With the passing of Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento), the curtain fell on the greatest player of the most popular sport in the world.
The universal language of sport transcended barriers and united people in the darkest days of apartheid, a time when “black” heroes shone brightly in our minds. Despite our depressed situation, the stars who elevated our hopes to what was possible in disproving the fallacy of white supremacy were Malcolm X and the two sporting giants that shone most brightly - Muhammad Ali (the boxer) and Pelé (the footballer). Both Ali and Pelé, athlete and sportsman of the century respectively, commanded unprecedented global admiration and elicited worldwide appeal.
Pelé and South Africa
Ali only visited South Africa in 1993, after the apartheid era. Pelé had a brief sojourn in this country in the 1960s when apartheid laws prevented him from leaving the old Johannesburg airport terminal. The Brazilian vowed never to visit South Africa again until Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
True to his word, he only returned for the “90 Minutes for Mandela charity football match” held on July 18, 2007 at the Newlands rugby stadium in Cape Town to celebrate Madiba’s 89th birthday. Mandela was moved to comment on the footballing genius, “To watch Pelé play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extra-ordinary grace of a man in full.” True indeed.
Inspirational Rise to Unique Acclaim
Pelé, widely acclaimed as the world’s greatest-ever footballer, rose from abject poverty of the “favelas” or slums of Bauru, cleaning shoes and serving tea at train stations to supplement his family’s income. He began playing barefoot football for his first team who were so poor they were called the “sin zapatos” or those without shoes.
Such was the level of poverty among the aspiring young footballers in Bauru that they were forced to improvise by practicing with a “ball” made of grapefruit and paper wrapped in old socks.
Through practice, perseverance, and of course, his natural talent, the young Pele evolved from the dusty fields of his hometown to eventually grace the biggest stages the game of football had to offer. In doing so he, along with Ali, rose to become the two best-known, most respected, and most loved athletes in modern history.
Not surprisingly, given his feats and his contribution to both Brazilian and international football, Pele was nicknamed “O Rei” (the king). That is indeed a mighty source of inspiration for everyone, evident in the farewell by French soccer star Kylian Mbappe, “The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten.”
In an illustrious career spanning 21 years, Pele netted over a thousand goals (127 in the 1957 season for Santos alone). After joining Santos in 1956, the footballing genius turned a small, unknown coastal club into one of the most famous names in world football.
His plethora of records at the World Cup are even more astounding – he won three finals (1958, 1962, and 1970); he was the youngest player (at 17) to play, score, net a hat-trick, and be part of a team that won a final. His 1279 goals in 1363 games are recognized as a Guinness World Record. As for being a callow teenager in that 1958 World Cup-winning team in Sweden, Pele later remarked that he was so skinny that “quite a few people thought I was the mascot!”
Such was the level of respect he commanded that the Brazilian legend remains the only player for whom a war was stopped (a 48-hour ceasefire between Nigerian forces and the Biafrans on February 4, 1969) so that the Nigerians could watch him play.
Following his record-breaking achievements at the 1958 World Cup, the first of a record five won by the Selecao, the Brazilian government passed a resolution in 1961 declaring Pelé a non-exportable national treasure. This step was taken to ward off interest from leading European teams like Real Madrid and Manchester United who were keen on signing him.
With magnificent skills, a warm smile, and a charming personality, Pelé gave expression to jogo bonito (the beautiful game) which was the catalyst that transformed football into the world’s most popular sport. It is difficult to exaggerate and overstate his contribution to Brazil and the game of football. As Jose Mourinho, among the game’s leading coaches in the modern era said, “Pele is football. The two are indivisible.”
He became a worldwide promoter of the game, an advocate for good sportsmanship, and a UNICEF goodwill ambassador for sports, raising millions of charitable dollars for the poor and underprivileged.
Sportspersons like Ali and Pelé were symbols of hope and examples of sporting genius. Both came from impoverished homes yet attained the pinnacles of their respective crafts through their exceptional God-given skills. Their performances were treasured occasions of entertainment that dazzled millions of sports lovers, inspired thousands of sportspersons, and continue to motivate.