AS THE WORLD CUP DESCENDS ON BRAZIL, THE GREATEST FUTEBOL PLAYER IN HISTORY (GET OVER YOURSELF, MARADONA) AIMS TO BECOME THE GREATEST PRODUCT PITCHMAN. IF ONLY HE WERE AS ADORED IN HIS HOMELAND AS HE IS IN THE REST OF THE WORLD
This is an article from the June 2, 2014 issue
PELÉ IS MAGIC.
ANY OTHER EXPLANATION for the packed press conference at the Four Seasons in New York City just nibbled around the edge of that truth. Slow news day? Sure, it was a Tuesday in June 2013. Nostalgia? Not for the twentysomething men, all gelled up and skinny-suited, whose parentally guided idea of the 1970s goes no further than Nixon, gas lines and Donna Summer's invention of the orgasm. Yet there they were, the new media and flacksters and corporate remora, sidling past the few arthritic soccer nuts who had actually heard those 77,000 voices that saluted the Cosmos' legend after his final brilliant season at Giants Stadium, both breeds eyeing the fizzy Brazilian models at the door, the two stock-still Emirates Airlines flight attendants posing onstage and the various high-heeled staffers who learned, quite early in their New York lives, how to slip a stranger's gaze.
"Some serious press, huh?" said one aspiring Gordon Gekko to a woman hunched over her smartphone. The response could barely be called a grunt.
Out, then, came peppy Shep Messing, the 64-year-old former Cosmos goalie and Viva centerfold, to ask for more patience. The show was already running 14 minutes late. "You know who we're waiting for," he said into a microphone. "We're running on Brazilian time."
The room filled with knowing laughs—Of course! We expect nothing less!—and then, as if on command, heads bowed and fingers tiny-typed Shep's quip into the ether. No one betrayed annoyance, maybe because digital diversions defang even the snarliest New Yorker. But it's also because they weren't there to hear how the fabled Cosmos, having failed to reach a deal with MLS, would reboot in Queens in the new and decidedly second-tier NASL. Or to get handouts from the team's Dubai-based airline sponsor. Dude: It's Pelé.
Twenty-two minutes later he arrived at last, clapping and bopping up the aisle like the loopy best man at a dubious wedding. The fillers in the crowd of 140 clapped and shouted too, as if they were teenyboppers and the Beatles had just landed ("Hey ... hey, Pelé!"), as if we all hadn't been taught to think that every public figure hides a bit of rotten. Yet once he reached the stage, paused and performed a cute double take on the Emirates beauty to his left—"Hell-o," he rumbled. "How are you?"—it hit you. Not that the greatest soccer player ever looks so good at 72. Not even that Pelé doesn't move like he's 72. No, it's that he's one of the few of his generation still out there, still pulling it off.
Muhammad Ali shakes in silence, Arnold Palmer stoops, A.J. Foyt hobbles behind the racing scene, and Joe Namath lost any remaining cool on that sideline with Suzy Kolber. Bobby Hull, Willie Mays, Frank Gifford: Fading, fading, fading all.... And that's the way it is. Men age. Men crack. Men die.
But not him. Not yet. Because that press conference was only the kickoff of another Pelé moment, the slickest yet, now reaching full flower. What with two new books out (including a limited-edition tome with a top price of, oh, $2,600), a Pelé museum opening back home in Santos, a Hollywood biopic in postproduction and, yes, the 2014 World Cup about to break loose this month in chaotic, wondrous, sexy Brazil, come hell or hot favela, a flood of Pelé highlights, Pelé references and smiling Pelé images all figure to make his first megahyped foray, with the Cosmos in 1975—Soccer Takes America! Party at Studio 54!—seem downright quaint.
Indeed, overkill is the goal, and why not? That Brazil is hosting both the Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is itself either audacious or suicidal; the stress, corruption, construction delays and cost overruns have sparked nationwide protests and disgust. But the coming of the world's two biggest sporting events also provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Brazilians to profit, and Pelé and his team intend to make the most of it. "This is his time," says his manager, Paul Kemsley.
