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An image from 1283, a book documenting each of Pelé’s record setting goals, displayed in the Hispanic Reading Room. Image courtesy of Henry Granville Widener

Pelé, O Rei: Juggling Ambitions on Soccer’s Biggest Stage

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The following is a post by Henry Granville Widener, Portuguese Language Reference Librarian in the Hispanic Reading Room of the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division. 

On June 29, 1958, at the age of just 17, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, helped Brazil win its first World Cup championship in Stockholm, Sweden. Twelve years and only three tournaments later in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, when the Seleção Brasileira (national football team) hoisted their third World Cup trophy, the name Pelé would be synonymous with greatness in both Brazil and the world. As part of Black History Month, the Library of Congress’s Hispanic Reading Room would like to explore the life of one of the most celebrated athletes.

The future star spent the majority of his childhood in Bauru, in the state of São Paulo. To Edson, or “Dico” as he was known at the time, the small city’s diverse population represented “a microcosm of Brazil”, where neighbors with “last names like Kamazuki, Haddad and Macroni” could meet on the streets to play pickup games and meet at each other’s houses to share post-game meals of “yakisoba, kibbe or just plain Brazilian rice and beans.” Soccer also offered the children “a place where we didn’t have to think about poverty, or our parents, or long-ago tragedies. On the field, nobody was rich or poor; it was a place where we could just play” (Pelé, 2014, p. 18-20).

Pelé’s childhood experiences of camaraderie on the streets of Bauru would often echo on the world stage. Pelé fondly recalled that, though defeated on their home turf in 1958, the Swedish people loudly applauded the Brazilian victors.

A black and white newspaper photograph of the Brazilian national team after their World Cup victory in Sweden in 1958.
Brazil’s first World Cup championship team, with Pelé pictured at the center of the bottom row. St. Paul Recorder, Minnesota. 18 July 1958. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress

This same appreciation for the beautiful game gave Brazil the advantage in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. When Brazil faced the reigning champion English team in Guadalajara, Pelé recalled never having heard “such a raucous crowd…It felt like we were playing before a home crowd. It was absolutely marvelous” (Pelé, 2014, p.176). By the final match of that Cup, Mexican fans had become Brazil’s “not-so-secret weapon”, propelling Brazil to a 4-1 win against powerhouse Italy (Pelé, 2014, p. 187).

A newspaper article on Pelé’s health featuring a portrait of the player wearing the jersey of his club team Santos.
Reporting on Pelé’s health to Miami’s Spanish-speaking communities, Diario las Américas, Miami, Florida. 7 Feb. 1961. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

While soccer might provide an escape from the problems and tensions of the outside world, these could just as often find a platform on the pitch. This seemed particularly true of the Brazilian national team’s image within Brazil. With the largest black population in the world outside of Africa, some Brazilians have used international competition as a measure of their country’s racial worth. Echoing the judgments of renowned journalist Mário Filho in his book The Black man in Brazilian soccer, Pelé recalled that many Brazilians blamed their country’s devastating loss to Uruguay in the World Cup final in 1950 on the theory of Brazil’s racial inferiority, “the idea that a black nation with black players was always going to fall short.” In international soccer, the onus of defeat would weigh most heavily on the shoulders of Brazil’s black players (Pelé, 2014, p. 48-49).

Brazil’s 1950 loss and its implications still seemed to haunt many on the national team when Pelé first received the invitation to represent his country at the World Cup in Sweden eight years later. As the 1958 squad reported for practice in Rio de Janeiro, players were sent directly to a local hospital, where they were submitted to “an array of examinations from neurologists, radiologists, dentists, cardiologists and more”, with the purpose of ridding the national team of players who showed symptoms of Brazil’s chronic poverty and underdevelopment (Pelé, 2014, p. 74).

It should not be overlooked that such poverty and underdevelopment were practically synonymous with blackness in mid-20th century Brazil, whose population maintained a living memory of slavery: abolition had been enshrined in law only 70 years prior, making Pelé’s grandmother part of the first generation of freeborn Black Brazilians. Ironically, Garrincha (Manuel Francisco dos Santos) and Pelé, the two players most subject to these rigorous tests in 1958, would become icons of Brazilian football for their incredible winning records on the national team.

With three world championships to its name, the Brazilian national team drew the attention not only of fans of the game, but that of the country’s military dictatorship, which governed Brazil from 1964-1985. Reflecting on Brazil’s 1970 World Cup victory, Pelé stated that the military government “relentlessly used our victory as a propaganda tool to disguise Brazil’s true problems…our success was being used to cover up atrocities” (Pelé, 2014, p. 189). Here soccer ceased to provide Pelé with a viable escape from the world’s problems, for decades later Pelé would look back on his career:

I regret that I didn’t speak up sooner about the abuses that were going on during the 1960s and 1970s. I think that, throughout my life, my desire to focus on soccer sometimes made me conservative—not in the political sense, but in my willingness to accept the status quo…I sometimes believed that by choosing not to speak up about our problems, I could keep politics out of soccer, and just concentrate on the game itself. That, of course, was a fantasy (Pelé, 2014, p. 189).

While his career might have provided a stage for Brazil’s internal conflicts, to much of the rest of the world Pelé was simply the ambassador of the beautiful game. Throughout his life, Pelé dedicated himself to spreading the love of soccer to children of all backgrounds, through training camps, videos and other instructional events. Seeing the enthusiasm with which youth the world over embraced soccer only strengthened Pelé’s belief that “all children are alike in every sense. It is only when adults teach them hate or bigotry that they begin to change” (Pelé, 1977, p. 296).

In the United States, Pelé’s presence played a part in the longstanding attempts to popularize soccer in the country. On many fronts, these efforts succeeded: his first trip to the United States in 1966 brought record-setting numbers in New York’s Yankee Stadium; average attendance more than doubled for the New York Cosmos, the club team where Pelé ended his career in the mid-1970s (Pelé, 1977, p. 294).

For Pelé, like many world-famous athletes, greatness came with enormous responsibility both on and off the field, where personal aspirations vie with the hopes and dreams of fans, club ownership and even entire nations. Similar to many Black athletes, Pelé’s athletic abilities and achievements never negated the color of his skin. While this could often prove challenging, it was also cause for celebration for so many around the world, as Pelé himself recognized as he recalled with fondness and even awe his first trip to Africa in 1967:

Everywhere I went I was looked upon and treated as a god, almost certainly because I represented to the blacks in those countries what a black man could accomplish…physical evidence that a black man could become rich, even in a white man’s country…I somehow represented a ray of hope, however faint (Pelé, 1977, p. 203).

Discover more

From the Library’s Catalog:

Library of Congress Research Guides Library’s guides are organized by research topic and collections – these include both online materials, and materials only available on site. 

  • Sports Industry: A Research Guide The resources included in this guide are intended for anyone researching the business aspects of professional sports and venue management with a focus on football, baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer, and golf.

Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS): A Resource Guide The Handbook of Latin American Studies is a bibliography on Latin America consisting of works selected and annotated by scholars. 

The PALABRA Archive at the Library of Congress The PALABRA Archive is a collection of original audio recordings of 20th and 21st century Luso-Hispanic poets and writers reading from their works. 

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  1. An excellent read! What a great snapshot of a great life.

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