- Advertisement -

Pele, the man who won THREE World Cups and tried to unite every colour and creed

16

Whether or not he was greatest footballer in history, surely no other sporting figure has been held in such high esteem that their very presence was enough to halt a war.

Yet according to legend, Pele, whose death from colon cancer, aged 82, was announced last night, did just that.

The date was January 26, 1969, and the great Brazilian forward had flown into Lagos with his famous club team, Santos, who were due to play in an exhibition match against a local side.

Since Nigeria was in the grip of a bloody conflict with Biafran separatists, and the capital was under siege, this was a risky venture.

Pele, who is regarded as the greatest footballer of all time, pictured, died yesterday 

Pele Pictured relaxing after winning the World Cup in 1970 which was hosted in Mexico

Pele Pictured relaxing after winning the World Cup in 1970 which was hosted in Mexico 

Yet as his grasping employers banked a huge fee whenever Pele took the field, they were determined the game must go ahead. This reckless decision was fortuitously vindicated when the warring factions came together and struck an unlikely deal. Such was their mutual eagerness to witness Pele’s magic that they are said to have agreed a 48-hour truce, allowing government supporters and rebels to down arms and mingle peaceably in the stadium.

The ceasefire apparently held just long enough for Pele and his teammates to finish the match, shower, change and dash to the airport. Their plane lifted off to the rattle of machine guns and the crump of mortars.

It is a romantic story, the stuff of boyhood comic strips, and the details have varied down the years. Indeed, though he told it in his 2007 autobiography, some now claim it to be largely apocryphal; yet in a way it hardly matters.

That Pele might, conceivably, have tempered a conflagration which claimed two million lives is testimony to his power to unite people of every colour, creed, political persuasion and belief. It was a quality that arguably set him apart from his rivals for the title of football’s Greatest Ever Player: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Maradona.

And as his career progressed, it was a quality that came to define him, just as much as his preternatural athleticism and skill. He made it his mission to use ‘the beautiful game’ (a phrase he is credited with inventing) as a vehicle to promote peace and racial harmony.

That Pele might, conceivably, have tempered a conflagration which claimed two million lives is testimony to his power to unite people of every colour, creed, political persuasion and belief. It was a quality that arguably set him apart from his rivals for the title of football¿s Greatest Ever Player: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Maradona.

That Pele might, conceivably, have tempered a conflagration which claimed two million lives is testimony to his power to unite people of every colour, creed, political persuasion and belief. It was a quality that arguably set him apart from his rivals for the title of football’s Greatest Ever Player: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Maradona.

He made it his mission to use ¿the beautiful game¿ (a phrase he is credited with inventing) as a vehicle to promote peace and racial harmony

He made it his mission to use ‘the beautiful game’ (a phrase he is credited with inventing) as a vehicle to promote peace and racial harmony

It was a message he preached until the last of his 1,367 matches, when he was chaired shoulder-high from a stadium in New York, deliriously chanting a Beatles-like mantra: ‘Love, love, love.’ And one that gathered pace after his retirement, when he went into politics to champion the rights of Brazil’s street children and traversed the globe as a self-styled goodwill ambassador. As with Muhammad Ali (who permitted Pele — alone — to share his ‘greatest’ title), all this made him so much more than a sublime sportsman.

A footballer who scored so many goals that no one knows the precise number (his own estimate was 1,283). Who stood alone in winning three World Cups. Who played with such unique artistry that Bobby Charlton said the game ‘seemed to have been invented with the sole purpose of allowing him to express his genius’. After he hung up his boots, someone added up the number of world statesmen and women who had put pride aside to request his autograph, in those pre-selfie days. They concluded that he’d scrawled his signature — with a quirky circle over the final ‘e’ — for 70 presidents, ten kings, five emperors and two popes.

A footballer who scored so many goals that no one knows the precise number (his own estimate was 1,283). Who stood alone in winning three World Cups

A footballer who scored so many goals that no one knows the precise number (his own estimate was 1,283). Who stood alone in winning three World Cups

One doubts that Maradona, Ronaldo and Messi combined could match that. This is not to say he was entirely without faults. But let’s leave those for later.

Just three generations separated Pele from slavery, which wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888. His great-grandmother, of African ancestry, toiled on a plantation owned by Portuguese settlers.

By the time he was born, on October 23, 1940, his family had bettered themselves — though not by much.

His mother, Celeste, a cart-driver’s daughter, was just 15 when she married his father, Joao Ramos do Nascimento (aka Dondinho), a talented footballer doing national service.

