Pelé was the target of racism during his career, but chose to ignore the anti-racist struggle


Note from BW of Brazil: Any fan of futebol around the world surely knows of the legend of the great Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pelé, as he known to millions. Anyone who is a fan of the sport who remembers seeing him play or seeing old video clips of the “The King” in his prime has a favorite Pelé story or move. Yes, on the field, the 5’8″ (1.73m) superstar he was a giant. But off the field, in terms of racial issues, many Afro-Brazilians view Pelé as a small man. An utter disappointment (1).

Another example of why so many have this view of “The King” happened a few weeks ago when Pelé basically rejected the reaction of black goalie Aranha when he was insulted with racist taunts from the opposing team’s fans. In Pelé’s view, Aranha’s reaction simply gave more fodder to those who make an issue of such things or support such views. But regardless of the great’s reaction, or lack thereof, Brazil remains a racist country. And as a dark-skinned black man, everyone knows that Pelé has surely experienced his share of prejudice as well. And even though Pelé will never be thought of in the same class in terms of social issues as that other athletic icon of the 1960s and 70s, Muhammad Ali,  Pelé’s recent admissions DO reveal a side of him that he has basically kept concealed throughout his entire public life. 

Pelé was the target of racism during his career, but ignored the anti-racist struggle

By Adriano Wilkson

A young Pelé's first day with Santos in 1956
A young Pelé’s first day with Santos in 1956

As soon as he arrived at Santos, still a teenager, Edson Arantes do Nascimento came to be called “Gasolina” (Gasoline) by other players on the team. The nickname referred to the color of the substance that comes from oil, black like the skin of the newcomer. And it stuck long enough for Edson to think that it would be like this that he would be known in the world of futebol.

The São Paulo press preferred to call him Pelé, a nickname coined during his childhood in Bauru. But in the 1958 World Cup, his companions began to call it something else: Alemão, meaning German. It was an irony that marked a clear contrast between his physical type – and the color of his skin – and the European athletes.


The “Alemão” tag was also abandoned in Sweden, but Pelé would continue to be called throughout his career, other words which referred to the color of his skin, as if this was a defining physical characteristic of his personality. “Crioulo” is the term that most appeared in the newspapers in the 1960s in reference to him. In general, the word was used in an intentionally affectionate manner, although its use exposes a racist discourse that socially defines a black person by the color of their skin.

Folkloric character Saci Pererê
Folkloric character Saci Pererê

When the Brazilian team won its first world title, Pelé was the main character in a story in Cruzeiro magazine, in which he was compared to the folkloric figure of Saci Pererê. In the same magazine, a text that describes the passage of Brazilian players from Sweden suggests that a blonde child was amazed with the black presence of Pelé and exclaimed at hearing him say something: “Mama, Mama, he talks.” Pelé thus is compared to an animal whose ability to speak would be a surprise.

The description of these moments is the biography Pelé: estrela negra em campos verdes  (Pelé: black star on green fields) by Angélica Basthi, a book that addresses the relationship between the player and the race issue.

Sociologist Muniz Sodré, an expert in media studies, sees “in these derogatory statements” about Pelé ethics that show “the different from the white-European paradigm as a ‘universal inhuman’ or as another biological species not fully identifiable as human.”

Even now considered the greatest player of the century and an inspiration for millions of blacks worldwide, Pelé never engaged in the antiracist struggle and called out for it throughout his career.

Two weeks ago, commenting on the goalkeeper Aranha confronting racism suffered during a game, Pelé said Santos athlete overreacted. According to Pelé, had he stopped every game in which some fans called him “macaco” (monkey) or “crioulo” all the games he participated in would have to be interrupted.

According to Angelica Basthi, the fact that he acknowledged having suffered racial slurs on the field is a point of inflection in his trajectory.

“Pelé spent his life denying he had suffered racism. It’s the first time that he admitted to having been called macaco or crioulo several times on the field,” says the researcher. “You could say it’s a small step forward to have this recognition from Pelé in the debate about racism in futebol, even though the context he used doesn’t contribute to the struggle for racial equality. Another contradiction resulting from the racism produced in our country.”

Angélica Basthi, author of "Pelé: estrela negra em campos verdes" says Pelé's admission of being the target of racism is an inflection in the athlete's career
Angélica Basthi, author of “Pelé: estrela negra em campos verdes” says Pelé’s admission of being the target of racism is an inflection in the athlete’s career

Racism in the flesh

According to Angélica’s research, Pelé had his first experience with racism as a teenager, in Bauru, when he began dating a white girl. Once her father learned of her daughter’s dalliance with a black boy he gave the girl a beating in public. The relationship ended there.

