Twice in his career, politicians decided where Pele belonged.
The first instance was in 1961 when the Brazilian president Janio Quadros had Pele legally declared as a national treasure. It is a phrase that is now used fondly in almost all accounts of his life. But that nostalgia masks the politically-charged nature of that action, a move by a populist government used to try and win the favour of the public, at the expense of the great man’s personal liberties. A 21-year-old Pele had started attracting the interest of European giants. Inter made a million-dollar offer to Santos for his services. Juventus chairman Gianni Agnelli offered Pele part-ownership of Fiat to move to Turin. Manchester United and Real Madrid signalled their interest. That was when Quadros actually passed a bill in Parliament that made it illegal for Pele to move abroad.
The second instance came just a few days before he kicked his last ball. In 1977, the United Nations, as if to exorcise the ghost of Quadros, gave Pele a certificate that declared him ‘a citizen of the world’. Years later, Pele would look back rather fondly on that honour in his autobiography. “It sounds grandiloquent to say that becoming ‘a citizen of the world helped focus my thoughts’ — after all, everyone on the planet is a citizen of the world in their own right — but it was a humbling reminder that I had come to occupy a different place in people’s attentions and affections.”
These two instances may seem antithetical. But they are just different reflections of the answer to the same unanswerable question. What did Pele mean? One might as well ask how many stars are there in the sky. But break that question into a hundred different layers and it seems, at the very least, attemptable. And if Quadros’ act was an attempt to tap into what Pele meant to Brazil, the UN honour was a reflection of what he meant to the world.
For Brazil, Pele was the author of their national identity. His exploits in 1958 showed an unequal society that anyone could be the best in the world. Here was a Black kid getting to the top of the world in a society where half a century ago, slavery was still legal. In the eponymous Netflix documentary, Pele talks about how Brazilians had a ‘mongrel complex’.
“Everyone was great except for us.” With a wave of his magic boot, Pele banished that and showed his countrymen that they too could be the best in the world. American president Richard Nixon famously introduced Pele with “My name is Richard Nixon.” Here was a president, at the height of American imperialism, one of the most vocal proponents of American exceptionalism, acknowledging that he was inferior to a Brazilian.
As for the world, is there anyone who does not know Pele? Entire cities left their lives behind for ninety minutes to watch him play, wherever he went. First with Santos, and then with New York Cosmos, he was on tour for months on end, a relentless missionary spreading the religions of football and love. When he landed in Nigeria in 1967, the country’s government and the Biafra rebels paused a civil war to watch him play. The Pope keeps a Brazil jersey signed by him in the Vatican museum.
Most importantly, he gave the world modern football. Every bit of skill that we see on the pitch today, every swerve or feint, the Cruyff turn and the rabona, Pele picked them up from the streets of Brazil, polished them and showcased them to the world. Modern tactical systems evolved out of a need to stop him.
Perhaps the best representation of what Pele meant to the world is an exchange between two commentators during the 1970 World Cup. “How do you spell Pele?” asked one of them. The other did not hesitate before replying. “G-O-D”.