In Teresopolis, a small, quiet suburb in the mountains outskirts of Rio de Janeiro where the Brazilian national team trains, there are still posters around the city welcoming visitors to the home of the Selecao (Brazilian Selection). On street corners, bus stations, and in parks, visitors can find caricatured portraits of a few of the team’s most recognizable players like David Luiz, Neymar, and Hulk as well as some notable players and coaches from the past. Many of the legends, like Ronaldo or Zico, are seen holding the World Cup, but only one man wears a crown: Pele (pictured).
“Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us,” said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “For those who love soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, generally known as Pele, is a hero.”
In Brazil, Pele is more than a hero. He is the king. In fact, when referenced in most popular writing or in conversation amongst Brazilians, the name Pele is often omitted. He is known simply as O Rei, the King.
Inside the country’s Afro-Brazilian museum (pictured below) in Sao Paulo, there’s an exhibition dedicated to trailblazing Black Brazilian soccer players like Ademir da Guia, Dino, Ronaldo, and many others. Pele has a section of his own, featuring photos, life-size cutouts, and Pelebol, a board game created to honor the legendary player.
“He is very dear to all of us Brazilians,” says Alex Bald, a musician who lives in the beach town of Buzios. “For us, Pele is like Captain America for [Americans].”
On the soccer pitch, no one was or is more beloved in Brazil, but outside the stadiums, many Brazilians say the king has been a disappointment, particularly on social issues and particularly to Brazilians of African descent.
The juxtaposition of Pele the player and Pele the man was put on display last year when he spoke out against organized protests against the Cup.
“Let’s forget all this commotion in Brazil, all these protests, and to remember that the Brazilian team is our country and our blood,” Pele said as protests over forced evictions, government malfeasance, and poverty broke out around the country. The King’s statements were criticized heavily by Brazilians who took to social media in droves, “Pele is silent like a poet,” many said mockingly, but few were surprised
“The people revolt in the streets and he is talking about the Cup, saying this is the evil of the Brazilian?” says Bald. “Sometimes he acts and thinks like he is badly influenced by the media.”
Bald’s sentiments reflect those of many in Brazil who have been disappointed by Pele’s lack of political involvement throughout his career as an athlete and as an ambassador. Inside the country of 200 million, Brazil’s most-famous citizen’s silence on social issues has become an expectation.
“He shows no solidarity with the cause, Black people, or even social issues in general,” says Paulo Rogerio, executive director of Brazil’s Instituto Mídia Étnica. “He has a history of never having publicly spoken in favor of the Black struggle. I do recognize him as the most-important sports figure in Brazilian history and the importance of his image to tell the world that we do have a Black population, but it is also well-known in the country and in the social movement that he has apparently never supported any Black Movement initiative as some Black artists in the U.S. do.”
Further, some Black Brazilians also assert that Pele does a disservice to the fight against racism in their country by insisting it does not exist or that he has never experienced it.
“I never had any problems,” Pele said in a recent interview with the Miami Herald. “On the contrary, I have open doors all over the world, and I am received marvelously wherever I go. There are always crazy people who say things, but those things have never bothered me. I never paid attention.”
But that contradicts what the sports legend said years ago.
In a piece for Brazilian newspaper Diario do Centro do Mundo, author Kiko Nogueira recalls Pele’s own words about what really happened to him on the soccer pitch.
“Pelé has recalled episodes in which members of the Santos team [Pele’s Brazilian club] were called ‘macaquitos’ (little monkeys)’ in Argentina, and how he ‘would go there and smash the opponents’ when he heard things that ‘annoyed him,’” writes Nogueira. That motivation was not enough, however, for any retribution beyond the soccer field.
“He doesn’t position himself, doesn’t defend anyone or any cause other than himself, doesn’t confront anything, doesn’t want to alienate himself with anyone he knows who runs soccer,” says Nogueira.
In this respect, many say Pele has left a legacy of silence.
“It is not only his case,” says Robeiro, “this is the normal behavior of Black athletes and musicians, with few exceptions [in Brazil]. They are so connected with the ruling class that they don’t want to stop their business by telling the awful truth about the racism in Brazil.”
Unfortunately, says Robeiro, “[Pele] was always very different from Muhammad Ali.”