Kemsley made sure of that. The once-bankrupt former Tottenham Hotspurs vice chairman and reality-show mainstay was the first to try to revive the Cosmos name after buying the rights in 2009, and his bombastic 14-month tenure yielded no team, $10 million in expenditures and a slew of public-relations stunts. One of the first—and more reasonable—was recruiting the franchise's biggest name as "honorary president" to lend instant legitimacy to the revival bid.
"We needed to find Pelé and get him to agree to support it," Kemsley says of his recruiting trip to Brazil in 2010. But Pelé didn't show as agreed, and for the next five days Kemsley fumed and burned through all six seasons of The Sopranos in a S√£o Paulo hotel room. "Wow, here we are ready to pay Pelé $1 million a year for five years just to turn up and say all good things about the Cosmos—and we can't find him?" Kemsley says. "It's difficult."
But that's well behind them. Soccer phenomenon, actor, singer, sports ambassador, twice-failed businessman, futebol reformer: Pelé has been many things in his life. His last act, though, is about getting paid. Now dug in as chief executive officer of Legends 10, the agency handling Pelé's global management, Kemsley has the game's only three-time World Cup champ hawking Volkswagen cars, Hublot watches, Emirates Airlines, Banco Santander and Subway sandwiches, "to name but a few," Kemsley says. Pelé's endorsement, licensing and appearance deals, he adds, total some $73 million.
No wonder that when splitting with Kemsley in October 2011, the Cosmos made sure to keep Pelé on board: He's become the sport's amiable golden goose. Few current soccer players are more famous, and he'll tell anyone how special the '70s were, how fans worldwide ask far more about his short chapter in New York than his long club career with Santos, how important it is that the Cosmos' name lives again. No question—not even whether he might play again—is too absurd for him to field, and graciously.
"Let's leave it for these guys there," Pelé said, nodding to the glamourless current Cosmos corralled next to the stage. The crowd tittered on cue. "Let them run a little bit now," he continued. "Good luck."
So it was only a press conference, a little sound and flurry, but when it ended, Pelé knew he had done the job. Hasn't he been performing for nearly 60 years? He stood with the Cosmos' coach and an Emirates senior VP and posed with their new jersey. The 14 TV cameras in the back of the room hummed, bulbs flashed, and young and old couldn't help but stare. Pelé stared back, smile fixed. Then, out of nowhere, he muttered the oddest thing.
"Everybody's happy," he said.
TWO MONTHS later Pelé stood in a chilled studio on a ratty street in Long Island City, N.Y. Soon he would be decked out in an elegant black suit for a star turn on an all-white soundstage, soccer balls falling like rain, but first came the pitchman's grunt work: Reciting tagline after disjointed tagline in Portuguese, Spanish and English, being forever corrected by various strangers, being told to repeat himself—only this time louder, or with more energy, or just, well, better.
"Futebol, foot-longs: They always going together," Pelé said in English. Then he stopped, counted off "Um, two, three," and did it again.
The afternoon, a long one, belonged to Subway. Pelé was wearing green shorts and a canary-yellow warmup top with a green 10 over the heart. The cameras didn't pick up the black dress socks, and like any septuagenarian he looked slightly lost within the athletic kit that once seemed a man-made compliment to his perfect frame. Still, he kept bringing it. After a run through one series of tags in his native tongue, the satisfied director called for a break. Pelé kept practicing, "Atum com salada, sal e pimenta." Tuna with lettuce, salt and pepper.
The spots were due to run in Brazil, of course, as well as in the U.S. and all over the globe during the World Cup, but the script winked only broadly at the Brazilian national team: "I could get used to these colors!" Pelé said. Subway isn't an official World Cup sponsor, but its logo, conveniently, is also green and gold. Even so, the timeless nowhereness of personal endorsements makes details such as one's home country secondary. The product is king. Its commercial dictates seem surreal only to one seeing them for the first time. "I'm used to doing this," Pelé said.
His introduction came at 17, just after he'd dazzled aficionados in the '58 World Cup with a semifinal hat trick and then two goals in Brazil's 5--2 win over host Sweden in the final—the first score a circus act so flamboyant that it makes even black-and-white clips seem Technicolored. Tetra Pak, the Swedish packaging company later responsible for those juice boxes handed out at every kids' soccer games, signed him just afterward. A photographer shot a sweet picture of Pelé in Stockholm, sipping Tetra-Pak'd milk through a straw. "One thousand dollars," said Pepito Fornos, Pelé's onetime business manager and now personal aide. "Big pay."
