The humble king - GulfToday

The humble king

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Brazil fans unveil a flag of Pele prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group G match between Cameroon and Brazil.

Brazil fans unveil a flag of Pele prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group G match between Cameroon and Brazil.

King Pele has been mourned around the world not only because he and his triple crown World Cup Santos football club were widely honoured for victories on the field of play but also because they were celebrated globe trotters who brought the “beautiful game” to millions of people.

Although Pele was from a poor, black family and even suffered from racist insults at the height of his career, he remained apolitical. Nevertheless, on occasion he found himself and his Santos team coping with tanks, coups and civil wars in this region and Africa.  

He played his first match in an Arab country in 1965 Algeria when Santos was invited to take part in friendly matches in Oran and Algiers. The team arrived in the capital as film director Gillo Pontecorvo was shooting the award-winning Battle of Algiers. During this time, Pele saw tanks rolling

through the streets for the film and was on hand for the coup mounted against President Ahmad Ben Bella by Defence Minister Houari Boumediene who took power and cancelled the second match.

In January 1969, when Pele’s Santos played the Nigerian National team, dubbed the Green Eagles, the factions fighting in the country’s civil war agreed on a 48-hour ceasefire. This was upheld by military officers from the government and rebel sides. Fans from both camps freely attended the match at Logos City Stadium. When the game ended in a draw, fans congratulated both teams.

Pele paid his first visits to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in 1971, before the founding of the UAE. In 1972, Santos visited Tehran where it won against Iran’s B-team in Azadi stadium. In 1973 Santos played a friendly match in Egypt against Al-Ahli at Cairo’s International Stadium before going to Sudan and Qatar where Santos defeated Qatar’s Al-Ahli at the 2,000 capacity Doha Stadium — a far cry from the spectacular World Cup venue. From Doha he moved to Bahrain and, again, to the UAE which became a favourite regional destination.

In April 1975, as Lebanon edged toward civil war, Pele travelled to Beirut where he took part in a friendly game which drew 30,000 spectators. The match was between the Lebanese Premier League side, Nejmeh, and players recruited from French-medium universities. He served as goalkeeper for 15 minutes, helping to secure victory for Nejmeh. He also conducted a training session at the American University of Beirut a few days before right-wing Christian Phalangist gunmen shot up a bus carrying Palestinians to a funeral, killing 30, and precipitating confessional warfare which ended in 1990.

Arabs and Africans he visited did not mind if their teams lost to those Pele played for as to lose to the King was an honour and a privilege. In victory, the King was humble and, often, praised opponents who played well — even goalkeepers who fended off his scoring shots.

Subsequently Pele visited North Africa and the Eastern Arab World to promote football and attend exhibition games. His star did not fade with time.

A Brazilian forward who plays for Paris Saint-Germain and the Brazilian national team, Neymar  da Silva Santos said, “Before Pele, football was only a sport. Pele changed everything. He turned football into art, into entertainment.”  Generally known by his first name, “Neymar” is regarded as one of the best players in the world today while Pele is regarded as the greatest ever.

Phil McNulty, the BBC’s chief football correspondent, observed, “Pele’s greatness can be measured by the simple fact that he could make football a spectacle of natural grace and beauty when he missed as much as when he scored.” Neymar also said, “He gave a voice to the poor, to black people.”

Born in October 1940, Pele knew what it was to be poor and black in a society where Africans were enslaved for generations. His birth name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but he earned the nickname “Pele” at school. From his father Pele learned to play using a grapefruit or a sock stuffed with newspaper as he could not afford a real ball. In his early teens began to play indoor football (futsal), a fast game in a restricted area, which he said gave him confidence. At 15, he was recruited by the professional Santos club in the industrial city near Sao Paulo. By 16, he was a star, and it was predicted Pele

would become “the greatest football player in the world.”  This was exactly what happened. Two years later, at the 1958 World Cup, Pele became the first black global sporting star and a source of inspiration to people of colour the world over. While he was playing for Santos, the team won two more World Cup contests.

At home in Brazil, he was celebrated as a national hero for his prowess in football and for his support of policies which benefit the poor. Although head-hunted by wealthy US and European clubs, Pele remained true to Santos and helped make his local club a world-wide success story. He remained

with the club for 19 seasons, retiring in 1974. In retirement, Pele did not rest. Having had lost his fortune in bad inverstments, he needed to recoup and signed in 1975 with the New York Cosmos club where his presence invigorated the game in the US. As with Santos, Pele toured the world with Cosmos.

At the close of his professional career, Pele took part in an exhibition match between Cosmos and Santos. He played the first half with Cosmos, the second with Santos. The game ended when Pele scored a free-kick for Cosmos, making the score 2-1. Although this was his last goal, he remained an ambassador for the sport until his health failed him. He died on Dec.29 at 82 after a long battle with cancer.

Thousands of Brazilians flocked to Sao Paulo to mourn Pele’s passing and celebrate Sunday’s return to the presidency of Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, who has not only promised to save the Amazon rainforest from plunderunbg farmers, ranchers and loggers but has also pledged to end racial, social, and economic inequality in Brazil.

Pele’s funeral took place on Monday once Lula was inaugurated. During his first two terms in offoce Lula lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty, a cause Pele achieved through football.

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