At 16 she fell pregnant and their first home was a tiny hovel made from discarded bricks, in a poor village in the state of Minas Gerais, which they shared with Pele’s grandmother, Ambrosina, and an uncle. Later, a brother, Jair, and sister, Maria Lucia, were also squashed in.

He wasn’t christened Pele. As electricity had just arrived in the village, his parents decided to name him after lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison, but somehow the letter ‘i’ was missed out, so he became Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

The nickname that became synonymous with dazzling dribbles, audacious overhead kicks and shots with the outside of either foot (which gave the ball a banana-like trajectory long before David Beckham was born) was conferred on him by friends.

Pele, pictured with his first wife Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi in 1966, pictured

Pele, pictured with his first wife Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi in 1966, pictured

He married a second time, this time to Assiria Seixas Lemos in 1994

He married a second time, this time to Assiria Seixas Lemos in 1994

His third wife was Marcia Cibele Aoki. The couple got married in July 2016

His third wife was Marcia Cibele Aoki. The couple got married in July 2016

Its origins are disputed but it is believed to derive from his mispronunciation of ‘Bile’, the goalkeeper in his father’s team. Since his pals used it to tease him, he hated it at first, but as it was short and easy to pronounce, he later said it had enhanced his fame. A seminal moment in his childhood came when he was four. His father was invited to play for the town team in Bauru, a town north-west of Sao Paulo, with the guarantee of a local government job if he agreed.

The family therefore upped sticks. On arriving in Bauru, however, the promised work didn’t materialise and they were left to subsist on Dondinho’s meagre soccer wage.

As a chronic knee injury restricted his appearances, this was further reduced and eventually he was forced to retire from the game.

His father’s ill-fortune deeply affected Pele. Disillusioned by the vagaries of football, his mother did everything she could to kill his early ambitions to play professionally. She would beat him just for joining in a kickabout with his mates.

Her son was not easily deterred, however. Unable to afford a ball or boots, he and his mates would stuff a sock with rags and play barefooted.

Indeed, they called their first team The Shoeless Ones. In time, however, they came up with a way to buy some kit: stealing sacks of peanuts from the railway depot and selling them on the market.

They then changed their name to September the Seventh, Brazil’s Independence Day and — with their scrawny boy-wonder regularly scoring four, five and six goals in a game — began to gain recognition.

Meanwhile, Pele supplemented the family income by shining shoes on the street corner. His daily staple was bread and banana, with a fresh-scrumped mango for dessert. His school uniform was stitched together from wheat sacks.

Not that he was much of a scholar. Bored by his lessons, he became the class joker and was often punished. His teacher would make him kneel on a pile of hard beans until his knees bled and stand with his arms outstretched like a crucifix.

Though modern-day Brazil is a multicultural melting-pot where diversity is embraced, during the 40s and 50s racism was endemic and he was frequently tormented for his African roots.

Outwardly, it didn’t bother him, but it undoubtedly shaped his later campaign against bigotry.

Pele was 14 when he won his first professional contract. A former Brazilian international, Waldemar de Brito, who was friendly with his father, formed a new team and asked him to sign on.

He became Pele’s mentor, recognising his uncanny ability to anticipate where the ball would travel, or what an opponent was about to do, a split second before it happened. Tests also revealed him to possess unusually wide peripheral vision, allowing him to see parts of the pitch beyond the eyesight of others.

In his mid-teens, he was so small, however, that de Brito feared he would never withstand the rigours of top-class football. He needn’t have worried, because Pele could certainly look after himself.

He was sent off several times in his career, although on one occasion the crowd were so incensed that the man they’d come to watch had been dismissed that they successfully demanded that the red card must be rescinded. Instead, the referee was substituted for his ‘mistake’!

However, in his teens a security guard at one ground refused to allow him through the gates because he didn’t believe he was old enough to be a team member.

Rescued by his manager, he scored seven goals in the match, much to the guard’s embarrassment.

Sensational performances such as this brought him to the attention of Santos, one of Brazil’s leading clubs, and at 15 he joined them, moving his entire family with him to the vibrant coastal city.

To keep a watchful eye on him, de Brito came too. In his autobiography, Pele recalled his mentor’s four golden rules for a successful career: no drinking, no smoking, no bad company and no girlfriends.

Since his fast-developing body was his temple, Pele found no difficulty in adhering to the first three. But for a hormonal teenager who relished chasing girls almost as much as chasing a ball, the fourth was impossible. His first big romance was brought to a halt by his girlfriend’s father, who banned him from the house because he was black.

By the time he met the young shop assistant who would become the first of his three wives, however, he was the most eligible bachelor in Brazil and almost every father in the country dreamed of him marrying into their family.