"This was the first one," Pelé said. "It opened the door for me. That was very unusual because at that time [companies] don't use athletes to endorse any product." In essence, every suitor since has followed Tetra Pak's lead, hoping to bottle and milk Pelé's ever-boyish vim. His mesmerizing talent and World Cup record alone would have made him famous, but what set him apart from peers such as Ali and Johan Cruyff—what still sets Pelé apart from Diego Maradona, his archrival in the GOAT debate, and current stars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—was that quality of kinetic joy. Every run and goal, all 1,283 of them, seemed to signal his thrill at being alive.
"Please say with me, three times!" he asked, in tears, of the sellout Meadowlands crowd before his farewell match in 1977. "Love! Love! And love!"
Peers knew another side. "People don't see that inner steel, that hardness," says Messing, who played with Pelé in New York and has been one of his business partners for 15 years. "I remember once, on a corner kick, catching an elbow to the back of my head from Mike England, captain of Seattle. Pelé saw it. Gave him an elbow to the chest. [But] after the whistle ended the game? I've never not seen him be gracious and charming and honest and humble."
Set against the game's sometimes overwhelming cynicism and corruption, though, that childlike wonder made for the most enduring—and valuable—aura. Pelé's choppy English was no impediment to jump-starting the Cosmos then, and it certainly can't hurt now: Though he last played in 1977, in 2013 Pelé's Q score in the U.S. was fifth among all Latino celebrities. He may indeed be the most famous man alive, adored in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It's only at home that things get complicated.
INDEED, THE very image of simplicity that makes Pelé so appealing overseas has, over and over, been his undoing in Brazil. Named after Thomas Edison because his hometown, Tr√™s Cora√ß√µes, had been electrified just before his birth, Edson Arantes do Nascimento never shone as bright off the pitch as he did on. Who could? Still, he famously trusted too many friends or incompetents to handle his business affairs, a fact that millions of his countrymen remember with their daily coffee. In the early 1970s one of Pelé's advisers sold his naming rights to the Brazilian instant-coffee company Cacique "for zero," Kemsley says. Café Pelé has since become a worldwide brand (a packet supposedly was found with a machine gun and a suitcase of cash in Saddam Hussein's hideout), and its namesake receives no royalties for sales in the wheelhouse markets of Brazil and Europe. "He's been ripped off a lot," Kemsley said. "Café Pelé does about $300 million a year, and he gets almost nothing—at the moment."
Nothing here is a relative term. Cash has always flowed toward Pelé. He's had his rough times—the demise of a construction business in the 1960s, the rubber-company liabilities that caused him to unretire and play for the Cosmos—and none worse than the 2001 accusation that his sports marketing firm pocketed $700,000 that was due to UNICEF for a canceled exhibition. (UNICEF denied the allegation.) Claiming soon afterward that $10 million had been stolen from him, Pelé sued his partner of 16 years, Hélio Viana (who charged in the press that Pelé owed him $5 million), and shuttered the company. But he was also pulling in a reported $28 million a year then from MasterCard, Coca-Cola, Nokia and other corporate clients. And that was before he started making ads for Viagra.
In his prime Pelé took some vaguely broad social stands, traveling to Nigeria during its 1967 civil war to stage an exhibition match that halted the fighting for 48 hours, and using his 1,000th goal in '69 as an occasion to urge care for Brazil's "little children." That "came spontaneously," Pelé said. "We had started to have a problem with kids in school. I used to have a soccer clinic. And at that time, the most important message I could say was to give education to the youngest." He shrugged. "Thirty-five years later people are still complaining about the schools."
