January 7, 2023

‘The burden of being a star’ by Pele

Muyiwa Adetiba

By Muyiwa Adetiba

(A tribute to the King of soccer)

The king is dead. Long live the King. Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, known to the whole world as Pele, or the King of soccer, will never really die because he will always be remembered. Very few people transcend their sport. Pele was one of them.   

More than forty-five years after he hung up his boots, he was still defining his sport and his role within it. He epitomized the best of soccer – flair, talent, entertainment, competitiveness and fair play. He was the undisputed Ambassador for ‘the beautiful game’; a role that came naturally to him because his was a beautiful soul.

I am lucky to have met him twice. I am lucky to have interviewed him on one of the occasions. The memory of him embracing me and putting his arm round my waist and me putting my arm round his waist as we moved to a quiet spot for the interview will always stay with me.

His simplicity, accessibility and especially his warmth to me make this tribute imperative as my last honour to him. He had just ‘retired’ when we had the interview and he had a wide canvas on which to paint. There were many options before him including an acting career because he said he always wanted to act.

In fact, at the time of the interview, Warner Communications had given him a film proposal as well as a contract as an International Consultant. Now looking back forty-two years later – the interview was published on April 30, 1980 – one can see he chose his options well, becoming a global icon in the process. My inclination is to use the entire interview but I am constrained by space. So I will try to capture his thoughts at the time and possibly ‘the essence’ of him in some quotes from the interview.

“Of course I will miss playing. When you have been involved in a profession for over twenty years, you have to miss it. I will miss the public. I will miss the shouts of people at the stadium. I will miss the atmosphere of the World Cup.But it was very important for me to stop at the peak of my career. When you leave at the top, everything goes right for you. All doors open. I didn’t take any coaching career or any job connected with football because I want to rest for the next five years. I also want to have a little more time for my family and my business.”

“I accept I am the greatest because I accept what people tell me. And when you compare Pele with another sportsman, you have to know what Pele did. He was the only one with a thousand goals because nobody did that. Pele was the only one who played at the World Cup at seventeen years of age. People call me all sorts of names. Some call me the King of soccer. Some call me the coffee player. But it has never changed me.

I feel normal talking to people. The only thing is the added responsibility. Everyone knows you. Everyone accepts you. And when you are a star, you have to be careful not to make mistakes. All told, my soccer life has been a joy to me. When I stopped playing for Brazil, Brazil was the champion. When I stopped playing for Santos, Santos was the champion. When I stopped playing for Cosmos, Cosmos was the champion.

“I have several goals that are important to me. My first goal in the 1958 World Cup was important because Brazil beat Wales by that lone goal. My thousandth goal was important to me. My goal in the final against Italy was important because I knew then it was my last World Cup. I can’t pinpoint any goal as my most difficult goal because I don’t make the goals alone. The other players through their hard work help me to make them”.

“I would feel abnormal if I wasn’t marked tight in any match. I had always been a marked man. Whenever any country played against Brazil, one person would be given the instruction ‘to get Pele’. There was a time I asked one man if he was married to me. I think it was a match against Germany. But it is no bother to me. I think I score more goals when I am policed. There are many players who have my respect. Some of them are Beckenbauer of Germany, Santos of Brazil, Zito of Russia, Bobby Moore of Britain, Fachetti of Italy.

“I don’t involve myself in politics. My job is to promote sports around the world and pull people together. Only sports can do that. I think soccer is going to get more and more popular. It is the best of sports. It is cheap and covers every nationality. It is the sports of the people”.

My concluding comment at the end of the interview has turned out to be almost prophetic and I would want to end this article with it. ‘Interview over, I left him convinced there will never be another Pele for a long time. Occasionally, there might be young, exceptional stars who can shoot as hard and dribble just as fast as Pele. There might even emerge, another genius who can read the soccer game with the same accuracy that King Pele is known for.

Or a young man in a glorious career, who can score a couple of goals more than Pele’s over a thousand goals. But they still won’t be Pele. There won’t be that man, for a long time, who can hit the headlines as a special talent at the age of seventeen and hug it for so long without losing his head or staining his reputation.

Nor will a man who knows he is an icon but moves around people so warmly, so freely be easy to find. Pele has wined and dined with Kings and Superstars but still manages to retain his simple, peasant touch. Pele will for long be remembered as much for his genius on the field as his simple, but exceptional Public Relations off it’.

Rest well, King of soccer. You have earned your rest having achieved immortality in a mortal world.