Pele paved the way for people of colour to be recognised in sport

Story by Lawrence Trusida, Sports Editor

Brazilian legend Pele, the only person to win the World Cup three times, had a great influence, including outside the football pitch.

Pelé, one of football’s greatest players and a transformative figure in 20th-century sports, who achieved a level of global celebrity status most athletes could ever dream of, passed on the 29th of December 2022 at the age of 82 in Sau Paulo, Brazil.

Born in Minas Gerais, a poor town in the state of Sao Paulo, with the name Edson Arantes do Nascimento, he was to be known as Pelé because of the way that he mispronounced the name of Bile, his favourite player, the goalkeeper for Vasco da Gama.

Pele was born on October 23, 1940, and his father João Ramos, better known as “Dondinho,” struggled to earn a living as a soccer player, and hence they lived in poverty.

A national hero in his native Brazil, Pelé was beloved around the world — by the very poor, among whom he was raised; the very rich, in whose circles he travelled; and just about everyone who ever saw him play.

He won three World Cup tournaments with Brazil and 10 league titles with Santos, his club team, as well as the 1977 North American Soccer League championship with the New York Cosmos. Having come out of retirement at 34, he spent three seasons with the Cosmos on a crusade to popularise soccer in the United States.

In his 21-year career, the Brazilian scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 professional matches, including 77 goals for the Brazilian national team.

Many of those goals became legendary, but Pelé’s influence on the sport went beyond scoring. He helped create and promote what he later called “o jogo bonito” — the beautiful game — a style that valued clever ball control, inventive pinpoint passing and a voracious appetite for attacking. Pelé not only played it better than anyone; he also championed it around the world.

Pelé, who was declared a national treasure in his native Brazil, achieved worldwide celebrity and helped popularise the sport in the United States.

Celebrated for his peerless talent and originality on the field, Pelé (pronounced peh-LAY) also endeared himself to fans with his sunny personality and his belief in the power of soccer — football to most of the world — to connect people across dividing lines of race, class and nationality.

While his exploits on the football pitch were unmatched, he also had a great influence outside it.

During what has been called Pelé’s reign, Santos frequently toured throughout the world in front of huge crowds.

In Asia, Africa, and Europe, fans paid homage to this Black Brazilian.

Concerned that such devotion might result in offers for Pelé to play for teams in richer countries, the Brazilian Congress declared the 22-year-old to be a “non-exportable national treasure” in 1962.

During a visit to Nigeria by the team in 1969, the warring factions in a civil war agreed to a temporary truce lasting the duration of the Brazilian’s stay.

Pele was also an advocate for children’s rights and on the day he scored his 1,000th goal, in November 1969 at Maracanã stadium in Rio before more than 200,000 fans, Pelé was mobbed by reporters on the field and used their microphones to dedicate the goal to “the children.”

Crying, he made an impromptu speech about the difficulties of impoverished children and the need to give them better educational opportunities.

His fame reached far beyond the confines of Brazil and sports as he is widely regarded as a black champion because of the manner he paved the way for people of colour to be truly recognised in sport.

He was the first Black man to be on the cover of Life Magazine, and even more than two decades after the end of his professional soccer career, he is certainly among the people of African descent, one of the most recognised in the world.

After a long illness, the great man rested with his ancestors but no one will forget the black Brazilian of African descent.

Mambo we bhora, Inkosi yemdlalo we nguqu.

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