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Pele: Wanted to be pilot, hated his name, stopped war, 3 World Cup, 1 Copa

The beautiful game not just changed Pele's life, but one around him as well as at one point his club Santos was in demand to play teams in Europe.

Apart from the goals and the artistry on the field, there was much more to the legend of Pele. (Twitter)
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Pele: Wanted to be pilot, hated his name, stopped war, 3 World Cup, 1 Copa
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Apart from the goals and the artistry on the field, there was much more to the legend of Pele. For a boy who initially wanted to be a pilot, only for an accident to ruin it, football became Pele’s world when he saw his father cry after Brazil lost the final to Uruguay in 1950 World Cup at the Maracana. The beautiful game not just changed his life, but one around him as well as at one point his club Santos was in demand to play teams in Europe. From being part of a video game to stopping a war in Nigeria to being called a National Treasure, there are a lot of factors that contributed to the legend of Pele.

The boy who wanted to fly a plane

Pelé , first went to an airport to sell peanuts as a very young boy from an impoverished home. But young Edson’s dream, seen barefoot and from dirt roads, was to fly for he loved everything at Bauru’s aerodrome — planes, gliders and pilots who take off from airfields. A glider’s accident and death jolts Edson in 1940s, as he and his group of friends go looking for the wreckage and then the mortuary in the southeast of Brazil. From a window, they watch the autopsy and the dripping blood from a severed arm put him off his pilot dreams forever. Compelled by circumstances to start out on a shoeshine kit, he hunkers down to bring in money. Ironically he plays shoeless when kicking about a make-do football in the streets. They can’t afford both. Dreams of football aren’t cheap.

Pelé was the ‘I’ in the Edson bulb

His mother Celeste came from a town called Três Corações, in the Minas Gerais state in the ’30s and ’40s. Like most of interior Brazil, they had no electricity, and lots of football clubs. It’s where she met his father Joao, known as Dondinho, who played for the local club while doing his military service. They marry and her first child is born around the time electricity comes to Três Corações. The baby is named after Thomas Edison. He is officially nicknamed Dico, but his real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimiento. At school, he pronounces the name of the local club Vasco da Gama goalkeeper, Bile as Pile so, a classmate starts calling him Pele. The man himself thought it was like babbling and didn’t like the name. Besides the King, in Brazil he is often called “Pérola Negra” which means Black Pearl. “I was really proud that I was named after Thomas Edison and wanted to be called Edson. I thought Pelé sounded horrible. It was a rubbish name. Edson sounded so much more serious and important,” he once told The Guardian.

Trading stickers

When Edson decided to form a football club with his friends, they had neither gear nor shoes. But in a pre-TV world they had football stickers, like trading cards of famous players and their trivia. Pooling stickers into complete sets they decide to swap those for some gear. The other ingenious scheme is to whisk away peanuts out of freight trains and sell them outside stadiums, airport and theatres. The first gear comes from sacks of these stolen munchies. The ball came from the sticker stash. When a reasonably well off parent of three playing brothers offers to buy them shoes for the Mayor’s trophy, they change their name to Amériquinha. The nickname-that-shall-not-be-uttered resounds through the stadium as Pelé wins the tournament as top scorer. A star is born. Pelé doesn’t sound all that awful after all.

The Other Teen of 1958 vintage

José Altafinini’s likeness got cast in ‘Pele: birth of a legend’, as the antagonist of Italian descent — the brash bully who torments Pele. In fact, both came from humble backgrounds and the rivalry was garden-variety inter-club friction. But Altafini ‘Mazolla’ offered a counterpoint, an alter ego, a spark for Pele to shine bright, with both becoming Brazil’s youngest debutants at the 1958 World Cup. Two years older to Pele, young Altafini, grew up in poverty, 200 kms away from Bauru in Piricica, the son of a worker and a maid. Their earliest encounter might be in the Rio-San Paolo face-off, Altafini star of Palmeiras vs the Santos of Pelè, Pepe and Zito on March 6, 1958, with Mazolla scoring two goals but losing 7-6. For the Selecao, Altafini would start with a brace against Austria, and then another against England, three days later. While Pele’s star rose and rose, Altafini who moved to Italy and then to Switzerland, had to get by living on the state pension of 700 euros a month, having never given money making a serious thought. He’d work for a synthetic turf company prior to that. Not all World Cup winners end up as “phenomenon kissed by God. Maradona was good, but Pelé was more complete: he used his right and left in the same way, in speed, he had all the shots and also scored in acrobatics,” he would say.

