Note from BW of Brazil: Any fan of futebol around the world surely knows of the legend of the great Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pelé, as he known to millions. Anyone who is a fan of the sport who remembers seeing him play or seeing old video clips of the “The King” in his prime has a favorite Pelé story or move. Yes, on the field, the 5’8″ (1.73m) superstar he was a giant. But off the field, in terms of racial issues, many Afro-Brazilians view Pelé as a small man. An utter disappointment (1).
Another example of why so many have this view of “The King” happened a few weeks ago when Pelé basically rejected the reaction of black goalie Aranha when he was insulted with racist taunts from the opposing team’s fans. In Pelé’s view, Aranha’s reaction simply gave more fodder to those who make an issue of such things or support such views. But regardless of the great’s reaction, or lack thereof, Brazil remains a racist country. And as a dark-skinned black man, everyone knows that Pelé has surely experienced his share of prejudice as well. And even though Pelé will never be thought of in the same class in terms of social issues as that other athletic icon of the 1960s and 70s, Muhammad Ali, Pelé’s recent admissions DO reveal a side of him that he has basically kept concealed throughout his entire public life.
Pelé was the target of racism during his career, but ignored the anti-racist struggle
By Adriano Wilkson
As soon as he arrived at Santos, still a teenager, Edson Arantes do Nascimento came to be called “Gasolina” (Gasoline) by other players on the team. The nickname referred to the color of the substance that comes from oil, black like the skin of the newcomer. And it stuck long enough for Edson to think that it would be like this that he would be known in the world of futebol.
The São Paulo press preferred to call him Pelé, a nickname coined during his childhood in Bauru. But in the 1958 World Cup, his companions began to call it something else: Alemão, meaning German. It was an irony that marked a clear contrast between his physical type – and the color of his skin – and the European athletes.
The “Alemão” tag was also abandoned in Sweden, but Pelé would continue to be called throughout his career, other words which referred to the color of his skin, as if this was a defining physical characteristic of his personality. “Crioulo” is the term that most appeared in the newspapers in the 1960s in reference to him. In general, the word was used in an intentionally affectionate manner, although its use exposes a racist discourse that socially defines a black person by the color of their skin.
When the Brazilian team won its first world title, Pelé was the main character in a story in Cruzeiro magazine, in which he was compared to the folkloric figure of Saci Pererê. In the same magazine, a text that describes the passage of Brazilian players from Sweden suggests that a blonde child was amazed with the black presence of Pelé and exclaimed at hearing him say something: “Mama, Mama, he talks.” Pelé thus is compared to an animal whose ability to speak would be a surprise.
The description of these moments is the biography Pelé: estrela negra em campos verdes (Pelé: black star on green fields) by Angélica Basthi, a book that addresses the relationship between the player and the race issue.
Sociologist Muniz Sodré, an expert in media studies, sees “in these derogatory statements” about Pelé ethics that show “the different from the white-European paradigm as a ‘universal inhuman’ or as another biological species not fully identifiable as human.”
Even now considered the greatest player of the century and an inspiration for millions of blacks worldwide, Pelé never engaged in the antiracist struggle and called out for it throughout his career.
Two weeks ago, commenting on the goalkeeper Aranha confronting racism suffered during a game, Pelé said Santos athlete overreacted. According to Pelé, had he stopped every game in which some fans called him “macaco” (monkey) or “crioulo” all the games he participated in would have to be interrupted.
According to Angelica Basthi, the fact that he acknowledged having suffered racial slurs on the field is a point of inflection in his trajectory.
“Pelé spent his life denying he had suffered racism. It’s the first time that he admitted to having been called macaco or crioulo several times on the field,” says the researcher. “You could say it’s a small step forward to have this recognition from Pelé in the debate about racism in futebol, even though the context he used doesn’t contribute to the struggle for racial equality. Another contradiction resulting from the racism produced in our country.”
Racism in the flesh
According to Angélica’s research, Pelé had his first experience with racism as a teenager, in Bauru, when he began dating a white girl. Once her father learned of her daughter’s dalliance with a black boy he gave the girl a beating in public. The relationship ended there.
