For once, he looks close to his age: 53 going on immortal. Edson Arantes do Nascimento—Pelè to the world—has been a globe-trotting fool since the advent of 1994, and the symptoms of terminal jet lag are beginning to show around his laughing brown eyes. Yesterday he flew from Japan to New York. He will be in the Big Apple for 26 hours to sign some contracts and to do an interview, then tonight he will fly home to Brazil.
This is an article from the June 20, 1994 issue
Since January, representing a smorgasbord of multinational companies—including MasterCard, Pizza Hut, Procter & Gamble, Time Warner, Tokyo Gas, Umbro and Pelè Sports & Marketing—Pelè has made appearances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Miami, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Montevideo, Dubai, Rome, Tunisia, Madrid, Paris, Cannes, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. It has been insane. He knows it, and his business managers know it. But with an estimated $30 million in endorsement deals and sponsorships coming his way this year alone, and with only one Pelè, it's a load the man is willing to shoulder. Between trips he snatches a few days at his homes in East Hampton, N.Y., and Santos, Brazil, near S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo. And somehow, in the midst of all the madness, this rolling stone found time to gather a boss: Pelè and 34-year-old Assíria Seixas Lemos were married in Recife, Brazil, on April 30, each for the second time.
It was Pelè's dream to have a World Cup in the U.S. Talk about crazy. Even Americans thought he was off his rocker. "I remember in 1977 talking to my friends Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson about holding the World Cup in the United States," Pelè says, rolling those travel-bleary eyes. "Nobody believed it."
The showcase event of the world's most popular sport held in a country where football was a game played with an oblong object, and strikers were people who walked a picket line? Lunacy. But that was Pelè's dream from the time he signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975, pumping temporary life into the North American Soccer League. Ever since, Pelè has been one of the few names—and in most cases the only one—that Americans associate with soccer. As far back as 1983 he lobbied FIFA, the sport's governing body, to grant the U.S., rather than Mexico, the 1986 World Cup, a position that irritated his fellow Brazilians, who remembered the strong support Mexican fans gave Brazil's last World Cup-winning team in 1970, a team led by Pelè himself.
In 1988 that irritation turned to anger when Brazil, Morocco and the U.S. were announced as the three finalists for the coveted 1994 World Cup, and Pelè endorsed the U.S. bid. "A country where millions of people are starving and which has the Third World's largest foreign debt cannot consider the sponsorship of a World Cup with government money," Pelè said of Brazil's aspirations. Latin American columnists called him a stooge for corporate America, but Pelè was un-apologetic. And when the U.S. got the bid he said, "This was a dream come true."
"He lit the fires," says Alan Rothenberg, head of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "Pelè was the single most important person in bringing the World Cup to the U.S.A."
It is almost impossible to overstate the extent of Pelè's influence. He is instantly recognized in any country where soccer is played. A cartoon series, Pelezinho—Little Pelè—is being done in Spain that will be seen around the world. When he visited Biafra in 1968, a two-day truce was declared in a bloody civil war. "In Africa, Pelè's like a god," he says, without bragging. By most assessments he has passed Muhammad Ali as the most recognizable athlete in the world, with Michael Jordan third. And, if you are wondering where Pelè goes from here, he is a spokesman for Japan 2002, the organization attempting to bring the World Cup to that country eight years from now. Pelè, a Roman Catholic, has had audiences with most of the popes since Pius XII. He has been courted by presidents and kings, but it is his common touch that corporate advertisers are drawn to.
"He continues to be the same humble, simple boy who came to the camp for a tryout when he was 14 years old," says Julio Mazzei, Pelè's longtime friend and the former trainer of Santos, Pelè's first professional team. "It's his charisma and being. He's the kind of person who makes people comfortable, that children trust. I've seen it at our soccer camps. Pelè will arrive, and 300 kids will charge across the held and climb all over him, grab onto him, shake his hand. Pelè has that smile that asks you to touch him."
Dismissing the suggestion that he has become an icon for hire, motivated by the huge sums of money he commands as a corporate spokesman, Pelè says, "It is a mission. I could make money without traveling so much. But to bring soccer to the countries where soccer is undeveloped, this is my passion. I want to see soccer all over the world. All people can be part of it. Poor people can play it. Other sports are so expensive for kids. But soccer is easy."
Certainly it was always easy for Pelè, who is so universally hailed as the greatest player in the game's history that one can't even strike up an argument on the subject. The son of a journeyman pro, Pelè learned the game barefoot in the streets of Tr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢s Cora‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√º‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬µes (Three Hearts), a town 170 miles northwest of Rio de Janiero, playing with a ball made of rags. When he was about eight the other kids began calling him this strange name: Pelè. He still doesn't know why. The word means nothing in Portuguese, which is the native tongue in Brazil. Pelada is the word for street soccer today, but according to Pelè that was not a word they used when he was a child.
