In his first column for 2023, Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship research fellow Professor Adekeye Adebajo reflects on the life and legacy of Brazilian football legend Pele.
The recently deceased Brazilian footballer Pelé — Edson Arantes do Nascimento — was born in October 1940. He grew up in a shack in the poverty-stricken Brazilian town of Três Corações, playing football barefoot on the streets.
Pelé was a prodigy who joined Santos football club at the age of 16, and made his debut for Brazil a year later. The club won six Brazilian championships, two Copa Libertadores, and two intercontinental cups.
Throughout his many successes Pelé’s humility and devout Catholicism shone through. He was lightning quick; had mesmerising dribbling skills and incredible acceleration; shot equally well with both feet; and was a powerful header of the ball.
He is the only footballer to have won three World Cups, scoring a record 1,283 career goals in 1,367 games. Pelé’s three World Cup triumphs are elegantly captured in an eponymous 2021 Netflix documentary. He was only 17 when he went to Sweden in 1958 as part of Brazil’s team of superstars, exploding onto the world stage by scoring a quarterfinal winner against Wales, a semifinal hat-trick against France, and two spectacular goals in the final against Sweden.
Pelé played only two matches during the 1962 World Cup in Chile due to injury. He suffered further disappointment four years later in England, as Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders ferociously fouled him out of the tournament.
In Mexico in 1970 a 29-year old Pelé – widely written off as past his prime – became the grand conductor of a perfectly tuned orchestra starring artistes such as Jairzinho, Tostão, Rivelino and Gérson. 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 semifinal, and Italy 4-1 in an enthralling final. Pelé played a part in 14 of the team’s 19 goals.
His World Cup exploits in 1958 had restored national pride. However, a US-backed coup brought to power in 1964 a brutal 21-year military regime. Pelé and football provided temporary succour to a schizophrenic nation. The superstar adopted an apolitical stance, refusing to condemn the military while campaigning passionately for Brazil’s children to be given better educational opportunities. As he attracted attention from European clubs, the military junta declared Pelé a “non-exportable national treasure”.
Pelé came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos from 1975-78, popularising “soccer” in the US, while earning $7m in three years. Between 1995 and 1998 he served as his country’s sports minister, enacting reforms that facilitated the free movement of Brazilian footballers.
Even in late retirement Pelé lucratively endorsed Mastercard, Pepsi and Viagra, having twice lost and rebuilt his fortune. He married three times, with his first two marriages collapsing in divorce amid reports of adultery. He had six children, but scandalously refused to acknowledge a daughter who had successfully passed a paternity test.
More than 230,000 mourners filed past Pelé’s coffin, including the country’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Sadly, scarcely any of the recent generation of Brazilian superstars showed up to honour their country’s greatest ambassador. Pelé was named athlete of the century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999, and a year later Fifa joint player of the century (with Diego Maradona).
He symbolised, in a real sense, the golden age of the “beautiful game”. This was before the loss of innocence that followed the commercialisation of Fifa in 1974, and the financial scandals over the subsequent five decades (well captured in Netflix’s 2022 Fifa Uncovered).
Pelé was a timeless figure, the brightest star in the footballing galaxy, a pioneer of global celebrity, and undoubtedly the greatest footballer of all time.