The demise of 82-year-old Pelé on December 29, 2022, inevitably brought forth a wave of reminiscences, and expressions of sadness. Few world-historical figures like him ever existed, whose fame owed its vigour to football but the name shimmered beyond their playing days.
Pelé remains a name that is easy to remember, to say, to invoke. Whenever you mention him, there is no mistaking that it is the genius of Brazilian football who is being recalled to memory.
When Pelé was born in 1940, such recognition for a black footballer outside Brazil was impossible to imagine. While football provided an avenue out of poverty for a star footballer, as remains the case today, the horizon of fame was limited. Even though white Brazilian footballers could seek a path to the relative riches of European football from the 1930s – especially in Italy thanks to the Benito Mussolini-led fascist movement’s restructuring of sport in the country – their non-white colleagues remained unwelcome.
By then, the racially segregated structure of Brazilian football had begun to weaken but the black and the mestizo (mixed-race) players were still facing hesitant acceptance by the big local clubs. Their talent slowly wore down the walls that would be encountered in other walks of life, as club officials were forced to shift their stance. This change was a result of political activism by Afro-Brazilian groups, but also a reluctant acceptance on part of the clubs that racial segregation as it existed could not survive in the face of the mounting desire for success on the football pitch.
The style of elegant football, “The Beautiful Game” as it were, which was characterised as quintessentially Brazilian, was essentially the legacy of the non-white footballers who concretised the idea on football pitches across the nation.
Pelé’s emergence in the second half of the 1950s followed this struggle, but even then trenchant racism retained its stronghold on Brazilian football. As a self-aware black footballer, Pelé demonstrated ample recognition of “the colour line” and his working-class origins. In his own view of the game, the questions of race and class could not be separated.
Born to a family of very limited financial means, Pelé never really forgot about the difficult circumstances in Bauru, São Paulo, where he grew up. Convinced that his father, Dondinho, was a better footballer than it had been recognised, Pelé’s quest to achieve big things in football was informed by a wish to bring appropriate dignity to the sacrifices by his poor family of Afro-Brazilian heritage.
Mature beyond his years, the teenager Pelé attracted early attention not just for his special skills with the ball but also for his unwavering commitment to discipline, hard work, and consistency. While these attributes may appear to be non-negotiable for any athlete to succeed in competitive sport, the racialised inflections of attaching such attributes to Pelé were not lost on the observers of Brazilian football.
A long-running tendency to blame non-white footballers for the defeat of the men’s national side had persisted, especially among Brazilian journalists. The racist hand-wringing was particularly characterised by an obsession with the supposed mental weakness of the non-white player, as Mario Filho noted in his landmark book The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer.
This tendency preceded the emergence of Pelé and even persisted during his career. The historic loss at home in the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay prompted a media-led campaign that castigated the only non-white members of the squad – Juvenal, Bigode, and the goalie Barbosa. Although the thirst for a first World Cup title was quenched eight years later in Sweden, Brazil’s initial games at the 1958 tournament were marked by the baffling omission of Pelé and Garrincha from the starting lineup because the team psychologist had questioned their maturity and intelligence.
Only when Brazil’s campaign reached a do-or-die situation were the duo picked from the start, and they eventually led the Seleção to its inaugural triumph.
The psychologist’s words could not have been farther from the truth. After all, it was Pelé’s methodical approach that defined him. Racist notions about the characteristic indiscipline of a black footballer received a severe blow as Pelé dedicated himself to the rationalised pursuit of success. His unmatched work ethic turned him into a goalscorer beyond comparison.
Although offensive remarks about Pelé’s character emerged from time to time, mostly notably in the aftermath of Brazil’s failure to progress from the group stage of the 1966 World Cup, O Rei’s (The King) unprecedented success was the ultimate criteria on which he was judged. The success aside, Pele never lost sight of his significance as a black football star in a country where the respect granted to him as a player could not be assumed in other walks of life.
Pelé as seen by football fans in Brazil, though, does not fully explain his status as a genius on the international stage. For those who saw him only once every four years at the World Cup, different recollections may dominate their memory. While the World Cup had been televised since the 1954 tournament, it was in 1970 when the joys of the most popular sport were no longer limited to black and white images.
Great teams had existed before the Brazil of 1970 and many others arrived afterwards, but the first encounter with intoxicating football on colour television remained unforgettable for the fortunate generation. With its third World Cup triumph, the Brazilian side at the 1970 tournament achieved immortality as they earned the right to keep the Jules Rimet Trophy in permanent possession.
Pelé, the team’s undisputed star, became the first and only player to win the World Cup thrice. A ring of halo landed over the shining star in shimmering yellow and blue.
Despite resisting the lure of playing in Europe, Pelé’s achievements won him enough appreciation and his exploits for Santos alone were sufficient to build his aura. The World Cup was the pinnacle of the sport and Pelé had made it his own stage. After his retirement, Pelé’s life was devoted to maintaining the potency of his celebrity.
As the number of South American footballers in Europe grew, with Brazilian talent the most sought-after commodity, Pelé became a cultural referent for Brazil. He was the gold standard for the product which football craved the most, the vibrant South American footballer. Pelé’s popularity thus outgrew football, and he would often appear in public gatherings alongside presidents, film stars, and other celebrities. His continued presence in public life offered a constant reminder of who he had been on the football pitch.
The suit of celebrity rested easy on Pelé’s shoulders. This was the forever shining Pelé, like teflon to controversy. His botched financial investments notwithstanding, Pelé’s unique appeal stood the test of time. The generation of Brazilian footballers which had followed him was greatly animated by protests against the military dictatorship from the late 1970s, as seen in the example of Sócrates-led Democracia Corinthiana.
But Pelé remained aloof for a long time before a belated show of support. His measured words in public life were a consequence of his commitment to not risk the status of celebrity that he had come to enjoy. It was a methodical approach to living which received its fair share of brickbats from those who expected Pelé to continue living an extraordinary life.
Nevertheless, the two Pelés – the pathbreaking black athlete, and the global celebrity – remain fondly cherished even as Pelé the mortal being has left us. The image of the gangly youngster audaciously outwitting his more experienced peers is a vision that lifts the spirit of the seasoned and the occasional football watcher.
Memories of the older hero are not receding soon either, lit up as they are by the flashing smile from his unmistakable visage. There remain many ways to remember Pelé but each of them are united as markers of a remarkable life.
Priyansh is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, researching on sport and politics. He tweets @Privaricate.