"When I was small I hated the name Pelè," he says. "My father told me I was named Edson after Thomas Edison, and I was so proud that they had named me for the American inventor. Then at the games the boys would call me Pelè to tease me. I don't know where it came from. I fought them when they called me that. Until I was 12 years old I hated this name, because I don't know what it means."
He doesn't hate it any longer, and, in fact, he often refers to himself in the third person by the name Pelè. "Yes, of course I think of Pelè as a different person," he says. "When I met Pelè, I was seven or eight. Pelè doesn't have a nation, race, religion or color. People all over the world love Pelè. Edson is a man like other men. Edson is going to die someday. Edson cries when he has a problem. But Pelè doesn't die. Pelè's immortal."
Pelè turned professional when he joined Santos at the age of 15, and in 1958, at 17, he led Brazil's national team to its first World Cup championship, in Sweden. Afterward he turned down the then unprecedented offer of a three-year, $2.5 million contract from Fiat president Gianni Agnelli to play for his club, Juventus, in Italy. Brazil repeated as World Cup champions in 1962, by which time Pelè, who was then only 21, was recognized as the best player and biggest gate attraction in the world. Fearful that Pelè would be lured to Europe, Brazilian president J‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢nio Quadros decreed him a "national treasure."
"This was a big honor for me, but I still paid income taxes," says Pelè. And a lot of them: Playing for Santos with a salary of some $150,000 a year, he was the highest paid team-sport athlete in the world.
In 1966, Brazil was defeated in the World Cup. But four years later Pelè became the first athlete to play on three World Cup winners when he led Brazil to the title in Mexico City. In 1971 he retired from the national team but kept playing for Santos. Three years later the military government pleaded with the 33-year-old Pelè to play in a fifth World Cup, but he refused, saying, "It is better to go out on top." Today Pelè—who had 1,219 goals in 1,254 games to that point in his career—says he quit for a different reason: to protest the policies of the government. "After we won in 1970, the Brazilian people were happy and forgot about everything else," he says, "forgot that the military government was killing and torturing, and nobody said anything."
Pelè had offers from teams in Germany and Italy the following year, but he had no interest in throwing himself back into the pressure cooker of big-time soccer. He wanted to cut down on his travel and spend more time with his wife, Rose, and their three children. In 1975 he shocked the soccer world by signing a three-year, $4.5 million contract with the Cosmos. "I wanted to be more relaxed," he says, "to play only a live-month season. I could learn English and learn business if I came to the U.S. We decided on the Cosmos because of that."
Pelè's name gave the NASL, which had been founded in 1968, an instant boost. Before Pelè, the Cosmos averaged a few thousand fans per home game; with him, they began drawing sellout crowds everywhere. "Everything was fantastic in 1975 and '76," Pelè recalls. "Then in '77 we started traveling, playing games all over the world. We started to get 62,000 at Cosmos games. It changed everything. Big success in soccer; problem in family life. My wife got mad. I was traveling again all the time, and she didn't have family in New York."
After 12 years of marriage Pelè and Rose separated in 1978, less than a year after 75,646 people crammed into Giants Stadium for his farewell game with the Cosmos. The NASL, too, eventually fell apart, disbanding in 1985. "Soccer became too big too fast," says Pelè. "We had 18 teams in 1977, and it was very balanced. Then they opened it up to 24 teams the next year, and it was not balanced anymore."
Another U.S. pro soccer league, Major League Soccer, will be launched in 1995, and Rothenberg has offered Pelè the opportunity—for $10 million—to buy the New York franchise. Pelè's mulling it over. "With the new league," Pelè says, "they must keep it small, and if they grow, grow slowly. The other mistake we made was that we didn't have too much space for American players. We had up to eight foreigners per team and only three or four Americans. It should have been the opposite. Then the American families can get involved." The MLS plans to limit its teams to three or four foreign players each.
Pelè will be in the U.S. throughout the World Cup, commenting on the games for Brazil's Globo television network. If Brazil does make it to the final, in Los Angeles on July 17, Pelè Sports & Marketing expects to handle the ticket and travel arrangements for as many as 25,000 Brazilians. Pelè also owns the South American licensing rights to Striker, the World Cup mascot. There's a lot of money in soccer, especially in the year of a World Cup, and much of it, one way or another, leads back to the man who made this all possible in the U.S.
"It's too much travel," Pelè says of his World Cup schedule. "My dream now is to start a school for children, to prepare them for the national team of Brazil. I'd coach them. This I would love very much." Reminded that he has to fly to Brazil that night, Pelè smiles a tired, beautiful smile. "Maybe in '96."