In the annals of sporting history, there has never been an icon whose name and fame transcended the sport across generations than Pele. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, endearingly known as Pele, was born into abject poverty in the Brazilian municipality of Tres Coracoes. His first introduction to the world of football was his father Dondinho, himself a footballer, and his first mentor on the pitch. The poor black boy from south-eastern Brazil, soon discovered a passion for the “beautiful game”. His family couldn’t afford a football, during his early days growing up in Bauru, in the state of Sao Paulo. He began kicking and honing his precocious skills using a makeshift ball- mostly a sock stuffed with newspapers wound with strings or a grapefruit. From a Brazilian shantytown nestled in an impoverished black neighborhood, to the pinnacle of world football, Pele’s meteoric rise to stardom in the late 1950’s, is a compelling testimony to the indefatigable human spirit.
Scintillating performances with his local club Santos paved the way for his drafting into the Brazilian National Team. His spectacular talents were on full display in the 1958 Football World Cup in Sweden. Precision passes, explosive runs, perfect balance, quicksilver turns and impeccable finishes were the hallmark of his game and the whole world rejoiced in the birth of a new star. Pele was only 17, when Brazil lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in Sweden. After Brazil’s semifinal match against France in the same tournament, trouncing them 5-2, and Pele scoring a spellbinding hattrick, the popular French correspondent Jean Manzon wrote a double page spread titled, “Pele, 17 Ans, Roi du Brazil”. Its English translation would read as “Pele, 17 Years, King of Brazil”, the first ever adornment of his status as “O Rei”, The King. Many legends and stalwarts who have preceded and succeeded Pele with their footballing prowess enthralling millions, could never befit the title of “O Rei”, reserved only for the enigmatic global superstar, whose name has become synonymous with football. He was the first true brand ambassador of the ‘beautiful game”, whose exploits on-field is woven into the intricate fabric of immortality. The best and hallowing tribute to Pele’s greatness came from the Hungarian football legend, Ferenc Pushkas, “The greatest player in history is De Stefano. I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that.” A testament to Pele’s ethereal dimension of his talent and play!
Racial prejudices and socio-economic barriers against blacks were rife in Brazil in the era preceding Pele, and still, is a deeply divided country, racially. The social narrative for blacks were engineered to believe, their ineptitude in football skills and nation-building on a larger level. Before Pele, few black players were drafted into the national team. They were constantly under the public scanner, often targeted and witch-hunted. In the 1950 World Cup edition, when Brazil lost in Rio De Janeiro’s iconic Maracanã Stadium, the black goal keeper alone was blamed for the defeat, which, effectively ended his promising career. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last country in the Americas to effect that change. Yet, despite having more than half the population being black, racial fault lines still predominate socio-economic dynamics. Hunger levels are escalating, from 19.1 million going hungry in 2020 to 33.1 million in 2022. White Brazilians or multi-racial ones earn double the pay than black counterparts, blacks are nearly three times more likely to be subjected to police brutalities and more than 70% of black youth are high school drop outs.
Pele’s mercurial career and his stellar accomplishments have redefined the outlook against the black population, in significant ways, and has stuck with the public imagination ever since. When Pele played, Brazil was in the total solidarity, eschewing racial divisions, for the entire world was in awe of his brilliance and impossible vision about the game of football. Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football legend and three times Ballon d’Or winner stated, “Pele was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic”. Cristiano Ronaldo, the current poster boy of world football, with an over-inflated ego, who has mesmerized football fans worldwide with his superlative skills on-field, was modest enough to admit, “Pele is the greatest player in football history and there will be only one Pele in the world”. In 1999, he was adjudged as the Athlete of the Century by International Olympic Committee (IOC) and figured in the Time list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. Again, in 2000 he was voted as the World Player of the Century by International Football Federation and Statistics (IFFS) and joint winner of the FIFA Player of the Century along with Argentinian legend Diego Maradona.
The history of Pele signifies a deep symbolism in his native Brazil and across the world. He is a cauldron of hope and pride for the millions of blacks and other oppressed classes of the society. His accomplishments on and off the pitch are a testimony to the indomitable human will to succeed under any blighted situations. His legacy should also serve to dispel common racial myths and spurious narratives surrounding blacks, since, they are one of the most talented races in the world, with a long and illustrious history. When humanity marches into the mind-blowing technological advances of the 21st century, primitive sentiments of race, color, sect and nationalities shouldn’t be a deterrent to progress. If history is any guide, any form of inequity, oppression and discrimination against a human being by another, results in collateral damage. When the great man departs the world, his saga is a universal declaration of resistance. For the name Pele, always conjured up the twin ideals of human resistance and human excellence.