An Icon? The True Legacy of Pele

8 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

I don’t think I had ever watched a video clip of Pele before I accepted he was the greatest footballer of all time. Such was the received wisdom, that I’m sure I was not alone. I heard about the three World Cups and the hundreds of goals he scored. But only as I grew older did I start questioning Pele and the status he had garnered for himself. Only then did I notice that he was a black man from Brazil, a nation notoriously divided on race. Only then, did I notice that Pele himself had very little to say on that matter. Who is Pele and why is he considered an icon?

City Of God


Most Pele narratives inevitably fixate upon the extreme poverty in which he was raised, first in the southern state of Minas Gerais, and then in the poor Sao Paulo suburb of Bauru. Few deal in any great depth with the devout Catholicism that accompanied him every step of the way. As a child, he was not allowed to play football in the street unless he went to mass. The key to understanding Pele is his faith.

When Pele was nine, Brazil lost to Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup, an event that traumatised the entire nation. The young Edson Arantes do Nascimento went to his father’s room, which was adorned with a picture of Jesus on the wall, and started wailing.

“Why has this happened?” he screamed at the picture. “Why has it happened to us? Why, Jesus? Why are we being punished?”

“I continued crying, overcome, as I continued my conversation with the picture of Christ,” he remembered. “You know, if I’d been there I wouldn’t have let Brazil lose the Cup. If I’d been there, Brazil would have won.”

Then he went back to his father and told him: “One day, I’ll win you the World Cup.”

This clutch of anecdotes, probably grotesquely misleading, nonetheless reveals a little of how Pele has always seen himself. From a very young age, Pele saw his role as one of doing the Almighty’s work on Earth.

“In Music there is Beethoven and the rest. In football there is Pele and the rest.”


As Pele was brought up to believe unquestioningly in the potency and pre-eminence of God, so generations of football lovers were brought up to believe unquestioningly in the potency and pre-eminence of Pele.

For decades, the fact that Pele was the greatest footballer that ever lived has simply been taken as gospel. Despite the emergence of more recent challengers in Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, Pele remains the reference point against which all are judged.

Those who played with or against him, from Alfredo di Stefano to Ferenc Puskas to Franz Beckenbauer to Bobby Moore, queued up to anoint him as the greatest. As did Pele himself. “In music there is Beethoven and the rest,” he said in 2000. “In football, there is Pele and the rest.”

But it is an orthodoxy that has permeated subsequent generations too. To take one example out of thousands, Cristiano Ronaldo once said: “Pele is the greatest player in football history, and there will only be one Pele.” By the time Ronaldo was born in 1985, Pele had already been retired for eight years.

How can you call someone the greatest player of all time if you’ve barely seen them play?


To be fair, there is a good deal of evidence in his favor. Only the merest fraction of his 1,283 goals (give or take a few) were recorded on film, but what does remain paints a compelling if incomplete portrait of a truly special footballer.

Lightning pace, effortless grace, immense poise, impressive power, supreme cunning and gigantic balls: all are on display. At the very least, there is enough footage to conclude that Pele was not simply Troy Deeney with a step-over. He really was astoundingly good at football.

Then there is his record. Three World Cup victories in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Two Intercontinental Cups with Santos. Those 1,283 goals, of which 77 came for Brazil and 12 in the World Cup.

But He Never Dominated a World Cup


His World Cup record, while impressive, is susceptible to overstatement. Injury in 1962 means that effectively, he only really won two World Cups, and was not the outstanding player either time. In 1958, it was Didi who was voted player of the tournament, while in 1970, it was very much a team effort, with the likes of Tostao and Jairzinho at least as important.

Pele’s home country has long been aware of this. Ask a Brazilian who is their greatest ever player and you are as likely to hear Heleno, Garrincha, Jairzinho or Zizinho mentioned.

Pele’s multiple post-football careers, wayward predictions and often contradictory public statements have turned him into a figure frequently parodied, and occasionally disdained.

“I believe that Pele knows nothing about football,” former Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said in 2002. “He has done nothing as a coach and all his analysis always turns out to be wrong. He’s an idol in all of Brazil, but his analysis is worth nothing.”

Respect Is Not The Same As Love


“There is a sense that Pele belongs more to global heritage than he does to Brazil’s,” the Brazil-based writer Alex Bellos explained in his book Futebol. “He is an international reference point, and one who is simple to understand: a poor black man who became the best in the world through dedication and skill. But Brazilians do not love him the way they love Garrincha.”

Pele Is No Champion Of Black People


In Brazil, Pele is more than a hero. He is the king. In fact, when referenced in most popular writing or in conversation amongst Brazilians, the name Pele is often omitted. He is known simply as O Rei, the King.

