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Pelé: Why Soccer Matters, Part 2

by Kim Haas
After months of speculation regarding Brazil’s readiness to host the 2014 World Cup, the games are now in full swing in venues across the South American nation. The World Cup, one of the biggest sporting events in the world, captivates billions of fans across the globe every four years.

And one person, Pelé, arguably soccer’s biggest star, engaged audiences for decades, beginning as a young phenom playing for a professional team in Santos, Brazil.

Pelé: Why Soccer Matters

Pelé: Why Soccer Matters

Connecting to the big game, los afro-latinos spotlights one of the game’s most popular and prolific players – Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento).  Pelé began playing professional soccer at the age of 15 and joined the Brazilian national soccer team a year later. He’s an Afro-Brazilian who grew up in economic poverty in Bauru, Brazil.

His career spanned 2 decades.  During that time, he won three FIFA World Cups, 1958, 1962 and 1970 and is the only player with that distinction. Pelé’s  honors are too many to cite here.  Two of them are:

  1.  he was declared a National Treasure by Brazil and
  2.  he was designated the best FIFA scorer, scoring 1281 goals in 1363 games.  Rumor has it that during the 1960’s 2 warring Nigerian factions agreed to a cease fire so they could watch Pelé  play in Lagos.

Pelé was magic in the air, flying vertically and horizontally, dazzling fans with his athleticism, quick thinking, field vision, power and passion for the game.  He’s credited with coining the term “o jogo bonito” (the beautiful game) when referring to soccer.

In Part 1, los-afrolatinos spoke with writer Brian Winter, co-author with Pelé of the recently published book, “Pelé,“Why Soccer Matters” Now, we bring you Part 2, as we continue our conversation with Brian delving deeper into Pelé’s relationship with his father, his thoughts about race, and his global  appeal.


LAL: What role did Pelé’s father play in his life?

BW: I thought the relationship between Pelé and his father was one of my favorite aspects of this book.  Whenever Pelé was discussing his father, you could really tell that he was sincere and emotional.  Even after 60 years, he was thinking about how he first learned to play soccer from his dad, João Ramos, (nicknamed Dondinho)

Listening to him talk about his dad was like listening to an 8 year old. You could really see flashes of happiness and gratitude in his eyes, all these years later.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that his dad was kind of a “what-might-have-been.”  His dad was bigger, 5 or 6 inches taller than Pelé. Physically, he was more of an athlete. And, he was an exceptionally talented soccer player. His career got derailed by a knee injury when he was in his early 20s. He was never the same after that. So I think Pelé not only learned his love for the game from his dad, but he also saw it as a way of living out the life his dad would have had if he hadn’t been  injured.

LAL: From a young age, Pelé seems to truly enjoy playing soccer. It didn’t seem like he was forced to play soccer or live out someone else’s dream as has been suggested in the case of Tiger Woods and his father. 

BW: I think that’s right…He didn’t see it (relationship with father) as a…Tiger and Earl Woods relationship where the father was really kind of forcing his will upon the son. Without wanting to pass judgment on Tiger, I can testify that Pelé enthusiasm for soccer is sincere and deeply rooted.  There’s a phrase at the end of one of the early chapters where he speaks glowingly saying, “All these years later I still can’t separate my love for soccer from my love for my dad.” The game nourished their close relationship.

LAL:  It did not occur to me until mentioned in the book that there were no television recordings of Pelé’s early games.

BW: There were none. One of the things we really tried to focus on in the book was the technological differences between now and the first World Cup (1950).  It was the first one Brazil hosted.  There is a big difference not just in terms of technology but the money that has come into soccer. The gap is really striking. Even though we appreciate Pelé as having a sort of a hallowed place in the public’s imagination, at least half of the truly awesome goals that he scored we’ll never get to see.  We only got to see half of his body of work.  Yet, we still regard him as the best footballer ever.  Well, that is a testimony of how good he actually was.

LAL: Did Pelé coin the Portuguese term, “o jogo bonito?”

BW: He allegedly coined the phrase “ o jogo bonito” (the beautiful game). That is not something that I could verify. It’s sort of been an accepted part of the soccer cannon that he did.  Yes that is a phrase that is traditionally credited to him.

Pelé in 1970 World Cup

Pelé in 1970 World Cup

LAL: On page 8 of the book, Pelé discusses the economic climate in Brazil during the 1950’s, the first year the country hosted the World Cup. He says , “… roughly half of Brazilians usually didn’t get enough to eat. Just one in three knew how to read properly. My brother and sister and I were among the half of the population who usually went barefoot. This inequality was rooted in our politics, our culture, and our history – I was a member of just the third generation of my family born free.” How does Pelé view race and being an Afro-Brazilian?

BW: Race in Brazil is complicated and so is Pelé’s race in Brazil. 

