Pelé Tried to Be an Apolitical Icon

Pelé rose to fame during the height of Brazil’s military dictatorship. He matched his brilliant play on the field with a careful avoidance of crossing the powerful.

Brazilian footballer Pelé in 1974. (Lemyr Marvins / Getty Images)

On November 19, 1969, Pelé calmly walked up to the penalty spot and scored his thousandth career goal from a set piece. In an emotional press conference, he dedicated his feet to the children of Brazil; in congress, a senator stood up to read a poem in his honor; local newspapers, which everywhere else in the world were fixated on the Apollo 12 moon landing, turned their attention to Pelé. The excitement that surrounded him seemed to transcend politics, but this was only superficial. In reality, Pelé negotiated and flourished within a Brazil ruled for decades by right-wing military dictatorships and walked a tight rope between avoiding antagonizing the powerful and advancing his own career.

In the lead-up to World War II in which Brazil fought on the side of the Allies, the country embarked on a project of national reinvention, distancing itself from associations with European fascist nations such as Italy and Germany and embracing a multicultural vision of its national culture, nominally inclusive of Afro-Brazilians. Football, the most diverse of the nation’s sports, was at the heart of this project. Starting with the leadership of the populist authoritarian Getúlio Vargas, who in 1948 oversaw the construction of the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, at the time the world’s largest, a series of military dictatorships and anti-communist governments were the backdrop of Pelé’s illustrious career and some of the best years of Brazilian football.

As with most great modern athletes, barring exceptional figures like Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pelé tiptoed around politics. His ability to avoid committing himself to any truly divisive positions while remaining a celebrated public figure was perhaps a product of the magic of sport, which is often able to hold people together by conjuring up apolitical collective feelings. While covering the 1982 World Cup, the far-right novelist Mario Vargas Llosa observed that:

Football offers people something they can scarcely ever have: an opportunity to have fun, to enjoy themselves, to get excited, worked up, to feel certain intense emotions that daily routine rarely offers them. . . . A good game of football is enormously intense and absorbing. . . . It is ephemeral, non transcendent, innocuous. An experience where the effect disappears at the same time as the cause. Sport . . . is the love of form, a spectacle which does not transcend the physical, the sensory, the instant emotion, which unlike, for example, a book or a play, scarcely leaves a trace in the memory and does not enrich or impoverish knowledge. And that is its appeal; that it is exciting and empty.

Llosa’s was, of course, a conservative fantasy of what football should be. People’s access to leisure and the use of public space are inherently political issues. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Llosa’s fantasy is not far from the reality of sport in our politically fragmented world.

The Scene

As a nine-year-old, Pelé listened on the radio as the Brazilian national team lost in one of the biggest upsets in soccer history to Uruguay, two to one. Hosting the first post-WWII World Cup was a chance for Brazil to lift the trophy depicting the goddess Nike and with that triumph solidify its status as the “country of the future.” Brazil jumped on the chance that none of the European countries were capable of organizing the tournament and even managed to convince FIFA to give it an extra year to properly prepare, so the World Cup, which was initially intended to take place in 1949, was moved to 1950.

It was for this event that the Maracană was built. The construction of the stadium, which took almost two years and required the labor of 11,000 workers, half a million bags of cement, and ten million kilograms of iron, created a frenzied atmosphere in Rio in the lead-up to the World Cup. The scene was set for a victory for the hosting nation. The way the tournament was organized in those days, Brazil needed a draw to win the World Cup. The Uruguayan team that Brazil faced in the final went into the match with low expectations. The president of the Uruguayan Football Association struck an especially pessimistic tone, publicly saying that “what’s important is that these people [Brazil] don’t make six goals. If they score only four goals our mission will be successful.” Seconds before kickoff, the Major of Rio declared the national team the victors.

For the 200,000 fans that crammed the stadium to witness the final game, the impact of the defeat was severe. For two years, the national team did not participate in international matches and did not play in the Maracană for four. The white kits, in which the team played in the final, were abandoned altogether and replaced with the now-famous canary-yellow uniforms. The blame on the loss was placed on three Afro-Brazilian players: defenders Bigode and Juvenal and goalkeeper Barbosa who allowed for the deciding goal for Uruguay.

The King

The young Pelé entered a more organized and integrated system of player development, made possible through a national effort to prevent another tragedy from happening. When evaluating soccer talent, physical attributes became equally as important as the right mentality, ability to handle pressure, and sustaining focus, particularly off the pitch. In 1958, the footballing nation would enjoy the benefits of that process winning its first World Cup trophy.

