The legendary talents of the great Pelé have rightly earned him the nickname “O Rei”, meaning “The King” and cemented his place in sports history among millions of fans around the world. For soccer fans, he is the equivalent of basketball’s Michael Jordan, hockey’s Wayne Gretzky, baseball’s Reggie Jackson and boxing’s Muhammad Ali. So great is “King Pelé” that the International Olympic Committee named him Athlete of the (20th) Century. Needless to say, according to fans and critics alike, Pelé’s skills and supremacy on the soccer field in his prime were unquestionable without equal.
But today’s post is not about heaping more praise upon a man who would go down in history as the most celebrated athlete of all-time even if he suddenly disappeared from the public spotlight. No, today’s post brings a more critical view of the King on a topic that’s not directly connected to his recognized skills as a player. It speaks to issues that some of his fans have whispered about in regards the King for a number of years.
To touch upon this issue, let’s first rewind the clock about 47 years. In 1967, prominent African-American sports figures, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came together in solidarity to show support for boxer Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his boxing title because of his refusal to enlist in the US military and consequently participate in the Vietnam War. In supporting Ali in his political stance, these athletes showed that their position as prominent black public figures, in a country in which their racial group faced continuous racist oppression, went far being the court, field and ring.
Similarly, the pose of black Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games showed the world that while they represented their country in victory it also voiced the collective protest of African-Americans against their collective social position in the United States.
To get right to the point, where does the great Pelé stand on such issues as the blatant acts of racism that being a continuous part of Brazilian society also have a strong presence on soccer fields, as recent events have once again shown? Beyond the adoration of the King on the soccer field, many of his black fans have pointed out a number of disappointments concerning the beloved Edson Arantes do Nascimento. For starters, although it can be argued that Pelé has in fact spoken of the existence of racism in Brazil and on soccer fields (as he did in September of 2001), beyond issuing a few statements on the fact, the King hasn’t really gotten involved in the issue.
Similarly, back in the 1990s, when basketball superstar Michael Jordan was informed of the sweatshops that paid southeast Asian workers peanuts to make his expensive Air Jordan gym shoes, His Airness first stated that it wasn’t his problem, but when further pressed on the issue he said “if it’s an issue of slavery or sweatshops, [Nike executives] have to revise the situation,” saying he would even travel to Asia. He never made the trip and went on about earning his millions from that cheap labor. As with Jordan, could it be that in order to earn the fame and fortune that the corporate world has bestowed upon him, the exchange is that Pelé remain silent or at least not get too involved with speaking out or denouncing such social ills?
Pelé has also been accused of abandoning the black community, particularly black women, with his endless series of relationships with non-black women. While many will point to his relationship with the blonde media darling Xuxa as an example of his alienation from the black community, the fact is, Pelé has had a number of highly visible relationships with non-black women. Contrast this with the King’s relationship with a maid named Anísia Machado that produced his daughter Sandra. Although only Pelé’s knows the truth of the circumstances of the relationship, for many, the way he distanced himself from that relationship reveals yet another character flaw in the King’s character. Sandra Regina Felinto tried for nearly 30 years to secure official recognition from Pelé as her father, but it was only in 1996 after a DNA test that she was able to prove that she was indeed his daughter after which she would begin using his surname, Nascimento.
The superstar had had an extra-marital affair with Anísia Machado, Sandra’s mother, but didn’t want to assume paternity because of the scandal that a child outside of marriage would cause. Sandra died in 2006 from breast cancer, and although Pelé finally recognized her, the relationship between the two was never good. Question: By 1996, Pelé’s career had been over for around 20 years and his marriage to his first wife over for more than a decade. After avoiding the issue for so many years at that point, why couldn’t he simply step forward and acknowledge paternity? In the end, that’s all that Sandra, a two-time elected city council woman in the city of Santos and Law student, ever wanted.
Recently, the aftermath of this relationship would be made public again as Sandra’s sons, Gabriel and Octávio, sued the King and demanded R$13,500 per month in support payments. The lawyer of the young men, Cláudio Forssell, accused Pelé of never having given any moral or financial assistance to the youth and only having even seen them once in his life. In December of last year, the courts ordered the King to pay a monthly pension of R$4,746 each Gabriel and Octávio.
