Sunday Reads: Hail Pelé

Pelé, Photography Nick Garcia

It’s hard to fathom just how big Pelé was at the peak of his career, but if you can imagine Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Michael Phelps, and Rafael Nadal all rolled into one superlative superstar, you start to get the idea. Lauded by many as the greatest soccer player of all time, Pelé elicits fervor even today. If he steps out without a hat to hide his famous face, crowds form instantaneously. No doubt his enduring popularity has something to do with the decades-long span of Pelé’s career, and his devotion to his fans.  “I started to play young. I played in my first World Cup when I was 17, so I have almost three generations of followers. That could be the reason,” Pelé  explains. “I try not to make mistakes, I try not to disappoint them, and I think maybe that is the reason people still follow me now.” In his homeland of Brazil, Pelé is considered a national treasure — literally. When European soccer clubs tried to woo Pelé away after his debut at the 1958 World Cup, the Brazilian government declared Pelé a national treasure to prevent his export. As a result, Pelé spent the majority of his career playing for Santos FC, where he scored 619 goals and lead the Brazilian club to two championships.

Pelé and Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe at the Hublot Palace in Rio de Janeiro.

Pelé also led Brazil’s national team to a record three FIFA World Cup victories, in 1958, 1962, and 1970. “Almost all of the Brazilian players on the [current] national team have played in Europe,” notes Pelé who, despite playing all around the world, says his biggest regret was never making it to Wembley Stadium in London, which he calls “the cathedral of football.” Although his career remained firmly rooted at home, Pelé was at a time the world’s highest paid athlete, and he became a beloved brand around the world, second only to Coca-Cola in some countries. In fact, in 1967, belligerents of the Nigerian Civil War agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire, solely in order to watch Pelé play at an exhibition game in Lagos.

It wasn’t until the tail end of his career that Pelé left Santos FC, heading to the United States to play with the New York Cosmos from 1975 to 1977. The move got him out of his retirement from Brazilian club soccer, and gave Pelé two more years playing the sport he loves. Pelé’s tenure with the Cosmos also served as something of a diplomatic mission, helping to increase soccer’s popularity across the US. “My best decision was to go to the United States and play with the New York Cosmos. There, football was [just] beginning and I could promote it,” he says.  “That was the best time because I stayed in the game with passion.”

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