In 1958, when he was still 17, he had been picked for the World Cup, in Sweden. His selection at such a tender age raised eyebrows. Yet by the end of the tournament, when he had scored six goals — including two in a victorious final against the hosts — his infectious grin adorned coffee table magazines and journalists the world over clamoured to learn all about him. His star had risen.

Returning home to a civic reception and a ribbon-wrapped car (which he deemed too cheap and gave to his father), he began dating Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi.

To his frustration, she made him wait for eight years before agreeing to marry him, a few months before the World Cup in England, in 1966 — a tournament that saw him kicked so ruthlessly that, as he limped home, he pledged never to play in the tournament again.

For many years, the marriage seemed perfect. He and Rosemeri lived in a stylish home overlooking the sea in Santos and started a family. Despite his devout Catholic upbringing, however, Pele could not stay faithful. As Rosemeri later revealed in a damaging book, she divorced him on discovering that he had a mistress who gave birth to a secret daughter.

As his exploitative Santos bosses paraded him around the world (often dosing him with painkillers and forcing him to play when injured) there were many more dalliances with groupies, beauty queens and models.

In all, he fathered at least seven children, in and out of wedlock, including twins born to his second wife, psychologist and gospel singer Assiria Lemos Seixas, after he reversed a vasectomy, aged 55. He went on to wed wife No3 Marcia in 2016.

Rather courageously he risked his virile image in the early 2000s when he broke the taboo of erectile dysfunction, fronting one of the first TV advertising campaigns for Viagra (though he insisted he didn’t need it).

For all his unique gifts, Pele was surprisingly under-rewarded for much of his playing career. He only began to earn vast sums in 1975, when, reversing the retirement he had announced a year earlier, he joined the U.S. team New York Cosmos.

Belatedly, he also landed several lucrative endorsement deals. When it came to business ventures, however, Pele’s silken touch invariably deserted him.

His attempts to cash in on his fame were marred by poor judgment and, by his own admission, an over-trusting nature.

His first agent, a larger-than-life character called Fat Pepe, had invested his earnings in a construction company that went bankrupt, leaving him with a huge debt. Then in his mid-20s, Pele’s only way of repaying it was to ask his Santos directors for a substantial loan.

At the time, he was being wooed by billionaire Umberto Agnelli, of the Fiat car-manufacturing dynasty, who offered to pay ten times the world record transfer fee, with a salary to match, if he agreed to sign for Juventus of Italy, owned by the Agnelli family. But Santos bribed him into staying with them by offering to settle the debt on condition that he signed a new contract, for a modest wage far below his true worth.

For all his unique gifts, Pele was surprisingly under-rewarded for much of his playing career. He only began to earn vast sums in 1975, when, reversing the retirement he had announced a year earlier, he joined the U.S. team New York Cosmos

For all his unique gifts, Pele was surprisingly under-rewarded for much of his playing career. He only began to earn vast sums in 1975, when, reversing the retirement he had announced a year earlier, he joined the U.S. team New York Cosmos

Occasionally, his own scruples were called in to question, for Brazil’s football authorities, like its political establishment, were a cesspool of corruption and he couldn’t avoid being dragged in.

He was forced to disband his children’s foundation after it was revealed that $700,000 it raised by staging a benefit match in aid of UNICEF had disappeared — though not into his pocket, it was accepted. Pele’s departure into politics during the 90s was equally ill-starred. As he was by then a national deity and championed popular causes such as the welfare of Brazil’s homeless street children (then being eliminated by police assassination squads), he was widely tipped to be elected as president.

However, he had to settle for a role as Extraordinary Minister for Sport. He used this position admirably, fighting against racism in football and earning the country’s footballers — then treated like bonded serfs — the right to contractual freedom, pensions, insurance and healthcare.

So, what of the man behind the legend?

Invited, some years ago, to sum up his character, Pele declared himself a dual personality.

One part of him was Edson, an ordinary man who craved obscurity and enjoyed simple pleasures such as fishing, riding horses and spending time with his family.

His alter-ego was the legendary Pele, to whom he would often refer in the third person, as if in awe of his own genius.

‘I think of Pele as a gift from God,’ he said. ‘We have billions of people in the world and we have one Beethoven, one Bach, one Michelangelo. One Pele.’

If this sounded uncharacteristically egotistical, we can surely forgive him.

For the game the incomparable Pele played like no other was truly beautiful. It was as if his boots were sprinkled with a magic dust that spread pure joy wherever he went. Even in war zones.

- Advertisement -