The great Pelé, dead at 82, had some great flaws. They involved dictators and racism.

3 January 2023 By Paul Martin

By Paul Martin, Exclusive.

Pelé’s legacy has two very big shadows: his willingness to serve dictators and his astonishing silence on racism.

Despite his humble origins and the racism of his society, Pelé often seemed willing to consort with hardline right-wingers — a stain on his otherwise demigod status.   During the period of the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, when the torture of opponents became widespread, Pelé seemed to play ball with the ruling junta. 

Decades later he admitted he had not been 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.”  

The junta used him to help divert attention from its crimes.  It needed international triumphs, and winning the Mexico World Cup of 1970 became its political and sporting priority.

As the tournament approached, the dictatorship blazoned the ‘King of Football’ on its propaganda billboards.  “Brazil, you love it or you leave it”, was one slogan plastered alongside Pele’s image, as he became the smiling face of a sinister dictatorship.  

“Brazilians don’t know how to vote,” he was quoted as saying  — apparently disdainful of democracy.  He never uttered a word in support of political prisoners. Pelé did not always have a good relationship with the generals  — but that was because he refused to play in the 1974 World Cup. 

Pelé was appointed Brazil’s Minister of Sport in 1995.  Though he had been able to pass legislation, dubbed Pele’s law, aiming to reduce corruption in the running of football, he carried very little political clout.    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. 

Occasionally Pelé admitted he realised he was being manipulated.  “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.  Pelé even admitted that in 1990 he had thought of running for the presidency himself.  

Pelé’s apparent indifference to the right-wing excesses of past regimes continued, however, to plague him.  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.  

Twice his fortune was eaten up by bad investments and advice, and he was nearly declared bankrupt.  A major focus for decades afterwards 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. 

Pelé 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 Pelé held several offshore accounts in Caribbean tax havens.  

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

In a way he was prepared not to be seen as an unblemished demi-god who could do no wrong.   In 2021, he told Netflix: “I was neither a superman nor a miracle worker — just [see me as] a normal person who was given the gift of playing football by God.”

He surely was.