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RIP Pelé: Afro-Brazilian Soccer Icon Overcame Racism & Poverty to Be Ambassador for Beautiful Game

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Brazil has begun three days of national mourning to mark the death of the global soccer icon Pelé at the age of 82. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé was a poor Afro-Brazilian who led the Brazilian national soccer team to its first World Cup title in 1958 at just 17 years old, and ultimately two more times in later years — more than any other player in history. Pelé was seen as a symbol of Brazil and played for 20 years in the country before retiring and becoming a global ambassador for the sport of soccer. He was also criticized for embodying the commercialization of the sport and was seen as complying with Brazil’s repressive dictatorship. Pelé later became a cabinet member in the Brazilian government in the early 1990s. We discuss the life and legacy of the soccer icon with Brenda Elsey, co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down,” co-author of “Futbolera: Women, Sports, and Sexuality in Latin America” and editor of the book “Football and the Boundaries of History.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Brazil’s outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro has declared three days of national mourning to mark the death of the global soccer icon known as Pelé. He was 82 years old.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé was an Afro-Brazilian star in a country where Afro-Brazilians have long faced discrimination and racism. He grew up poor in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where he famously played barefoot soccer with a ball made of rags stuffed into a sock.

He was just 17 years old when he led Brazil to its first World Cup title in 1958, becoming the youngest player to score in a World Cup, and ultimately won two more titles with Brazil — three World Cup titles, more than any other player in history.

This is Pelé explaining how he got his nickname.

PELÉ: I fight in college with the kids because, “No, my name is Edson.” They call me Pelé. I get two days suspended in the school. Then everybody in the school, all the kids, started calling me Pelé. I hate at that time. Today, I love, of course. Now I love, because, I don’t know, that gave to me short name, easy to pronounce it. Any language, you can remember Pelé. Because my name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, this is hard to remember, no? Long name. And then, today I love Pelé.

AMY GOODMAN: Pelé was seen as a symbol of Brazil. He played for 20 years in the country before retiring. He then toured the world to popularize soccer.

Pelé was also known for embodying the commercialization of soccer. He faced criticism for being seen as complying with Brazil’s repressive dictatorship. The Nation's Miguel Salazar wrote that when Brazil's military seized power in a 1964 coup, quote, Pelé “kept his mouth shut, and the dictatorship allowed him to play as he pleased. … Eventually, Pelé crossed a line: He agreed to a formal meeting ahead of the 1970 World Cup with Emílio Garrastazu Médici, one of the most ruthless members of the authoritarian regime.” Pelé later became a cabinet member in the Brazilian government in the early ’90s.

For more on Pelé’s life and legacy, we’re joined by Dr. Brenda Elsey, professor at Hofstra University, where she co-directs the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program, also co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down, co-author of Futbolera: Women, Sports, and Sexuality in Latin America, editor of the book Football and the Boundaries of History.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor. It’s great to have you with us.

BRENDA ELSEY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Three days of mourning have been declared in Brazil. Pelé is a global sports figure, a soccer icon. Talk about his history, where he was born. Talk about where he grew up and his significance.

BRENDA ELSEY: It’s going to be a very difficult — it is very difficult to imagine soccer or football without Pelé. And it’s very difficult to think about Brazil’s image in the way it projects it to the world. He has really — you know, he became iconic mid-20th century. He has been sort of identified so closely with this sport. He grew up in a very poor family. As an Afro-Brazilian, he also faced a lot of racism throughout his life. He is emblematic of an Afro-Brazilian soccer tradition that you know today as jogo bonito, or the “beautiful game.” He had just this sort of amazing, energetic, dynamic, graceful, intelligent game that excited the passions of so many people.

And, you know, what he meant to Brazil was, as you said, very contradictory sometimes politically — you know, really, really complicated person. To be that famous for so long and to embody that much of a national identity comes with these kinds of sometimes painful contradictions.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of an Afro-Brazilian in the 1960s becoming a global superstar, what this meant for Brazil’s most marginalized?