Three Afro-Brazilian players were central to that team’s triumph: Didi (the best player of the tournament), Garrincha, and Pelé. Both Garrincha and Pelé, football geniuses in their own right, came from poverty and became legends of the sport, but their lives went in very different directions. Garrincha drank heavily and was never as business minded as Pelé, who was one of the first Brazilian footballers to have an agent. While Pelé signed lucrative endorsements from Pepsi, Garrincha spent his retirement years playing football with the friends he grew up with. While he was a tragic figure, because of remaining part of the community that raised him, Garrincha forever remained a man of the people, while Pelé became a distant icon — an untouchable ideal.

Pelé’s soccer achievements are too numerous to mention, and his status as one of the best, if not the best, soccer player is ever rightfully deserved. He remains the best scorer of all time with 1,281 goals, most of which came in the years 1956–1974, when playing for Santos. Pelé won three World Cups (1958, 1962, and 1970) and remains the only player in the history of the competition to do so. When his Santos went on tours, he was paid the same amount of money as the rest of the team combined.

Abroad, Pelé helped to boost Brazil’s brand during the dark days of the military dictatorship. On an international tour with Santos, a story began circulating that Pelé was responsible for putting a halt to the civil war in Nigeria. According to the rumor, Nigerian and Biafran forces agreed to a forty-eight-hour truce in order to guarantee player safety when the Brazilian champions faced a local team. This story — which conjured up all of the clichéd sentiment about the unifying power of the beautiful game — has everything going for it except truthfulness: there is no evidence that a ceasefire did in fact take place, and reports of the episode found in mainstream Western publications often fail to agree on the year it allegedly took place.

Three months before the World Cup the following year, politics again came crashing down on the Brazilian football team. On the back of a series of protests, the new right-wing president Emílio Garrastazu Médici entered a public spat with the popular but communist coach of the national team, João Saldanha. Ostensibly a disagreement about the coach’s refusal to put the striker Dario in the lineup — “I don’t choose the president’s ministry, and he can’t choose my front line,” Saldanha quipped — the disagreement quickly became political. After a series of underwhelming performances, Médici pushed for Saldanha to be replaced by the nationalist Mário Zagallo, who brought along with him a coterie of military personnel to train the Brazilian team to deal with the physicality of their European competition.

The remade Brazilian team dominated the tournament, and they were heftily rewarded by the military regime of President Médici. According to one account, “Every member of the squad received a prestigious medal, cash, cars and 10,000 shares in state electricity company Light.” It may be an overstatement to say that Pelé and his teammates saved the dictatorship, but they certainly helped to give it popular appeal. The celebrations in the streets of Brazilian cities could well have been riots if the team had failed to get past the group stage.

The Pawn

In 1975, despite having offers from the best clubs in the world, Pelé came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. Lured by a $4-million contract and Henry Kissinger, who apparently hoped that the forward’s stint with the Cosmos would “contribute to closer ties between Brazil and the US,” Pelé brought new life to a club that was previously forced to bribe fans with free Burger King to fill seats. The thirty-four-year-old’s arrival initially fueled the expansion of the North American Soccer League, which in three years grew to a sustainable association of twenty-four teams. This boost proved temporary, and by 1982, the number of teams in the association had dwindled to fourteen.

By then, though, Pelé was five years removed from his playing days and watched as numerous “new Pelés” came and went. His refusal to participate in the 1974 World Cup for a brief period put him on the bad side of the dictatorship; however, he was too important of a symbol to take down. Pelé understood that his talent made him, for better or worse, bigger than politics. He later said, “I always opened the doors to the rulers who were looking for me.”

This approach served him well and kept him relevant throughout the years. He had no problem getting photographed with authoritarian generals, but nor was he opposed to calling for free elections in 1984. In the mid-’90s, he served as the Extraordinary Minister for Sports in the center-right government and used this position to force clubs to be more transparent about their finances and reform contracts in a way more favorable for players. Alongside these worthwhile reforms, Pelé also oversaw the introduction of legislation that would allow foreign companies to invest in Brazilian football.

It is hard to know what to make of Pelé’s legacy. Undeniably a brilliant athlete, he showed that there was no clear relationship between the kind of talent he was capable of on the pitch and political conviction. Even his background as a working-class kid did little to align Pelé with the Left in any coherent way. He was, in this respect, proof that the political forces around are ultimately what shape our view of the world.