Later, Pelé also faced problems when he met what would become his first wife, Rosemeri, a white woman. “The young couple was forbidden to be seen together and alone. To even go to the cinema, a person in her family accompanied them. It was a strange situation: first Rosemeri arrived, accompanied by a relative, for the session in the cinema, and only after the film started was Pelé allowed to come in too. Their courtship lasted seven years,” the researcher says. She raises two hypotheses for this. “Either they wanted to protect her daughter from harassment by being in a relationship with a famous ace, or they had difficulty accepting the relationship with a young black man, even if he had fame.”

Pelé, seen in photo of wedding to Rosemeri Cholbi
Pelé, seen in photo of wedding with Rosemeri Cholbi

One day, during a tour of África by the Santos team, Pelé witnessed a moment of racial tension. In Senegal, the white hotel clerk where the team stayed called blacks who tried to approach the Santos team savages.

Police eventually arrested the woman. She pleaded not guilty and asked for Pelé to testify in her favor. The player refused to defend her and said that he identified with the people she had insulted. “Being in África was both a humbling and rewarding experience. I felt that I represented hope for Africans, as the black man that managed to make it in the world,” Pelé wrote in his autobiography published in 2006.

Racism in the Cup

The preparation of the national team for the 1958 World Cup was marked by the shadow of the failures in the previous two World Cups. Among all the diagnoses for the defeats in 1950, at home, and in 1954, in Switzerland, stood out the resumption of racialist theories in vogue in Brazil since the 1930s. According to sectors of academia, science and media, the weakness of the Brazilian team was the negro and mulato players supposedly less mature and disciplined than the Europeans.

It was the black players that were most made responsible for the Maracanazzo in 1950 (2) and for the defeat in 1954, after a beating in the quarterfinals with the Hungarians. According to this interpretation, negros and mulatos didn’t have the “fibra” (strength/character) or cold-blood to withstand these pressures.

Goalie Barbosa was blamed for the 1950 World Cup Final loss known as the Maracanazzo
Goalie Barbosa was blamed for the 1950 World Cup Final loss known as the Maracanazzo

The big wigs responsible for the seleção (National Team) wanted something different in 1958. A technical committee composed of physicians and psychologists developed a “scientific” look that helped coach Vicente Feola to mount the starting lineup for the debut of World Cup in Sweden.

Among the 11 who entered the field against Áustria, only one was not white, Didi (as much because he was the ace of the team, as because his immediate substitute, Moacir, was also black). Other negros and mulatos on the squad were all pushed to the bench: Pelé, Garrincha and Djalma Santos among them.

Djalma Santos, Pelé and Garrincha
Djalma Santos, Pelé and Garrincha

They only returned to the team in the third game, against the Soviet Union, when the coach needed to win and decided to field the best players and not the lightest-skinned. Pelé and Garrincha, as we know, were the sensations of that Cup and they never lost a match together until 1966.

Two legends of Brazilian futebol: Pelé and Garrincha
Two legends of Brazilian futebol: Pelé and Garrincha

“The talent and the trajectory of Pelé were fundamental to yank space and recognition for blacks in Brazilian futebol, even though he has never been directly involved in combating racial prejudice,” says Angélica Basthi.

Pelé’s discourse about racism is, and always has been, like that of many people of his generation: denial. He says that upon hearing a racist insult coming from the stands, he preferred to ignore it, as if talking about a problem didn’t help end it. Even though he has contributed to the appreciation of black players in futebol through his personal journey, he was always pushed to take a more critical and militant stance in combating racism, which never happened.

It is the opposite of the discourse and posture of Aranha, who, like many people of his generation (black and white), prefer the hard coping with a problem that affects them directly.

Source: UOL Esporte, UOL Esporte (2)


1. Just an an interesting side note, former star player Ronaldo (Luís Nazário de Lima) recently defined Pelé’s comments on racism as “disastrous”. Very interesting to note this coming from the same player who several years ago, while still playing, was asked how he felt about racism and defined himself as a white man, a comment that most black Brazilians also saw as “disastrous”. Ronaldo’s full statement was: “I found it disastrous. Persons that suffer an act of racism have to denounce it, they have to enforce their rights,” said the former player to reporters. He continued: “Everyone has to be opposed to any act of racism. I think people have to realize that they are very old and backward feelings. I think people have to be punished for the crimes they commit,” Ronaldo said.