On the soccer pitch, no one was or is more beloved in Brazil, but outside the stadiums, many Brazilians say the king has been a disappointment, particularly on social issues and particularly to Brazilians of African descent.

The juxtaposition of Pele the player and Pele the man was put on display before the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 when he spoke out against organized protests.

“Let’s forget all this commotion in Brazil, all these protests, and to remember that the Brazilian team is our country and our blood,” Pele said as protests over forced evictions, government malfeasance, and poverty broke out around the country. The King’s statements were criticized heavily by Brazilians who took to social media in droves, “Pele is silent like a poet,” many said mockingly, but few were surprised.

“The people revolt in the streets and he is talking about the World Cup, saying this is the evil of the Brazilian?” said one protestor. “Sometimes he acts and thinks like he is badly influenced by the media.”

That protestor’s sentiments reflect those of many in Brazil who have been disappointed by Pele’s lack of political involvement throughout his career as an athlete and as an ambassador. Inside the country of 200 million, Brazil’s most-famous citizen’s silence on social issues has become an expectation.

“He shows no solidarity with the cause, black people, or even social issues in general,” said Paulo Rogerio, executive director of Brazil’s Instituto Mídia Étnica. “He has a history of never having publicly spoken in favour of the Black struggle. I do recognise him as the most-important sports figure in Brazilian history and the importance of his image to tell the world that we do have a Black population, but it is also well-known in the country and in the social movement that he has apparently never supported any Black Movement initiative as some Black artists in the U.S. do.”

Pelé and his wife, Rosemary

Further, some Black Brazilians also assert that Pele does a disservice to the fight against racism in their country by insisting it does not exist or that he has never experienced it.

“I never had any problems,” Pele said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “On the contrary, I have open doors all over the world, and I am received marvelously wherever I go. There are always crazy people who say things, but those things have never bothered me. I never paid attention.”

But that contradicts what Pele said years ago.


In a piece for Brazilian newspaper Diario do Centro do Mundo, author Kiko Nogueira recalls Pele’s own words about what really happened to him on the soccer pitch.

“Pelé has recalled episodes in which members of the Santos team [Pele’s Brazilian club] were called ‘macaquitos’ (little monkeys)’ in Argentina, and how he ‘would go there and smash the opponents’ when he heard things that ‘annoyed him,’” writes Nogueira. That motivation was not enough, however, for any retribution beyond the soccer field.

“He doesn’t position himself, doesn’t defend anyone or any cause other than himself, doesn’t confront anything, doesn’t want to alienate himself with anyone he knows who runs soccer,” says Nogueira.

In this respect, many say Pele has left a legacy of silence.


“It is not only his case,” says Robeiro, “this is the normal behavior of Black athletes and musicians, with few exceptions [in Brazil]. They are so connected with the ruling class that they don’t want to stop their business by telling the awful truth about the racism in Brazil.”

Unfortunately, says Robeiro, “[Pele] was always very different from Muhammad Ali.”

The Black Orpheus


In the UK, it seems Pele’s myth was firmly established by 1964. That was the year England went to the Maracana and were caned 5-1, with Pele scoring four goals. “ENGLAND BEWITCHED BY BLACK DIAMOND”, read the headline in The Times. The report was more effusive still: “This was fiesta, this was a reflection of the moving colour film, Black Orpheus; this was life; this was the night of Pele… it was worth being alive to see, even in defeat.”

There is another factor to consider: television. The 1970 World Cup was the first to be broadcast worldwide in colour, and it was Pele’s great fortune to emerge just as mass media was catalysing an unprecedented explosion in the global scale of the game. Had he been born in 1920 rather than 1940, like the Botafogo genius Heleno de Freitas, it is likely almost no footage of him would have survived. And it is just as likely that like Heleno de Freitas, most people would never have heard of him.

“Pele has no colour or race or religion. He is accepted everywhere.”


The Pele who would go on to describe himself as the Beethoven of football had still not emerged by 1963. “It wasn’t me who started people saying I’m the best player in the world,” he said in that year. “I’ve got nothing to do with it. I believe the greatest player hasn’t been born yet. He’d have to be the best in every position: goalie, defence, forward.”

But what had begun to develop was an awareness of his own marketability. Following the 1958 World Cup, lucrative offers had flooded in from Europe, but by 1966, pretty much all his investments had failed, and Pele was driven to the brink of bankruptcy.

It was the beginning of what one might describe as the Pele brand. Over the subsequent decades, Pele has used his face and name to promote everything from Hublot watches to Subway sandwiches to erectile dysfunction.