Pele Day – Summer of 69


No it’s not October 23rd, or merely being born. On November 19, 1969, Pele scored his 1000th career goal and the pitch had hundreds mobbing the Brazilian legend, needing over 30 minutes for play to restart. At Santos where he played from age 15, November 19 went on to be known as ‘Pele Day’ to celebrate the anniversary of his 1,000th goal. He scored four goals on his league debut in a match against FC Corinthians on September 7, 1956. His final tally of 1,283 goals is debated, though the 77 for Brazil are crystal clear. He is fifth on the all-time World Cup goalscorers list with 12 – second only to Ronaldo Nazario. Pele had an astounding 92 hat-tricks, and scored four goals 31 times, five on six occasions, and once scored eight in one match. The one mark he missed but wouldn’t fret over: his old man’s boast – Pele’s father once scored five headed goals in one game, something Pele could never replicate. The most headers in a game were four for him. An unerasable stat – Brazil never lost a game when Pele and the magical Garrincha played together.

Pelé in a video game of 1980

Pele had a video game named after him back in the 1980s called ‘Pelé’s Soccer’. Pele’s Soccer” launched for Atari in 1980. The trademarked Game program from Sunnyvale California, was personally endorsed by Pelé. Atari’s computer soccer team had Crash Morgan, the galloping goalie who kept bumping into the goalposts. He was the fastest but you could get past him if his ears were still ringing from the crash. Then there was the mean and nasty frantic forward, Nick Danger, whose poor manners saw him scream, “eat leather, chump” after scoring. Left back ‘Lumpy’ Duran was clumsy and would toe kick the referee once by mistake and right back Alexi Putsnowski Putsy – ladies man and sore loser. Three pace options were available – slow, moderately fast and fast on the matrix. And there was a switch if you had a colour TV. Designed for Atari 2600, it ended up as a commercially very successful video game second generation console from 1977 to 1992. It was pioneering in using removable memory modules with games, and sold 30 million units at peak popularity for about $200 a piece. Its game library boasts nearly 1,000 original games. Though good luck with using that antiquated joystick to keep pace with The Pelé.


When Pelé fainted from winning

The Pelé story started when he saw his father cry after Brazil lost the 1950 ‘final’ to Uruguay at Maracana. It’s what fortified his ambition to get Brazil the World Cup at age of 11. Because his father had broken down. So after scoring a hat-trick at Sweden 1958 quarterfinals, and that deft dink of a volley for the first goal in the final against Sweden, Pelé would finally find the jelly feet to be overwhelmed. He was 17. Scoring his second with a header and watching Brazil win, he would faint. Crumple in front of the goal after it was OK to crumple post a win. Garrincha would raise his leg to ensure blood reached his head. The goalkeeper would cushion his fall and offer a shoulder for him to sob when he came around. And then the Santos boy, who marvelled at the sea and at planes, would hurry to talk to his dad – to tell him Brazil had won the World Cup.

Santos – the travelling theatre of God

Pelé’s team Santos toured internationally, milking his popularity, just when air travel was – pun intended- taking off. And when TV sets were replacing radio commentary. It ended the much romanticised ‘Mongrel Complex’ coined by national poet Nelson Rodrigues, used for a defeatist attitude. Santos packaged their divine discovery as a “1950s, Old Hollywood studio system star” like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe, as a fabulous daily described, and lined up matches across Europe – AC Milan, Real Madrid. But the Brazilian league was not a joke. Sky sports in a fervent defense of Pelé being the greatest argued Botafogo counted Didi, Mario Zagallo, Nilton Santo and Garrincha among their numbers. But Santos had Pele who scored twice in front of 70,000 as his side won 5-0 beating Botafogo at the Maracana. Pelé’s personal favourite was the European Cup vs Benfica in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup return leg at the Estadio da Luz in Santos’ 5-2 second-leg victory, where he scored a hat-trick and overshadowed home hero Eusebio, including a special nutmeg. Benfica goalkeeper Costa Pereira turned literary in Lisbon: “I arrived hoping to stop a great man. But I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us.”

