Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Named by his parents after Thomas Alva Edison.
Globally called Pele. Widely regarded as the greater player of all time.
Declared by Brazilian President Jânio Quadros as “national treasure” in 1961.
Come 2016, it is time for the Rio Olympics. Pele announced that on health grounds, he would be unavailable to light the Olympic flame.
Did Pele’s announcement trigger an avalanche of disappointment in Brazil? No.
Only those who are unfamiliar with the complicated saga involving the greatest soccer player in history and the people of his nation would have been surprised at Pele’s refusal.
Brazil simply shrugged off his refusal. A lot can change in half a century.
Pele moved football like nobody moved it. In 1962, a rival goalkeeper said of him, “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.”
It was Pele who moved Brazilian soccer to global glory.
Yet when Pele announced that he would distance himself from the world’s largest sporting extravaganza being hosted at Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil, his country was unmoved.
In the years that followed Pele’s meteoric rise, money and fame created a gap between the superstar and the working classes from which he had risen.
For decades, Pele remained the darling of the nation. Accolades poured on him globally.
In 1999, he was voted as the World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS). The same year, he was crowned Football Player of the Century.
Also in 1999, Pele was named in the list of Time magazine’s ‘100 most influential people of the 20th century’.
In 2013, he awarded the FIFA Ballon d’Or Prix d’Honneur in recognition of his career and achievements as a global icon of football.
This is the man who was listed in the Guinness World Records for most career goals scored in football. During his career, he known as “The Black Pearl” (A Pérola Negra), “The King of Football” (O Rei do Futebol), “The King Pelé” (O Rei Pelé) or simply “The King” (O Rei).
The King is now irrelevant for his people.
Pele’s reason for not lighting the Olympic cauldron was poor health. “Only God is more important than my health,” he said in a statement.
It is interesting that Pele invoked divinity here. In Brazil, soccer is treated with almost religious reverence.
Even today, Brazil will vote Pele as the man who started the country’s heady rise to the peak of soccer.
The magic has ebbed.
Brazil loves greatness. The South American country is hugely proud of its soccer heritage, and with reason.
International sports writer Martin Rogers says Brazil accepts the part Pele played in its soccer glory, the way he showed the beauty of the beautiful game, made soccer artistic and theatrical and a joy to watch.
Much water has flown down the Amazon since the time Brazil idolized Pele, and could not have enough of his on-field exploits. The modern generation regards him in a different way.
Brazil soccer historian Marcos Guterman said in 2014 that almost every time Pele spoke about politics or economic issues, it was disastrous.
In 2013, Pele was strident in his criticism of anti-government protesters agitated about over the lack of basic social services. His stand on the agitation made him hugely unpopular, and almost embarrassing for his fans.
Add to this Brazil’s Pele fatigue – even annoyance – as the sports icon featured as brand ambassador and the chosen face for a spree of commercials.
In the years after his soccer superstardom, Pele was the people’s darling. Everybody wanted a piece of him.
Perhaps the adulation of the corporate world was way over the top. Pele became the spokesman of so many companies that he became a butt of jokes. For a generation of Brazilians, Pele became no more than a “corporate figurehead”.
For all the modern trappings of its cities, Brazil is a conservative nation. Among other things, Pele also became the public face of Viagra.
In March 2015, TBN Sport lampooned Pele with a news report that the football legend had made an announcement.
The satire was that Pele would begin renting out space on his forehead for commercial advertisements.
The spoof said Pele was unfulfilled with his current advertising obligations. He felt natural to extend his brand using his most valuable asset – his face.
“I realized that there’s only so many lapels on suits I can wear, because I’m always going to have to remove the suit at the end of the day,” the TBN report spoofed the legendary striker. “With my new forehead space for rent, I can offer around the clock, 24/7, high quality exposure for your small, medium or large business. Because I never remove my face. Nor would I want to.”
The spoof said the cost for renting out space on the legend’s forehead was still up for debate but it was understood that he would sell space per inch, offering many businesses the chance to take advantage of this great deal.
The spoof raised guffaws worldwide. It claimed that Pele had confirmed that depending on the success of his new venture, it was possible that he created advertising space on his veneers and his eyeballs.
Brazil had idolized Pele. For many, Pele’s unrelenting tango with corporate giants was beyond the pale of tolerance. Brazilians expected some grace from their all-time sports icon.
Pele did not light the Olympic cauldron at Rio. Not surprisingly,
Brazil did not complain.