possible relationship between The King of Futebol and Kissinger and I find it hard to believe that their conversations were only about soccer, even as Kissinger was apparently a key figure in convincing Pelé to take his talents to the US. People don’t like to admit this, but fame and fortune come at a high price, a price that often compromises some of our most admirable public figures.
Was Pelé bought and paid for or was he simply not the man to lead a black Brazilian revolution? I think it’s a little of both. Would he be different if he had been born in the 1970s, 80s or 90s? Possibly, but he could have easily been like current star Neymar, another star with origins on the Santos soccer team who has been criticized for his lack of racial politics. As Pelé celebrates his 80th birthday, yesterday, October 23rd, one has to wonder how the man really thinks beneath the public facade. In recent years, due to a hip problem, The King has been seen getting around in a wheelchair and is rarely seen making public appearances.
Pelé’s fame and fortune hasn’t shielded him from public scrutiny. Not only has he earned criticism for his lack of posture on racial issues, but the legend’s public image has also taken a beating do to his failure to acknowledge a woman that everyone knew was his daughter as well as accusations that he wasn’t financially supporting his grandchildren. Interestingly, in terms of an illegitimate child, this is another thing he has in common with Erving, although with a different ending. For years it wasn’t publicly known that the NBA superstar had fathered a child through an extra-marital affair. But when this daughter, Alexandra Stevenson, became a famous tennis player, the cat was out of the bag. Fortunately, Erving finally did the right thing and began to form a bound with the daughter he didn’t know for decades. I can’t say the same for Pelé. Everyone wonders why.
In the end, as O Rei reaches his eighth decade, my view on the legend is a bit complex. He did great things in the soccer field that I would only see decades after he retired. These accolades would lead to his being named the World Player of the Century by FIFA and Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and for the BBC, he was second only to Muhammad Ali. Incredible, unbelievable accomplishments for a poor black man from Minas Gerais.
But there are other things about The King that I would like to know and possibly never will. But this is also true about my own father. And similar to my father, in terms of Pelé, after many years, I’m cool with that.
All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80
Why do we celebrate so little the greatest player in the history of futebol? Talking about Pelé is also looking at the trajectory of a black man in Brazilian society
By Kamille Viola
He appears on all the lists of the best athletes of the 20th century. For many, he is the greatest of all time. He scored 1,281 goals in 21 years, was São Paulo’s top scorer for ten consecutive years and has more won more than 60 titles, among them, three-time World Cup champion for the Brazilian Seleção, the National Team. It is said that his talent with the ball was able to even stop a war. This Friday, October 23, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé, turns 80 years old. Why are the tributes not at the height of the grandeur of his career?
For journalist Angélica Basthi, author of the book Pelé: uma estrela negra em campos verdes (Pelé: a black star on green fields), some factors contributed to the fact that a negative imaginary about him is so present in Brazilian society today. One of them was the rejection of Sandra, the result of a relationship she had in 1963. She fought in court to be recognized as his daughter, but she never managed to co-exist with her father, having died in 2006, at 42, of breast cancer. “Nobody could understand why Pelé took so long to recognize this daughter. And he also had another daughter outside of marriage, Flávia, whom he recognized. What was his great difficulty? Did you think the girl wanted to take him? But then, with so much evidence that she was his daughter, why did he refuse? This was very controversial and much discussed at the time. It was a mark on his trajectory,” she observes.
Another very controversial issue was the player’s refusal to talk about racial issues for much of his life. Angélica observes that, in recent years, he has been reviewing this posture, although “in his own way”: in 2014, when commenting on the racism suffered by the goalkeeper Aranha, during a game for Santos (the team that Pelé also played for), he said that if had he stopped every game in which someone called him “macaco” (monkey) or “crioulo” (nigger), all the games he played in would have to be stopped – admitting, for the first time, that he suffered racial discrimination. In June, he joined the demonstrations for the assassination of George Floyd, Blackout Tuesday, by posting a black square on Instagram. “This is also new in Pelé’s repertoire”, points out the journalist. “That image, in which he invested, of Pelé from the 70s, who never wanted to be linked to the racial issue, still remains”.
Professor at the Instituto Brasiliense de Direito Público (IDP) and doctoral student in Law at the University of Brasília (UnB), Marcos Queiroz believes that the little attention to date also has to do with an identity crisis that Brazil is experiencing. “This country has to rebuild itself. Even in relation to what is the nation’s greatest passion, futebol (football/soccer). This erasure in relation to Pelé’s 80 years is part of a Brazil that is looking to find itself, as samba great Candeia says. There is an economic and political crisis, but also, as [historian Luiz Antonio] Simas says, an epistemic crisis,” he reflects. “And, thinking about Pelé’s depression [in February, Edinho, the player’s son, said that Pelé was in recluse and “with some depression” due to his mobility problems], maybe he is depressed because Brazil is also depressed. The world that was built around Pelé and in which he lived does not exist anymore. And it will hardly come back to exist.”
The racism of Brazilian society also causes Pelé to be judged relentlessly for all his mistakes. “His figure is interesting to think about the racial issue because he brings together several factors, including the image in which he himself invested as a perfect man. The perfect white man is completely different from the perfect black man. The black man is demanded to be impeccable,” analyzes the journalist Angélica Basthi. “He embraced this idea of the perfect man. Only that he is a black man. So society, when looking at Pelé, looks at this black man. Where’s that perfection? People turn a blind eye to other players, but not to him. The judgment is relentless. And it is relentless with this racial content, yes: the perfect black man that Pelé should be and play: he cannot make mistakes, he must be this man who does not exist.”