Those are interesting issues the book does try to explore a bit. As you know there has been this myth of racial democracy that was propagated historically over the years here in Brazil. You don’t hear as much of it anymore like in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There was never any formal segregation of the races in Brazil in the way that you saw in the United States. But it was also a long way from being a racially equal place. This is a country with tremendous income inequalities and those tend to, generally speaking, be reflected along racial lines; it’s not even so much racial lines here, it’s a racial spectrum.

And as far as Pelé goes, he does talk movingly about his experience as an Afro Brazilian. Some people in Brazil say Pelé did not talk enough about his race over the years.  Historically that’s been something that has come up for him. And it’s hard for me as an outsider, and also frankly as a white American, to really speak to that. I can say when I asked him about it he said very clearly that he’s proud of being Black, not only an Afro Brazilian but as part of the global African community. He’s certainly shown that on his trips to the United States, Africa and elsewhere.

He did say, “[I] rarely or never had issues regarding my race, in part because I was so famous.”  I think that people tended to see him as famous first, maybe Brazilian second and Black third. So he was afforded the rock star treatment everywhere he went from the age 17 onward, that was in 1958.  So it does make some sense that he might not have ever seen and certainly did not receive the worse that both Brazil and the United States had to offer because of who he was. He lived a different life.

LAL: What is Pelé’s relationship with Brazil’s current World Cup team?

BW: I think he’s still seen as a kind of touchstone for Brazilian soccer. Certainly the press has been actively seeking his commentary on every possible issue related to the team whether Neymar has a chance to be the best player or what the other potential challengers might be.  I don’t think they’re consulting him on tactics or anything like that. But he’s kind of a mascot for Brazil and Brazilian soccer. He’s still quite important.

LAL: At one point in the book you question whether Pelé should he have been more political, more out spoken about social issues. 

BW: You know you may have noticed that he got in hot water on the other side of this issue last year when he made comments about the protests that broke out.  He made a video where he encouraged Brazilians to put the protests aside during the games and let the players play. And if you read this book that we did, it actually makes perfect sense why he did that.

Politics has always intruded on the soccer field in Brazil. Whether it was 1950 when Brazil was going through issues and coming out of a dictatorship or the turmoil of the early 1960s. Pelé as a player always resented the politics.   So when he filmed that message it’s not that he was encouraging people not to protest, in fact it was just the opposite. He was just saying, “Look, please, for the sake of the players once the whistle blows let’s just hear it for Brazil. Let’s just let them do their thing.”

LAL: You describe Pelé as an ambassador. Please talk about that part of his life. 

BW: I think it’s really important because Pelé’s real gift was his soccer talent, and his ability to make people happy.  His faith is rock solid. That sounds kind of hokey but it’s totally true. To his credit he realized that that’s what he was put here to do. He’s been able to do that just as much after his playing career as he was during. He played his last professional soccer game in the year I was born, in 1977, half a lifetime ago for him (because he’s 73). And he talks movingly about how he believes God gave him this talent in order to please people and to bring joy to literally billions of people. He’s great at it.

He does not have a lot of formal education—although he did work pretty hard to make up for his shortcomings as an adult—but his emotional intelligence is off the charts. And he has this amazing ability to sit across from people of all nationalities and walks of life and figure out quite quickly and quite astutely what it is that makes them tick. And that is his legacy. He takes time to see and talk to people, going beyond what is necessary for athletes to do.  In that sense he’s really quite remarkable.

LAL: You mention in the book that Pelé was one of the first global icons. What did you mean by that?

BW: I have spent time around several current and former presidents, mostly in Latin America, and that commands a certain respect and sometimes level of awe from people. Pelé, I have seen him make people crazy. Normal people lose their composure when they’re around him. Their eyes get big. He has stories about grown men just collapsing in tears. I’ve never personally seen people react that way to anyone the way they do to him. He’s in a category all by himself.

LAL: Why does soccer matter?

BW: I think there are lots of reasons why soccer matters. But I think Pelé’s story shows how sport more broadly, and soccer specifically, can be used as a force for good and for improving people’s lives. Look, not everybody is going to have the dramatic rise from poverty to super stardom that Pelé had, and he says that. His story is exceptional. Soccer’s ability to improve young players’ self-esteem, and as an escape from their day-to-day issues whether that’s poverty or other problems at home is pretty amazing. You know that’s true of all sports in some ways but as Pelé notes soccer’s unique because it’s really a sport that you can either play by yourself with a ball or with 10 people or 20 people. And you don’t need fancy equipment and you don’t need a specially designed field. And particularly among people who start from humble roots as Pelé  did, that resonates and is really important. And more specifically to Pelé’s life, he’s been able to use his fame as a vehicle for charity, making public appearances in hospitals, war zones or when he visited the site of the earthquake in Japan. He’s been able to bring happiness into a lot of people’s lives and that’s Why soccer matters.


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