Now 75, his thirst for endorsements is as unquenched as ever. Some weeks, he will visit three or four continents doing promotional work. Bloomberg estimate the Pele brand will generate $25 million in revenue this year.

“It’s not easy to separate Edson from Pele psychologically,” Pele wrote a few years ago. “Pele has taken on a life of his own. He overtook everything. I sense the dichotomy between Edson and Pele every time I take out my Mastercard. On one side is the image of me doing a bicycle kick together with the signature of Pele, and on the other is my real signature.”

But none of this would have been possible without the tenacity of the original Pele legend. The story of the poor black kid conquering the world is, essentially, what these companies are buying into. “Pele,” he says, “has no colour or race or religion. He is accepted everywhere.”

It may or may not surprise you to know that Pele is a Mastercard ambassador.

“Who was I? What was I? Just a footballer? No, it had to be more than that.”


Of course, everybody has to put food on the table. All athletes endorse products. But it is possible to identify a certain relish in Pele as he Hoovers up these sponsorship deals. He was not contractually obliged, for example, to include a plug for Mastercard in his autobiography. But he did it anyway. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in his character: rational, accumulative, fiercely competitive. Greed? Perhaps.

Being the best at football was not enough in itself for Pele. After all, he was God’s servant. He had to conquer all he saw. “Who was I?” he would reflect. “What was I? Just a footballer? No, it had to be more than that.”

One of the preoccupations that come through in Pele’s autobiography is race. For all his claims to be colorless and classless, being black shaped Pele’s view of the world, and the world’s view of him. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to ban slavery. Pele was only three generations removed from his slave ancestors. Even in 1966, his marriage to a white woman attracted negative comment from some newspaper columnists.

The Brazil 1958 team were the first genuinely multiracial side to win the World Cup. “All the other teams had only white people,” he wrote later. “I thought it was really weird. I can remember asking my team-mates: ‘Is it only in Brazil that there are blacks?’”

In these circumstances, then, perhaps it is not surprising that the narrative of the black boy rising above his disadvantaged station to smash open the “white” worlds of football and business held an intimate appeal for Pele.

There is a proto-messianism to Pele’s self-image, especially when he feels he is not being sufficiently revered. “In America, Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King have wonderful memorial museums,” he wrote. “But in Brazil, there is no Pele museum. There is something not right about that, it seems to me.”

This is how Pele saw himself – a cultural icon like Elvis, a great liberator like Dr. King. It explains why he was so keen to shape his own legend. And it explains why he continues to take any paying gig. “People treat you differently when you have money and celebrity,” he wrote. “It is almost like a race apart – not black, or white, but famous.”

It’s all Psychological


There’s something in psychology called the “reminiscence bump”. You’ll be familiar with the concept. In essence, it’s the reason all your favorite books and favorite films and favorite albums are the ones from your youth. Your teens and your 20s are when your memory is at its most efficient, which is why memories from your youth tend to be the strongest of all.

In 2012, three psychologists called Steve Janssen, David Rubin and Martin Conway decided to see if the effect extended to football. They asked more than 600 participants to name who they thought were the five greatest footballers of all time. Seeing as the questionnaire was presented in Dutch on the Amsterdam University website, perhaps it is little surprise that most people named Johan Cruyff (86 per cent), followed by Pele (56%) and Diego Maradona (48%).

What was more interesting was who had named who. Pele was mentioned most frequently by people born between 1946 and 1955. Cruyff was most popular amongst those born between 1956 and 1965. And if you were born between 1966 and 1975, chances are you said Maradona.

The researchers matched up the age of the respondents with the career-midpoint of the players they had selected. The magic number was 17. That was the age at which the strongest impressions were made. In short, you’re more likely to rate a great player in your late teens than at any other stage of your life.

Coincidentally, that was Pele’s age when he played in the 1958 World Cup. Perhaps that’s why he ended up as his own biggest fan.

Source: Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

The Greatest

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the generation that grew up with Pele was so keen to put him on a pedestal. Of course he was a brilliant player, but maybe there’s something more sinister at work there too. The legend of Pele was bequeathed to each subsequent generation almost as a fait accompli, as if the debate over the world’s greatest ever footballer was over before most of us had even opened eyes on this world. “Here, take Pele,” the older generation seemed to be telling us, “as lasting and incontrovertible proof that everything was better long ago. You are welcome.”

But the virtue of youth is its resilience. Perhaps in a half-century from now, Pele’s name will be long forgotten, and our grandchildren will be embroiled in a similarly tedious debate about the relative merits of Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Every generation ultimately remakes its own truth.