Pelé was a welcome guest in high society, including Sweden’s royal family.
Martin ArnReporter football
When asked in his last interview who he was, Pelé replied: “Everyone has forgotten my real name, Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Nobody remembers Edson. But Edson pays the bills, Edson suffers, Edson cries. Pelé, on the other hand, enjoys the privileges. Pele is the son of God who is supposed to protect people.» It can turn your head a bit when you’ve been a world star for 65 years.
Despite his fame, says journalist and author Juca Kfouri, who knew Pelé better than most, he was a lovely person to the end. One who always wanted to please everyone and who treated everyone equally. Kfouri recalls how Pelé turned down then-US President Bill Clinton when he was invited to the White House. “Instead of accepting the invitation, Pelé wrote autographs for a hotel chef and his wife and children.”
Too little effort for the blacks
But there are also people in Brazil who think Pelé could have done more for the black people in his country. “One might have wished that he would initiate a racism debate. Unfortunately, he never did,” says well-known black sports commentator Paulo Cesar Vasconcellos.
When dark-skinned Brazilian Dani Alves was hit by a banana during a game between Barcelona and Villarreal in 2014, Pelé said: “In my day people were constantly throwing mangoes and soursops (a plant native to South America, editor’s note) onto the field. I don’t think this is a new wave of racism.”
Racism can be found everywhere in society in Brazil. At universities, only one in ten students is black. In the favelas it is over 90 percent of the population. The state has long since left the slums to their own devices. The Complexo do Alemão, for example, in northwestern Rio, where black youths patrol with machine guns slung over their shoulders: “They dream of becoming football professionals – or then drug dealers,” said social worker Dedé (66) when he looked four years ago in the slums of visited Rio.
Dedé saw Pelé play himself. “He was my hero, my idol. For today’s children, he’s more of an advertising sticker, a fairy tale character, “he said to Blick at the time.
Pelé also lost his grip on the ground at times
Before the 2014 World Cup, Pelé inaugurated a soccer field in the Jacarezinho favela together with the Swiss luxury watch brand Hublot. Pelé has never been there since. It’s become too dangerous even for someone like him. Last year, a hail of bullets killed 28 people in a police operation. In the expensive penthouses of Ipanema, the white elite didn’t notice much of this.
Even Pelé, who himself comes from the poorest of backgrounds, lost the ground under his feet in the meantime. In the city of Juquia in the south of the country he once owned an estate with three villas, several suites, a dozen apartments, swimming pools, herds of cattle and stud farms. The country estate was 110 hectares in size. That’s more than 150 soccer fields.
Pelé was married three times and fathered at least seven children. His wives and countless mistresses were all white. Black human rights activists have been complaining for years that he was white with black skin. But that doesn’t do Pelé justice. Up until the 1958 World Cup, the Brazilian national team consisted almost exclusively of white players. Then came the 17-year-old Black Pelé and enchanted not only the nation but the whole world.
Neither left nor right
Again and again the rulers have tried to instrumentalise him. They didn’t succeed, because when in doubt, Pelé preferred to remain silent. Unfortunately, he never commented on the terrible crimes of the military dictatorship (1964-1985).
Ahead of last October’s presidential election, southpaw Jair Bolsonaro posed in the Santos jersey signed for him by Pele. The left opponent Lula da Silva posted photos with Pelé. Pelé remained steadfast and acknowledged neither of the two candidates.
He always emphasized that he was not a political person. However, that did not prevent him from holding the office of sports minister from 1995 to 1998. As such, Pelé wanted to fight corruption in Brazilian football. Instead, he let himself be harnessed for a million-dollar deal between the Brazilian national team and sponsor Nike.
Pelé later served as an ambassador for the 2014 World Cup in his own country and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Both major events ended in economic disaster. Billions were burned that could be urgently needed today. According to human rights organizations, almost half of Brazilian children live in poverty. Bolsonaro’s supporters and the new President Lula’s supporters continue to oppose each other with undisguised hatred. Brazil is divided like never before.
At least in mourning for their idol, the Brazilians are now united for three days.