SENDAI – In world sports, there are few names more iconic than that of Brazilian soccer legend Pele.
In a game loved by millions around the globe, he is arguably the greatest player ever to have graced a pitch — winning the World Cup three times with Brazil (in 1958, 1962 and 1970) and transforming himself into one of the most recognizable faces on the planet in the process.
At the age of 70, his popularity shows no signs of waning. A brief trip to Japan earlier this week — where he laid flowers at a spot overlooking the damage wreaked by the March 11 tsunami in Yuriage, Miyagi Prefecture, before meeting children at a nearby school — carried with it the superstar presence that only the truly famous can impart.
Having grown up in poverty, however, and as a man who has dedicated much of his life to helping the disadvantaged, Pele was only too happy to show his support.
“People are crazy for football,” he told The Japan Times en route to Sendai. “This is one way to touch the hearts of the fans, to help them. In other places like Mexico and Colombia there were disasters, and with football we could touch the hearts of those people. This is the way football and sport can help.”
That sport can offer hope for a better future is something Pele knows only too well, having joined Brazilian club Santos as a 15-year-old nobody and leaving almost two decades later as a global idol. But as fondly as history remembers him for his sporting skills, humility throughout his fame and fortune has earned him a deeper place in the public’s affections.
“Football is everything in my life, but it’s important to know that before you talk about football, you must think about your family and your religion,” he said. “We have a lot of stars, not only in football but in music and other areas. It’s important to be a good man to give an example to the youngsters and the new generation.
“This is important because in my case football was a gift from god. God gave it to me and I didn’t do anything. But I had to work hard and respect people to be where I am. That is the most important thing.”
The benefits to Pele’s fame have extended far beyond his own personal realm, with Brazil earning itself a worldwide reputation for excellence thanks to the success and glamor of its five-time world champion national soccer team. For a country enjoying increasing economic clout in recent years, Brazilian Ambassador to Japan Marcos Galvao believes Pele is the perfect figurehead.
“Pele is considered the most popular international athlete in global terms, but he is also Brazil’s most popular sportsperson,” said Galvao. “He’s not only an idol in Brazil, he has also become a symbol of Brazil. When you mention the name “Brazil” in any continent around the world, despite the fact that he stopped playing in the early 1970s, Brazil is always associated with Pele.
“So Pele is a permanent source of inspiration for Brazil. By coming to Japan he is reinforcing the message of solidarity for the Brazilian people and support by the Brazilian people to our Japanese brothers who are affected by the crisis.”
If the young Pele could have had anything to do with it, however, the world would have known him by a different name. It is standard practice for Brazilian players to use only a single nickname on the soccer field, but for the young Edison Arantes do Nascimento, the soubriquet given to him was not to his liking.
“I love it now,” he said of the name Pele, which has no meaning in Portuguese. “The problem was when I was young. My father gave me the name Edison because of Thomas Edison. He told me when I was young that Edison was an excellent inventor, and I was very proud of that. Then a friend of mine in Sao Paulo started to give me the nickname Pele. I got mad and I started to fight with him.
“I went to school and I fought with the muchacho who called me Pele. I got suspended for two days and the whole college started calling me Pele to tease me. So I got the nickname Pele. But today I love it. It’s easy to remember and everyone can pronounce it. But before I was very proud to be Edison.”
Pele’s playing days are, of course, long gone, though it seems not even entering his eighth decade can silence talk of a comeback. With South American champion Santos due in Japan this December to compete in the Club World Cup, club president Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro invited Pele to join the squad as a player in a bid to add to the medals he won with Santos in 1962 and 1963.
“It struck me that Pele was a three-time world champion with the national team, but only twice with Santos,” said Ribeiro. But the world should not hold its breath for long.
“He asked me if I could be one of the players in the team because I was at the two Club World Cups that Santos won, and he said I could get a third,” said Pele. “But I told him no, no, I am very comfortable where I am. If Santos get to the final then maybe I can come to give the kickoff. That’s easy for me.
“But in a tournament like this you can’t say we are going to be champion or be in the final, because football is full of surprises. You can’t be sure that Santos and Barcelona are going to be in the final. This is football and anything can happen.”