BRENDA ELSEY: I mean, it was incredibly important that the person that was identified with absolute excellence — both on the field, but he also became a metaphor for being the best ever, you know, largely, more broadly than just soccer. And to say “just soccer” in Brazil feels weird. But he became important and to symbolize being the best at something, to say you are the number 10, to say you are the Pelé. And the fact that the best of that was an Afro-Brazilian, was a Black man, was incredibly important. And that was solidified for him by 1958. And it wasn’t just important in Brazil, but when he toured Africa in the late 1960s — Mozambique, Nigeria — it was really important in fostering a sense of transnational Black excellence.

AMY GOODMAN: And, I mean, when he was just 17 years old, he was the youngest in so many ways. Talk about the racism he faced.

BRENDA ELSEY: Yeah, I mean, you just spoke at the top of the show about the first-ever cabinet position of racial equality. And so, you can see that the ongoing legacy of racism in Brazil is far from being resolved. And in 1958, though there was not formal segregation, as there was in baseball in the United States, for example, there was informal segregation and deep racism that, you know, created huge economic inequalities and discrimination. And Pelé would have faced all of that.

In fact, when you said he was identified as a national treasure, he was legally given a special category that made it impossible for him to play abroad. He was sort of codified as a heritage or national patrimony by the government, by government decree. This would not have happened with a white player. And it prevented Pelé’s labor, you know, to move, in terms of labor. So, he faced a number of points of discrimination in his career that are impossible to ignore, despite, as you said, being the face of the commercialization and commodification of soccer.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, the relationship with the dictatorship, the 1964 coup and beyond?

BRENDA ELSEY: Yeah. I mean, he has a number of really, as I said, contradictory positions throughout his life. And he is — you know, it’s hard, because he spoke of himself almost in the third person a lot of times. When I met him in 2014, he came to conference at Hofstra in which we were very critical of the World Cup in 2014, in which we discussed the military dictatorship and the way in which the national football team, the national soccer team, had supported or had a relationship. And, you know, his response was that he was against authoritarianism and against the military in very broad terms.

He did support the movement of some of the Brazilian soccer players to have the vote to come back in the mid-1980s. But, of course, you know, people were disappointed, and will continue to be, that he didn’t do more, particularly in the early years, to express his — you know, to express opposition to the Brazilian dictatorship. And that will be part of, I think, the way that he’s remembered, and something that was painful for a lot of people that hoped differently.

AMY GOODMAN: And here you have three days of mourning leading into the inauguration once again of Lula. And the relationship between Lula and Pelé?

BRENDA ELSEY: You know, again, towards a — in the last 20, 25 years, Pelé spoke in very general terms, and again, people being disappointed that he didn’t say more about Bolsonaro and about the far right and the growth of the far right in Brazil. So, very generally and broadly, he would talk about love and peace and call for love and peace, but there wasn’t much specifically that people were looking for in terms of being against Bolsonaro.

He is a uniting figure in Brazil in a lot of ways, one that both the right and left will embrace as standing in for something about Brazilian identity. I will say that he is not — his image and the image of Brazilian football has not been entirely captured by the right. But that is a struggle. It is a site of struggle for people every day.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, just before we leave you, as a sports expert that you are, can you talk about Roberto Clemente and his significance to the world of sports? Tomorrow will be the 50th anniversary of his tragic death in a crash, a plane crash, on the way to Nicaragua to deliver supplies there in 1972.

BRENDA ELSEY: Yeah, Roberto Clemente really is an emblem. Everything that you indicated that people were disappointed with in terms of Pelé, you might find in Roberto Clemente, who both was very active in civil rights, very active in Puerto Rican rights and solidarity with Central America, particularly after the earthquake, as you mentioned, in Nicaragua. So, you know, both of these, though, being — both of these men — very important icons and very important to mobilize people into thinking about sports as a platform for racial justice. So, both of them kind of connect to that.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Dr. Brenda Elsey, professor at Hofstra University, co-director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program, co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down.

Next up, to New York, where Democrats look likely to defeat the Democratic governor’s nomination of the next chief judge to the state’s highest court. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Vexamão” by Pelé and Elis Regina, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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