Sports journalist Martha Esteves believes that the Brazilian’s little memory and Pelé’s seclusion, in addition to the issue with his daughter, contribute to the weak celebration around the player’s eight decades. “I think that the disease was a complicated fact for him. He’s very reclusive. And whoever is not seen, is not remembered, unfortunately. This must be contributing to him receiving few honors, which is unfortunate, right? Because he is and will always be the best in the world. Nobody will ever surpass him. Lionel Messi thinks that,” he says. “You are talking about a world idol, who was welcomed by the Queen of England, who stopped the war, who, if he were active today, in the world of social media, of exhibitionism, would be much more famous than the Beatles, for example. Or anyone who is alive today.”
She agrees that racism has also crossed the star’s entire career, influencing judgments about his mistakes. “When black people in futebol reach a level of wealth, of fame, they have a little acceptance, but up to page two. Because if you mess up, if you misbehave, then the beating comes. It comes with force,”he says. The sports journalist believes that even the case of Robinho, who had his contract with Santos suspended after pressure from society over the player’s conviction for rape, could have a different outcome if he were white. “Cristiano Ronaldo was also accused of rape. In order not to go to trial, he called the girl and gave her a lot of money. He’s been playing. It didn’t have the international, worldwide scream that it should have had. Because Cristiano Ronaldo is infinitely more famous, more powerful, richer and more of an ace than Robinho. But, even there in Portugal, there in Europe, it was not that way,”he compares.
Angélica sees similarities between the criticisms based on racist stereotypes that Pelé received in his youth and those that Neymar receives today. “And it has to do with the idea of that perfect black man as well as that childish black man, which is the way to infantilize black men to always put them in a place of inferiority. The black man, especially in futebol, is associated with childhood emotions, unpreparedness, lack of maturity and lack of responsibility. It is always childish emotion versus reason, which is within the civilized white man. Even the African continent itself suffers from this stereotype of the childish black man,” she explains.
The Paris Saint-Germain player, by the way, was also the target of criticism throughout his career for not taking a position on racial issues – until recently, when he denounced having been called a monkey by Olympique defender Álvaro González, and getting ejected from a game. “People make demands of him, people made demands of Pelé, and, above all, he becomes this reference target. But many times we end up focusing these discussions on a player who has his controversies, instead of having a structural discussion, of how futebol itself and the atmosphere around the sport impel these players to be embarrassed, they often didn’t speak of this, being afraid to take a position,”argues Marcos. “There is no support in the Brazilian media for this. There is not enough discussion about what racism means in the country, the history of futebol in relation to racism, how it was even an instrument of perpetuation of racial inequality in Brazil.”
He observes that, at the same time that Pelé was one of the symbols of the country that lived under the myth of racial democracy – the idea that blacks, indigenous people and whites lived integrated and in harmony -, it is necessary to understand the importance of the ace when opening paths for black people. “When he arrived at Vasco, they said that there were several black people just like him, so there was no need. He arrived at Santos and was called Gasolina (gasoline), Crioulo (nigger), that kind of thing. He, as an individual, was surviving, trying to find a place in that context in futebol that came from two recent World Cup traumas,” he says. “At the time, it was said that blacks were incapable, unstable, without discipline. So just playing soccer, getting that space, even if he has an individual trajectory in which he normally does not speak openly about it, has already opened many doors, streamlined many questions in relation to the place that blacks can occupy. Because maybe for us it is natural for the black man to play ball, but in the 1950s it was not.”
Marcos recalls that he was the pioneer of a line of players in which young blacks can see themselves. “He has this importance, not only for the Brazilian, but for the world. When he emerges as a futebol player, it is the moment, for example, of the struggle for independence of African countries, it is the moment of an immense discussion about racism in the United States, the aftermath of the struggle for civil rights, it’s the moment sports is desegregating in the United States. He represented a lot, as Moacyr Luz says, this power to be where you want,”he explains. “To travel, to be able to be in various places that were often considered inaccessible to the black population: Pelé did it. And I think that we lose a lot of dimension when we focus only on what was negative or controversial in his life.” (All Hail the King: Pelé, The Greatest soccer player of all-time, turns 80)
For Angélica Basthi, the projection that racial discussions have gained in the mainstream media in recent months may be the chance to reflect on the treatment given to Pelé in recent years by society and the press. “This is a very peculiar year, not only because of the pandemic, but because of everything that George Floyd’s death represented, in the United States and worldwide, and so many deaths here in Brazil. At this moment when we started to see some mobilization of the media for these racial issues, the challenge remains, in these 80 years, of the Brazilian press to make a self-reflection,”she says. “We must give Pelé his place in the history of futebol. We must also give him the place he has in the history of the black Brazilian. He is a black man who took unimaginable flights, who made several mistakes, who was one of the symbols of racial democracy, he is a black man who suffered racism, who silenced racism. We have a lot to learn about racism and the trajectory of black men in Brazilian society through Pelé.”
Source: Revista Trip