HUIXQUILUCAN, MEXICO – Brazilian soccer legend Pele expressed concern on Monday that social protests in his country could prompt nervous fans from abroad to cancel their trips to the World Cup.
Pele, speaking at a news conference in a Mexico City suburb, said he had no doubt that demonstrations that have re-emerged in recent weeks would affect the tournament if they continue.
“We already know that 25 percent of foreigners who were going to Brazil are worried by the protest movement, and I think they have canceled,” said the 73-year-old honorary ambassador to the tournament.
“This is a great loss for the country,” said Pele, who won his third World Cup in Mexico in 1970.
With less than a month to go until the first kickoff on June 12, Brazil is facing a new wave of protests from people angry at the cost of the World Cup and lackluster spending on public services.
Some protests have turned violent, but they are smaller than the demonstrations that brought one million people to the streets last year during the Confederations Cup, a warm-up to the World Cup.
Pele, who was criticized last year for urging Brazilians to leave the streets and focus on soccer, said he agreed with the protesters’ grievances, like the need for more schools and hospitals.
But “O Rei” (King) Pele said the Brazilian national team should not have to pay for “the corruption and politics.”
“We have nothing to do with corrupt politicians and thieves. It is not our fault,” the former Santos great said, arguing that players should not be lumped together with “the thieves who stole to make stadiums.”
Pele also voiced dismay that some of the 12 World Cup stadiums have yet to be finished 24 days from the first game.
Turning to the national team’s chances of winning its sixth World Cup, Pele said he saw weaknesses in the attacking side and voiced concerns about putting too much pressure on young star forward Neymar.
“We have confidence in the Brazilian team. The only problem I see is that Brazil has more World Cups than everybody else and people think it is obligated to win” at home, he said.