With the recent headline-making incidents of racism against black Brazilian soccer players, Pelé’s absence has once again been questioned. Even Brazil’s President, Dilma Rouseff, has stepped forward and offered her solidarity with the players against this ongoing scar on Brazilian society. Although Rouseff’s public act of support could be seen as simply symbolic as a nation’s president has so many pressing issues to deal with, it’s still important. How is it that Pelé, who has been retired for nearly 40 years but remains in the public spotlight as if he were still playing and is still adored by the nation, can be so invisible on an issue which he admits has personally affected him as well? Well, perhaps it is within this very fact that lies the answer.
Still today, in the 21st century, the country continues to have a problem accepting the deeply racist attitudes of everyday Brazilians. As such, a dark-skinned black public figure that is adored by the public such as Pelé indeed risks falling out of public favor by discussing such an issue that so many continue to deny even with the abundance of evidence. It almost seems as if Brazil reminds Pelé that they “accepted” him (at least as a sports hero), a man who is a very dark-skinned descendant of Brazil’s 350-year history of the enslavement of black people. In other words, “we love you, but don’t try to step outside of ‘your place’ negro”.
In yet another recent example of the King refusing to do the right thing, last January, Pelé requested that Brazilians stop their ongoing street protests because they are “ruining the party.” The Brazilian uprisings made world headlines last June when millions of people took to the streets in protest against a number of things, including recent public transportation rate increases, political corruption, and failing health care and education systems. Another issue in these protests was the billions that the Brazilian government is spending to host the 2014 World Cup, which is scheduled to begin in less than 100 days.
In other words, even though Pelé has made millions over the course of his public career and continues to rake in money with endorsement deals, he believes that Brazilians should postpone protesting endemic social inequalities of which the game itself is a glaring example. Never mind the fact that I no longer buy the idea that these protests are purely a thing of the people, the principal of the question remains the same. This was actually the second time the King asked Brazilians to stop the protests. He made similar request last June in a video posted on You Tube.
Pelé asks Brazilians to stop the protests and support the National Soccer Team
On the issue, in January, the King was quoted as saying:
“The country could be filled with tourists, receiving all the benefit of these tourists and the Brazilian himself is spoiling the party. Many people don’t understand, because I think that soccer has nothing to do with the corruption of politicians,” he said.
“Soccer has always praised Brazil, so if we are going protest, let’s attack the politicians, let these parties go on and then make our demands. But soccer has nothing to do with this, which worries me a lot…Hopefully the Brazilian has this consciousness, let the World Cup go on and then we’ll make demands of what they’re stealing.”
In a few words, this would be funny if he weren’t serious. Let the protests wait? Soccer has nothing to do with this? Corruption? With soccer being one of biggest money attractions in Brazil, where does the King think most of this money goes? When I saw the You Tube video back in June, I, like many Brazilians, was disgusted. Was he serious? It was almost embarrassing to watch. The “King” came across as the folkloric “Pai João” type (similar to the “Uncle Tom” figure in the US) being put out front on behest of his master to calm down the rabble. The government and police couldn’t calm down the crowds so they marched out ole, good and faithful Pelé. Of course there’s no way to prove this, but I really did wonder if this was really him speaking or was he simply a “bamboozled” puppet being told what to say/do by his string pullers.
Is there any sense of conscious here? I mean we know there are billions to be made in this World Cup, the same event of which musician Gilberto Gil spoke out against in terms of the outrageous ticket prices that would put access out of the reach of millions of poor kids, some of whom, like Pelé himself, would go on to be the main attractions on the field bringing in this big money. Wait. Is that yet another issue that the King had nothing to say about? (Hmmm…I have to wonder how much the King stands to earn from the World Cup being played in Brazil)
What a shame. But let this serve as a reminder for those of us who wish to someday gain fame and fortune, be featured in television commercials and have our images plastered on ads promoting everything from shampoo and soft drinks, to cell phones and $200 gym shoes – to reach this level of success, the price is one’s soul. In today’s day age of multi-million dollar endorsement deals the public has largely come to accept the wealth, fame and success of such public figures to the point that everyone knows the deal: if you play, you will definitely get paid. Perhaps one could argue that people like Mr. Nascimento are merely entertainers and that this (social ills/inequality/injustice) is not their battle. In some sense, this is actually true. It’s a difficult feat to make money by making people forget society’s ills by peddling a dream-like world in which 99.9% of them will never manage to achieve. But I do have to wonder if these people ever lose any sleep over such things.