Later, Pelé also faced problems when he met what would become his first wife, Rosemeri, a white woman. “The young couple was forbidden to be seen together and alone. To even go to the cinema, a person in her family accompanied them. It was a strange situation: first Rosemeri arrived, accompanied by a relative, for the session in the cinema, and only after the film started was Pelé allowed to come in too. Their courtship lasted seven years,” the researcher says. She raises two hypotheses for this. “Either they wanted to protect her daughter from harassment by being in a relationship with a famous ace, or they had difficulty accepting the relationship with a young black man, even if he had fame.”
One day, during a tour of África by the Santos team, Pelé witnessed a moment of racial tension. In Senegal, the white hotel clerk where the team stayed called blacks who tried to approach the Santos team savages.
Police eventually arrested the woman. She pleaded not guilty and asked for Pelé to testify in her favor. The player refused to defend her and said that he identified with the people she had insulted. “Being in África was both a humbling and rewarding experience. I felt that I represented hope for Africans, as the black man that managed to make it in the world,” Pelé wrote in his autobiography published in 2006.
Racism in the Cup
The preparation of the national team for the 1958 World Cup was marked by the shadow of the failures in the previous two World Cups. Among all the diagnoses for the defeats in 1950, at home, and in 1954, in Switzerland, stood out the resumption of racialist theories in vogue in Brazil since the 1930s. According to sectors of academia, science and media, the weakness of the Brazilian team was the negro and mulato players supposedly less mature and disciplined than the Europeans.
It was the black players that were most made responsible for the Maracanazzo in 1950 (2) and for the defeat in 1954, after a beating in the quarterfinals with the Hungarians. According to this interpretation, negros and mulatos didn’t have the “fibra” (strength/character) or cold-blood to withstand these pressures.
The big wigs responsible for the seleção (National Team) wanted something different in 1958. A technical committee composed of physicians and psychologists developed a “scientific” look that helped coach Vicente Feola to mount the starting lineup for the debut of World Cup in Sweden.
Among the 11 who entered the field against Áustria, only one was not white, Didi (as much because he was the ace of the team, as because his immediate substitute, Moacir, was also black). Other negros and mulatos on the squad were all pushed to the bench: Pelé, Garrincha and Djalma Santos among them.
They only returned to the team in the third game, against the Soviet Union, when the coach needed to win and decided to field the best players and not the lightest-skinned. Pelé and Garrincha, as we know, were the sensations of that Cup and they never lost a match together until 1966.
“The talent and the trajectory of Pelé were fundamental to yank space and recognition for blacks in Brazilian futebol, even though he has never been directly involved in combating racial prejudice,” says Angélica Basthi.
Pelé’s discourse about racism is, and always has been, like that of many people of his generation: denial. He says that upon hearing a racist insult coming from the stands, he preferred to ignore it, as if talking about a problem didn’t help end it. Even though he has contributed to the appreciation of black players in futebol through his personal journey, he was always pushed to take a more critical and militant stance in combating racism, which never happened.
It is the opposite of the discourse and posture of Aranha, who, like many people of his generation (black and white), prefer the hard coping with a problem that affects them directly.
1. Just an an interesting side note, former star player Ronaldo (Luís Nazário de Lima) recently defined Pelé’s comments on racism as “disastrous”. Very interesting to note this coming from the same player who several years ago, while still playing, was asked how he felt about racism and defined himself as a white man, a comment that most black Brazilians also saw as “disastrous”. Ronaldo’s full statement was: “I found it disastrous. Persons that suffer an act of racism have to denounce it, they have to enforce their rights,” said the former player to reporters. He continued: “Everyone has to be opposed to any act of racism. I think people have to realize that they are very old and backward feelings. I think people have to be punished for the crimes they commit,” Ronaldo said.
2. Before Germany’s 7-1 rout of the Brazilian team in this year’s World Cup, the most infamous loss in the team’s history came in 1950 when they were defeated by Uruguay in the 1950 Final in Rio de Janeiro. The loss became known as the Maracanazzo. The loss was unfairly blamed on the black goalie Barbosa which initiated a 50+ year unwritten rule against starting black goalies on the Brazilian National Team.