Pelé also served for three years as Brazil's first black cabinet official; as sports minister from 1995 to '98 he was credited with reforming his nation's often deeply corrupt soccer system, most notably with the '98 Pelé Law (since gutted), which introduced free agency to Brazilian soccer. It won him few friends outside the locker room, especially among the cadre supporting Brazil Football Confederation (CBF) president Ricardo Teixeira. But that seemed of a piece. Pelé had feuded with Teixeira since the early '90s, publicly called him corrupt and a bribe-taker, and earned the enmity of Teixeira's father-in-law, FIFA president Jo√£o Havelange, who barred Pelé from the '94 World Cup draw. Pelé refused to back Brazil's late-'90s bid to host the 2006 World Cup, but, for those wanting to clean up the national futebol scene, he seemed on the side of the angels. And when a 2012 court document stated that both Havelange and Teixeira had accepted millions in bribes in the '90s, it was evident that he had been.
That news, however, came too late. Early in 2001, with the CBF under investigation for corruption and with Pelé's own sports marketing scandal heating up, the former star made peace with his nemesis. Many Brazilians never forgave Pelé for hugging Teixeira, and the public's regard for him plummeted. Critics recalled that Pelé had never used his unparalleled clout to speak out against Brazil's military dictatorship, and it became easy to view him as an establishment tool. When, a year later, national team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari responded to a Pelé critique by saying, "He knows nothing about futebol.... His analysis always turns out wrong," few even bothered to object.
But when, each summer, he returned to his apartment in Manhattan or his house in the Hamptons, all that faded. New Yorkers love Pelé. And during his short tenure, Kemsley found time to identify how unwieldy a scrum the business of Pelé had become and convinced him that he could do a better job of marketing Brazil's biggest name in advance of the World Cup. "The brand was completely fragmented: licensing in one place, sponsors in another, people running around using the name without permission," Kemsley says. "It was just a broken brand."
Salesmanship has never been Kemsley's weak spot. Late in 2011, he and partner Terry Byrne won over longtime Pelé pal and business partner Celso Grellet, an architect of the befouled Pelé Sports & Marketing, and persuaded Los Angeles investor Jayne Anderson to lend financial muscle. They consolidated ownership of his rights under the umbrella of a new entity (Sport 10) and promised Pelé a lump sum up-front, a minority stake and a monthly salary. Pelé, then 71, signed a 30-year contract. The global hard sell of his name—under the banner of Legends 10—was on.
By last summer, just as Kemsley's push to corral endorsements for the World Cup was shifting into overdrive, protests against bus hikes, corruption and World Cup spending swept across Brazil. Pelé's first public comment was a quick dismissal. "Let's forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests," he told the Rio-based newspaper O Globo, "and let's remember how the Brazilian squad is our country and our blood."
The backlash was savage. Most current Brazil players sided with the strikers, and Pelé—firmly installed as President Dilma Rousseff's World Cup ambassador—came off as fustily out of touch or, worse, an apologist for moneyed interests. He tried to clarify, said he was only asking the public not to take its justifiable rage out on the players, but it wasn't enough.
"Remember a phrase I told you: The silent Pelé is a poet," former national team star Romàrio, now a congressman, said during a subsequent press conference. "Pelé has no f------ awareness of what's going on in this country, so he can't talk that nonsense."
Now Legends 10 had a problem. Pelé had forever answered questions, amiably, on every subject—sex, politics, his business failures—but one stray word can be a brand-killer. No client could afford for him to stir division and, in essence, split the market. So, though the protests had become international news and completely altered Brazil's World Cup landscape, by the time of last August's Subway session, it was clear that a new, more controlled regime was in play.
During a break, Pelé took time for two short—and unconditional—interviews, conducted always with Theresa Tran, a Legends 10 minder, hovering near. Asked about the protests, he didn't hesitate.
"I think that Brazilians, the public, are right—what they complain about," he said. "Because we have a problem with education, and then we have a problem with the hospitals. And they've spent a lot of money on the soccer fields. The only mistake was, the movement that is there now should have been six years ago, when FIFA selected Brazil for the World Cup. It's too late, because the stage is there now. But the movement to take care of the Brazilian people, I think, is right."
In late May, when a flood of reports revealed that three World Cup stadiums—including the S√£o Paulo venue slated for the opener—would not be completed on time, Pelé would finally feel compelled to declare, in an interview with the German magazine Bild, that the situation was "a disgrace." But now, at the start of a follow-up question, Tran glanced up from her phone. "Let's move on from this topic," she said.
