Pelé: The greatest footballer of all time
An early memory of recently deceased Brazilian football superstar Pelé (who succumbed to cancer at the age of 82), was my mother telling me of how she had watched him play live for Santos against a Nigerian national side (consisting largely of my late father’s Stationary Stores’ players) at Onikan stadium in Lagos in 1969. Her main recollection was how effortlessly he had glided gazelle-like across the pitch. As a child, I watched the 1973 British documentary, Giants of Brazil, which celebrated the glorious Pelé-inspired 1970 World Cup-winning team that is still widely believed to have been the greatest side of all-time and the gold standard of international football.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento (named after the American inventor, Thomas Edison), was nicknamed Pelé. Born in October 1940 to Dondinho and Celeste, he grew up in a shack in the poverty-stricken Brazilian town of Três Corações, playing football bare-feet on the streets with a ball of paper and rags. From the age of seven, he worked as a shoeshine boy and sold stolen peanuts for the family to make ends meet. Dondinho had moved his family to São Paulo to pursue a football career, but an injury had put paid to his ambitions.
Pelé was a prodigy who joined Santos football club at the age of 15, and made his debut for Brazil a year later. He was lightening quick; had mesmerising dribbling skills and incredible acceleration; performed magical feints, nutmegs, and acrobatic bicycle kicks; shot equally well with both feet; was a powerful header of the ball; and ghosted past defenders like a ballerina. He went on to become the only footballer to have won three World cups, scoring a record 1,283 career goals in 1,367 games (including over 500 friendlies).
Despite this incredible rags-to-riches story, Pelé’s social environment made his success even more remarkable. During the Transatlantic slave trade, Portuguese-ruled Brazil had imported 5.1 million enslaved and exploited workers from Africa who produced sugar and coffee on dreary plantations. The country abolished slavery only in 1888. African cultures have, however, greatly influenced Brazilian arts, literature, music, and sports, with Yoruba deities fused with Catholic saints to create the religion of Candomblé. But, despite the prominence of black Brazilian footballers, military police still routinely gun down black youths in impoverished favelas (slums): a constant reminder of the deep racism and structural inequalities that continue in this mythical “racial democracy”.
Brazil: The three World Cups
Pelé’s three World Cup triumphs are elegantly captured in the 2021 Netflix documentary bearing his name, in which the wheelchair-bound protagonist narrates his life-story. He was only 17 when he went to Sweden in 1958 as part of Brazil’s team of superstars including Vavá, Didi, and Garrincha. It was the first time Pelé had ever left Brazil, and he kept asking his team-mates whether there were only black people in his country, as most of the other teams were lily-white. The teenager exploded unto the world stage in Sweden, scoring a quarter-final winner against Wales, a semi-final hat-trick against France, and two spectacular goals – one controlled on his chest before lobbing it over a defender and volleying home – in the final against Sweden. At the end of the game, overcome with emotion, the teenager dramatically fainted, having finally fulfilled his promise to his father to win a World Cup for him after Dondinho had wept following Uruguay’s defeat of Brazil at its home World Cup in 1950. This event had resulted in a collective national mental breakdown, with Afro-Brazilian players particularly scapegoated for the defeat.
Pelé played only two matches during the 1962 World Cup in Chile, having sustained a groin injury. Magical winger, Garrincha, stepped in and almost single-handedly drove the country to victory. Pelé suffered further disappointment four years later at the World Cup in England, as Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders ferociously fouled him out of the tournament with tackles that would be banned in today’s game. The experience so frustrated the Brazilian superstar that he vowed never again to play in a World Cup.
Pressured by Brazil’s military junta, Pelé fortunately changed his mind, and agreed to play in Mexico in 1970. After shambolic preparations, the team regrouped to achieve sporting immortality. A 29-year old Pelé – widely written off as past his prime – became the grand conductor of a perfectly tuned orchestra starring artistes like Jairzinho (who scored in every game), Tostão, Rivelino, Gérson, and Carlos Alberto. This was the first World Cup to be televised in glorious technicolour, and Brazil’s golden shirts and blue shorts glistened in the Mexican sun as the Seleção delivered virtuoso performances of futebol arte. They won all seven matches, including beating defending champions England 1-0, Uruguay 3-1 in the semi-final, and Italy 4-1 in an enthralling final. Pelé played a part in 14 of the team’s 19 goals. He eventually ended his international career in 1971, having scored 77 goals in 92 games: a record only equalled by Neymar during the recent World Cup in Qatar.
Santos: Club career
Joining Santos as a 15-year old in 1956, Pelé hit the ground running, scoring 59 goals in the 1958 season: a record that still stands today. By the 1960s, the Santásticos were one of the best teams in the world (the original “Dream Team”), winning six Brazilian championships, two Copa Libertadores (South American championships), and two Inter-continental cups (between the champions of Europe and South America). In order to pay Pelé’s salary, Santos had to embark on a relentless series of world tours, globalising the club game before the era of globalization. A cross between New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team and the basketball-playing Harlem Globetrotters, Santos dominated and entertained, putting a team from a small Brazilian port city firmly on the world map. Not only did Santos beat local rivals Corinthians and Botafogo, but Boca Juniors, AC Milan, and Benfica. The team is widely believed to be one of the best club sides of all time, providing eight players for the Brazilian national squad in 1963. Throughout his many successes, Pelé’s humility and devout Catholicism shone through. He fervently believed that his talent was God-given.
Politics, profits, and philandering
Pelé’s World Cup exploits in 1958 had restored national pride to a country that was rapidly industrialising, and shaking off its stereotypical image as a mono-crop coffee exporter. The attractive footballing style that Pelé dubbed o jogo bonito (the beautiful game) coincided with a period of socio-economic renaissance. Musicians, poets, and documentary-makers lyrically narrated Pelé’s tale. But things soon turned ugly. An American-backed coup d’état brought to power in 1964 a brutal 21-year military regime that oversaw torture, disappearances, deaths, and a curb on freedom of expression and movement. Student demonstrators were brutally mowed down. Pelé and football provided temporary succour and balm to a schizophrenic nation, imprisoned by its own rulers.
With Pelé attracting attention from European clubs, the military junta declared him a “non-exportable national treasure.” The generals sought to use him for regime propaganda. The young superstar, however, adopted an apolitical stance, refusing to condemn the military, while arguing that his job was to play football. He did, however, campaign passionately for Brazil’s children to be given better educational opportunities.
After a successful career in Brazil, Pelé came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos between 1975 and 1978 in a deal facilitated by the United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. The Brazilian popularised “soccer” in a country more familiar with baseball, basketball, and American football. Pelé was paid $7 million for three years: more than he had earned in two decades with Santos.
To be continued tomorrow
Professor Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.