Pelé, dead at 82, was the world’s greatest footballing hero — ever. But the great Brazilian, known to many as ‘The King’, was not free from political controversy.

30 December 2022 By Paul Martin

We were in Lausanne, and Pele had come aiming to persuade the International Olympic Commission to support Rio de Janeiro as a candidate to be the venue for the Olympic Games in 2004, which was seven years away.  

What he failed to ask, thank Goodness, was how many people would actually be watching our transmission.  The live broadcast was being seen mostly by those in Lausanne, as we had given it no publicity, and most people had hardly heard about the Internet, let alone used it.

Why did he give me these interviews while hundreds of other journalists from much more important media were unable to get him? I can only speculate: it was either that he was fascinated by the new technology; or he felt sympathy with the small against the big !

Pele had been appointed Brazil’s Minister of Sport in 1995, and had been  able to pass legislation, dubbed Pele’s law, aiming to reduce corruption in the running of football.  However his appointment was actually intended as a way of keeping him within the sphere of the country’s right-wing rulers, and to front up bids for holding the Olympics, a role which his chaotic country had little chance of pulling off. 

Nevertheless, Pele argued on my miniscule internet transmission that Brazil was just the right place: Third World, mad about sport (especially football), and a place where all who came would have fun and frolic, he declared.  

Pele spoke on our live Internet three times as the IOC committee met and heard presentations from rival cities.  When Rio de Janeiro was eliminated as a candidate, Pele stormed past our live broadcast point in the lobby of his hotel.  His face was furious, and for once, he had absolutely nothing to say.  A limousine swept him off to the airport.  Sadly, we never met again.  (He ended his role as Sports Minister a year later.)

Despite his humble origins and the racism of his society in those days, Pele seemed to be willing to consort with hardline right-wingers.   During the period of the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 the torture of opponents became widespread. To divert attention from its crimes the junta needed international triumphs.  Winning the Mexico World Cup of 1970 became its priority.  .

As the tournament approached, the dictatorship put the ‘King of Football’ on its propaganda posters.  “Brazil, you love it or you leave it”, was one slogan plastered alongside Pele’s image.

Pelé became the smiling face of a sinister dictatorship.  He never uttered a word in support of political prisoners. “Brazilians don’t know how to vote,” he was quoted as saying  — apparently disdainful of democracy.  Pele did not always have a good relationship with the generals.  At one stage the regime was furious at his refusal to play  in the 1974 World Cup. 

But occasionally Pele admitted he realised he was being manipulated, and may even have encouraged it.  “I always opened the doors to the rulers who were looking for me,” Pelé said.   Each successive Brazilian president courted him, democrats and dictators alike. One of them was Lula, who has just won back the presidency.  Pele even admitted that in 1990 he had thought of running for the presidency himself.  

Pele’s apparent indifference to the right-wing excesses of past regimes continued, however, to damage his reputation.  In a documentary broadcast in 2021 on Netflix he said: “If I told you that I didn’t know [that torture existed], I’d be lying,” he said.  In an admission that he was not entirely comfortable with the way he was allowing himself to be manipulated, he said that, during the 1970 World Cup, “I would have preferred not to be Pelé.”

Twice his fortune was eaten up by bad investments and advice, and he was nearly declared bankrupt.  A major focus for decades aftrerwards had been on making money. He was featured in commercial advertisements on television for Pepsi, for phones, for video games, for clothing, for household appliances, for motorcycles, for sponges and even for Viagra. In 2014 he bizarrely led a campaign to sell 1,283 diamonds (as many as his goals) — supposedly made from the carbon in his hair.

“Once he reached the top, he became a businessman, the administrator of a brand,” noted Bernardo Buarque de Hollanda, a sports sociologist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, quoted by Le Monde.  

Perhaps he was determined not to follow in the footsteps of other Brazilian football stars.   “Mané” Garrincha, a genius footballer, died in 1983, in poverty and alcohol.  “Doctor” Socrates, known as the “Che Guevara” of football, was a tireless militant for democracy during the era of dictatorship.  

He kept silent on Brazilian debates, especially racial ones.  

Pelé always minimised the significance of racism.  Some called him “Negro Sim Sinhô” (“Negro Yes-sir”) — prepared to do anything to ingratiate himself with the controlling white elite.  And at the end of 2020, while the Covid-19 pandemic was ravaging Brazil, Pelé signed a Santos club jersey for the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who was notorious for racist outbursts and for his Covid denial. 

Pele was generous in supporting charities, especially for children and also for men battling erectile dysfunction. But he also became embroiled in some scandal. In 2003, the press revealed that Pele held several offshore accounts in Caribbean tax havens.  

And when a decade later FIFA and its leadership were tainted by scandals, Pele said: “Corruption is not my problem.”

All in all though, he was not comfortable in being seen by many millions around the world as a demi-god who could do no wrong.   In 2021, he told Netflix: “I was neither a superman nor a miracle worker — just a normal person who was given the gift of playing football by God.”

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