"No," Pelé said. "Finish [the question].... "
"Let's move on," Tran repeated.
"I understand what she says," he said. "It's O.K. I said, 'No. What happened?' But now it's past. Now we have to think on the future and the World Cup."
Still Tran hardly looked pleased. Who's going to buy Subway—or anything else—if they're thinking about problems in the schools and streets? Only an unruffled, uncontroversial Pelé can make this money machine work. Only the man who will stand before that blue screen as long as you want—10, 12 minutes, waiting with his new right hip on poured concrete, flipping a soccer ball hand-to-hand, wrestling with three languages while a boom mike captures every screwup and a dozen eyes stare. Only the man who never bristles when the director says, again, "One more.... Just a little happier."
There was one point, during the day's early filming, when everything came to a halt. The director and assistant director were trying to figure out the next tagline, the translator was looking at his pages, and the cameraman had glanced away from his camera, blinking. Pelé waited. For perhaps the only time all day, no one was speaking to him or looking at him or judging or trying to nudge him to some safe and boring remove. For the truly famous, such peace, even for 30 seconds, comes only with sleep. Very soon the demands would start again. So now, quickly, Pelé lifted the ball to his lips, gave it a soft kiss and lowered it again.
That was nice. That was his.
THIS YEAR, on the Thursday morning before the Super Bowl, Pelé arrived at another New York soundstage, in Chelsea. It was a good time for Subway to polish off some more taglines: Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook had been in to film that morning, and now boxer Mike Lee was tucking into the buffet as NFL defensive end Justin Tuck sat in his private greenroom, waiting. Pelé is right: When he first came up, athletes weren't used much as spokesmen, and when they were, it felt cheap and sad. It hurt to see Muhammad Ali flogging roach killer.
No more. For nearly two generations endorsements have been a status marker for the U.S. pro athlete; hawk a sandwich, car or—best of all—your own sneaker line, and the world will know that you've truly arrived. Brazil, though, is still processing the effects of big money on its jogo bonito: The shrinking of iconic Maracan√£ Stadium, once a cauldron for 200,000, into an upscale sports palace; the seeming need for a bottom-line approach over the untouchable ideal of Brazilian style; the idea of a footballer as a mere celebrity billboard.
"Soccer in Brazil is one of the few institutions that had been able to grow and consolidate itself apart from the state and the market," said Aldo Rebelo, Brazil's sports minister. "It used to be a semiamateur activity. Soccer players were stars but sponsored by their fans, the people who paid for the tickets. Now soccer has become big business, with many sponsors, rising salaries and very expensive broadcasting rights. That has really confused fans."
Of course, one look at attendance increases and ratings spikes would tell you that fans find a way of internalizing any disquiet. Besides, as a player Pelé missed out on this era—his biggest contract was the three-year, $4.5 million deal he signed at 34 with the Cosmos—so who's going to begrudge him the chance to make up for lost time?
He is now 73. Rumors of Pelé's death pop up from time to time—CNN would hastily delete a tweet reporting that in March—but he jokes about it. He likes to think that little can faze him now. Indeed, just days before, Maradona had fired another shot across Pelé's bow—castigating FIFA for awarding the Brazilian its honorary Ballon d'Or, saying Pelé will always be second best to him and implying that Brazil's greatest name has become little more than a stooge for football's overlords.
"I am content living in a home in Dubai," Maradona said, "but Pelé lives in FIFA."
Pelé laughed at Maradona. "I admire him," he said. "He was an excellent player, and I respect what he wants to say. But if he wants to say I am in second, I don't know who he chose for first. Him?"
You have to understand, Pelé explained, that this has been going on forever. The Argentines are always crowing that their greats—Alfredo Di Stéfano in the 1950s and '60s, Maradona in the '80s and '90s and now Messi—are better than Pelé. "I say to my Argentine friends: Listen, you try to decide who's the best in Argentina, and then we will discuss the best in the world," he said.
But Maradona, more than anyone else, has made the rivalry more nasty, more personal, and that prompts a flash of the old steel. A citizen of FIFA? "Totally wrong," Pelé said. He pointed out that he was the only one of the above to turn down European millions to play in his home country. "I am part of Brazil," Pelé said. "I am part of football, always—and Brazil.