But Santos’ travelling divinity saw 38 friendlies against Italian sides. Pelé’s goal glut: 8 against Inter, 6 against Roma, 3 against Lazio, 2 apiece against Milan and Juventus. In Germany, 6 vs Eintracht Frankfurt. In Portugal, 4 vs Benfica. In Spain, 3 against Barcelona.


Taxes! & National treasure

Pele used his first pay to buy his mother a gas stove, though their town didn’t even have gas pipes. Years later, he signed a three-year $7 million contract with the New York Cosmos in 1975, as the highest‐paid team athlete in the world at the time. The New York Times estimated that $2 million of the deal went to taxes. “He will pay his own taxes, just like every American,” Cosmos vice-president and general manager Clive Toye explained in 1975. Pele himself said: “Well, first of all it was an honour for me. But I pay income tax like anybody else,” he joked to Esquire in 2016. “I was invited — I had several proposals to play in Europe. For Real Madrid, for AC Milan, for Bayern Munich. But at that time, we didn’t have too many Brazilian players outside the country. I was very happy with my team, Santos. I didn’t have the desire to play outside the country.” Then Brazil declared him national treasure and put an end to suitors.


Only thing permanent is… Pele

It is said that Henry Kissinger convinced Pele to play in the U.S after he retired from the Brazilian national team and Santos in 1974. The then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger travelled to Sao Paulo to convince him to return to gameplay for the New York Cosmos. “He invited me to go to the cafe with him, and there he said, ‘Listen. You know I’m from the United States, and I’m in politics there. Soccer is coming along there, they’re playing it in the schools. Would you like to help us promote soccer in the United States?’” Pelé, who didn’t speak English at the time, told Esquire in 2016: “And I said, ‘My God.'” There was the dough: reportedly $7 million, for a three-year contract with the New York Cosmos. Kissinger’s telegram typically was along ping-pong diplomacy lines: “Should you decide to sign a contract, I am sure your stay in the United States will substantially contribute to closer ties between Brazil and the United States in the field of sports.”


Pele stops war

Pele once briefly stopped a war, according to (who else) Kissinger, as narrated in a 1999 Time article. He wrote that both sides in Nigeria’s civil war declared a 48-hour cease-fire in 1967 so Pelé could play an exhibition match in Lagos. Santos’ website elaborates that the region’s military governor Samuel Ogbemudia declared a holiday and opened up a bridge so that both sides could watch Pelé’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria. “We were asked to play a friendly match in Benin City, in the middle of a Civil War, but Santos was so beloved that they agreed on a ceasefire on the matchday. It became known as the day that ‘Santos stopped the war,’” Pelé tweeted in 2020. Maybe the fighting stopped, maybe it didn’t. But Pele tried.

Mandela, Ali & Pele

Pele was friends with Nelson Mandela, and ditched a family holiday to play in 2007’s “90 Minutes for Mandela” charity match on the South African president’s 89th birthday. He handed Mandela an autographed jersey, which the latter called a “priceless gift” he’d treasure for the rest of his life. “He was my hero, my friend, and also a companion to me in our fight for the people and for world peace,” Pelé tweeted following Mandela’s 2013 death, also calling the leader “one of the most influential people” in his life. In his final match in October 1977, an exhibition match between the New York Cosmos and Santos FC in front of 77,000 spectators, one of the many watching was the great Muhammad Ali — at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium. No one could own Pele so he played the first half of the game for Santos, scoring one goal, and then switched jerseys and played for the Cosmos in the second half. The Cosmos eventually won the match with a final score of 2-1, according to

Three Cups, how many Copa?

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So jam packed was the Santos itinerary that Pele ended up playing in one Copa America tournament only – in Argentina in 1959. While the hosts won the trophy in the league format, Brazil, remained unbeaten that year. Pele scored Brazil’s equaliser in the final drawn game with Argentina in front of 85,000 fans, to finish his eighth goal of the tournament. His record at the Monumental included a hat-trick against Paraguay and he was named player of the tournament.

First published on: 30-12-2022 at 01:37 IST
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