2. Before Germany’s 7-1 rout of the Brazilian team in this year’s World Cup, the most infamous loss in the team’s history came in 1950 when they were defeated by Uruguay in the 1950 Final in Rio de Janeiro. The loss became known as the Maracanazzo. The loss was unfairly blamed on the black goalie Barbosa which initiated a 50+ year unwritten rule against starting black goalies on the Brazilian National Team.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Go ahead, name one super start athlete who speaks out regularly against inequality?

    You won’t! You’ll only find retired or formerly successful athletes speaking out.

    Actors and Actresses will only go so far as well.

    Why? Because people of color do not write the paychecks, give million dollar endorsements or own any of the sports teams or media outlets.

    This is only one team in the NBA owned by a majority Blacks and it’s one of the worse teams. There is only one minority owned NFL team, he’s Latin and it’s one of the worse.

    When F1 Superstar Lewis Hamilton has related some of his treatment in the media to his skin color, the entire sports world is outraged, at least those outlets that pay attention to auto racing.

    White men especially well scream about other British White racing drivers who were passed over by Ron Dennis when he signed Lewis has a child prodigy, Hamilton’s contemporaries who find themselves either driving in sports cars or Indy Car and getting paid less overall.

    When will people and blogs like your realize no amount of shaming will help you because you have no power. You don’t own anything, you run a blog; the majority of Brazilians don’t even speak, read or understand English beyond song lyrics.

    This is the fourth or so story I have seen on here trying to through Pele under the bus for marrying non-Black women and for not speaking out against the continued discrimination against dark people, especially those of African decent in Brazil.

    Not sure what your trying to accomplish; it would be worse, you could have people like Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton raking in millions and not helping the average Black in America one bit.

  2. @AThomas

    Actually there are plenty of black footballers that have taken a stance against racism in their sport. And yes Muhammed Ali made the ultimate sacrifice during a time in which he could of been killed for taking his stance. I don’t understand where all your bile is coming from. Should black people be expected to put up with nonsense just because they are gifted in some way in their chosen field? Should not black Brazilians have the right to look to judge the lack of action from one of their own, in light of the constant social and economic conditions they face. I think you need to remember that your reality is not the reality of the world. The Brazilian system of racism is akin to mind control where by neutralising or outright denigrating African features /civilisation/ customs etc..and by allowing the myth of separating one self from this heritage by skin complexion only, where only the blackest of the blacks are ‘black’ or African then you get a very different dynamic to what may be in North America or majority black societies such as the Caribbean.

    Lets not forget.. there were plenty people passing for white in the 18th/ 19th and 20th century America, and if the rest of black people or various complexions were offered to be able to distance themselves from their African heritage, given the social conditions of the time..many would and did take that option.

    So please tone down the sanctimonious shouting down of black Brazilian appreciation and appraisal of their past and present public figures. people who have pride in themselves to not tolerate abuse on some psydo scientific evolutionary theory developed by Charles Darwin that puts Europeans at the top of the evolutionary tree. Which is what most of this racist abuse is based on ultimately. As well as genetic fear but that another story.

    For a list of present black sportstars that regularly speak out against racism read.. Rio Ferdinand, Jason Roberts, George Weah who broke a guys nose during half time after suffering racial abuse/ Patrice Evra…

    One thing I do agree with you on is that: Owning and developing economic power for black Brazilians by black Brazilians will help alleiviate many off the issues.

    But I agree with the article. Basic pride and principles mean that no black sportman/woman should not tolerate blatant racism when they find it or look the other way. This is a dysfunctional way of dealing with the problem. Highlighting and noting discrepancies in the population is healthy.

    • Forgive my typos. I don’t often proof read what I write…

      Where is the sanctimonious shouting down? All I’m saying is that calling out famous Blacks will yield you NOTHING. It hasn’t in America and I doubt it will in Brazil for the same reasons; as I said nobody Black is writing their paychecks/supporting their livelihood.

      None of the people you mentioned are known outside of Brazil, while everybody who is over age 30 likely hsd heard of Pele especially those into Soccer/Football/World Cup.

      So I like I said pointing fingers at obvious targets won’t work. The biggest Black athletes and entertainers are fairly silent on various issues. It’s seemingly those who are outspoken are either past their prime earning years or past their 15 mins of fame/infamy.