"Sometimes I make a joke with [Maradona] because I say, 'I score a lot of goals off my head—that's a picture of a true champion. The only goal he has made with the head is with the hand.' But I respect him. He was a big player, but not like Pelé. He doesn't handle the ball like Pelé, but ... a very good player."
Legends 10 would rather he not talk about this either (do they even have Subways in the Republic of FIFA?), but such is the risk of marketing so public a figure. Pelé has always made a handy target, and little concerning him isn't news. In fact, last fall two of Pelé's teenage grandchildren—sons of his long-ignored daughter Sandra Regina, who died in 2006—sued him for child support; pending a later settlement, a judge ordered Pelé to pay them a monthly stipend of $760 each.
That prompted a nationwide rehashing of the most unseemly episode of his career: In 1991, Sandra Regina surfaced and claimed she was Pelé's child by way of his short relationship, at 18, with a Santos chambermaid. Pelé contested paternity until DNA tests and a court upheld the claim in 1996. When Sandra Regina died of breast cancer, his family sent a wreath and said Pelé was praying at home.
"I don't think he's such a Catholic," Romàrio posted on Facebook in April 2013. "If he was, he would've recognized his daughter and gone to her funeral."
Pelé has three children from his first marriage; another daughter out of wedlock, whom he has long supported; and 17-year-old twins, Joshua and Celeste, with his second wife, Assíria, from whom he is divorced. He said he is happy to provide support to Sandra Regina's children. "We're going to help the kids, of course, no problem; never a problem," Pelé said. "Even the mother of Sandra, she lives in an apartment that belongs to my family.
"I didn't know Sandra. I didn't know she existed until she appeared. But I feel comfortable because it was not my fault. Her mother, at that time, I don't know what the reason, she disappeared with the kid. But I don't have any regrets now."
At that Tran said, "I would say move on from the topic."
Maybe that's what Pelé wanted too. Maybe he's too polite, too nice, to tell a pushy stranger that there are some parts of his past he'd just rather leave be. But he didn't seem offended. He went on to speak easily about Joshua, a forward who has just moved from Orlando to play for Santos like his father. "I told him, 'It will be big pressure,' " Pelé said. "He said, 'No, I want to be a soccer player.' That's it."
Then Pelé stood and shook hands and went out into the studio. Little seemed to bother him there, either. It's as if he has learned, over the decades of being Pelé, how to insulate himself from the trials and insults that buckle most other men. He waited a bit as the photographer finished setting up, singing softly along with the classic Jobim tune "Aguas de Mar√ßo." When the photographer started snapping pictures—barking, "Come on, Pelé: Brazil. Soccer. That's the s---!"—Pelé just bent his knees, strummed a little air guitar and posed until the job was done.
Afterward he changed again into green sweatpants, a T-shirt and a canary-yellow warmup, and he started practicing the Subway taglines under his breath. "Kids.... Eat a lot of vegetables.... It's good for health. You could be a winner." He snapped his right fingers twice, for timing.
"Subway has plenty of vegetables," the director prompted. "Pelé, how about saying, 'Vegetables taste good'? ... So good. Say, 'Sooooo good.' "
And with that, something clicked. Pelé pounded his fist into the other hand. His eyes lit up, and he punctuated each word perfectly with gestures. He opened his arms wide and beamed and shouted, "Flat-izza! Flat-izza! Flat-izza for everyone!"
"Who's going to win the World Cup?" the director asked.
"Brazil!" Pelé said, then hedged, "I wish. I wish."
He gestured to his outfit. The cameras were rolling again, and he delivered the line as written: "These are my favorite colors." Then inspiration struck, and without prompting he leaped completely off-script and gestured at his chest.
"This is the color of Brazil," Pelé said, smile as bright as a crescent moon, cadence perfectly timed. "We are together.... Subway."
The chances of that making the cut seemed slim. But you had to admit: The man had pretty much nailed it.
For in-depth accounts of the 10 most significant goals in U.S. soccer history, including World Cup strikes by Bert Patenaude (1930), Brandi Chastain (1999) and Landon Donovan (2010), go to SI.com/longform