      I never said racism should be tolerated. It should be battled against at every turn.

      The one advantage and one of the reasons why I want to relocate to Brazil is the unity of the Black Community in Brazil, where as the Black Community in America behaves like much like the White Community does but has less wealth by a huge margin and experiences economic, social and judicial discrimination unlike anybody else on the planet.

      I’m glad that you agree that the solution here to own your own media outlets. Not shaming those looking to make a living acting for being a TV show that cast a negative image about Blacks.

      It’s the chicken or the egg argument. If you want Black actors to always have leading roles and have positive images of Blacks, it’s much easier to go to your own people, than to the people that look like those who are causing your people the most problems.

      The key is controlling the media/message….

  3. Hello Anthony

    Thanks for sharing your views. First I’d like to say that I don’t think that calling out famous blacks will yield nothing. Why do I say that? Well I think that when a people are under systematic denial of their human rights and under extreme cultural domination and degregation then the power of mind is the strongest bullwark against being submerged culturally. Being submerged into acceptance of the way things are. But I don’t think that the Africans in Brazil face challenges any more unique than African worldwide. Although there are particularities that apply to Brazil as with everywhere.

    The problem as I see it goes beyond economics. I see the same problem when Im in the Caribbean and hear local people extollling the virtues ( supposed cleverness of Europeans and Chinese etc) of every other culture and people but their own. I see it when in London and hear black youth speak about themselves and their place in society. We have been educated everywhere subteley that to be black /African has no social value to humanity. That our customs and religions are primitive etc… that we have no history apart from slavery, That we built no world civilisations or practiced successful statehood’s. etc. In my humble opinion a people need to have pride and motivation and belief in their own innate ability to create business as what does a man or woman build in life which does not start in the mind.

    Here is where we are in agreement though ( I suspect we are saying the same thing but with different emphasis). Controlling media, the teaching of histoy or rather the flow of information definitely goes a long way to producing strong men and women who demand their rights as part of living and breathing because there are not cowed or are prone to the dysfunctional and psydo scientific theories about African/ black people. I believe this problem exists in Africa also where most Africans think that the West is the solution to all their problems. Always getting foreign experts for nation building and not developing their own. Not valuing our own languages or culture or religions.

    The problem is a problem of mind. Sort out the collective mind and the economics will come by itself. Although Africans /Blacks in the US face the essential problem of being at the mercy of an ethnic group which wields the power and is consistently and historically anti African in nature. Hence racisim is intrinsic to people who have practiced genocide where they have gone outside of Europe. We can’t change them but we can make ourselves immune to attack. This starts in the mind and identifying behaviour in the private and public sphere which is dysfunctional. What this yield is intangible but very powerful. It is in a sense defining your own reality. Can one criticise the ordinary black Brasilian without a platform to talk, to express their views. For when the country is in chaos, loyal ministers appear.

    Tudo bem meu amigo.

  4. You wrote:”Not shaming those looking to make a living acting for being a TV show that cast a negative image about Blacks.”

    I understand that people have got to eat. I perfectly understand that. But how far do you take that mentality. Is it OK to prostitute my culture and heritage so that I eat, while committing a worse evil? This is where the value of culture and social responsibility comes in. In the media and film TV show industry Black Brazilians are sitting on a gold mine because if any young enterprising director decides to make a Tv show or film about Brasil from the black side.. good the bad and the ugly..then it can be exported to all over the black world just as Nigerian /South African films/ TV sitcoms etc have gained a foothold in the Caribbean.

    I say shame them.Those that are willing to perpetuate stereotypes need either to be shamed or educated. And if shaming serves to educate so be it. It can’t be all about the ‘mighty’ Real. Human nature will dictate that keeping people occupied with the basics of survival will mean that their ability to organise and analyse their situation will be almost impposible. But they can’t capture everyone. Some will call out the bullshit for what it is. And people need to educate their children that this behaviopur is not acceptable. Anymore than any man wishes his daughter to ploe dance in the club to get through college. There are better ways.

  5. Sure, Pele was and is a sports superstar, but has proven time and again to be a self-hater when it comes to race, and also a horrible individual – remember his daughter, the one he fought tooth and nail not to recognize? Even after DNA tests, he fought to make sure his name was not in her birth certificate – even after she said she wanted nothing to do with his fortune.

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