While the global financial speculators have been busy at their dirty work distorting and undermining global currencies, which themselves are on the brink of ruination due to the mountains of debt accumulated by successive governments, I thought I would indulge in a little light escapism. The impending bankruptcies haunting the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) not to forget dear old Blighty, do not make for pleasant day-dreaming, so a few days off to read Pele’s autobiography seemed in order. In a lovely fairytale of a story, written with humility if not a little naivety, I was able to fill in many gaps in Pele’s life, a life that has touched most people of my generation no matter what their country of origin.
Four themes from Pele’s account seem worth commenting on; that of his poverty stricken childhood, the racism he had to overcome, his ability to deal with a life of global fame, and his professed deep religious belief.
By his own admission, Pele was a naughty boy at school. This fact should have great resonance for any sports coach or teacher today who rushes to judgement on those youngsters whose anti-social behaviour can drive one to the limits. From my own experience, I have witnessed dozens of troubled and troublesome youth who, with dollops of patience and empathy, have gone on to achieve ‘socially constructive’ lives, often as sports coaches themselves. Truth be known, I was no angel myself in my early and mid-teens: petty thieving to get my kicks and dope smoking to stay in with my peers. Pele, with a disarming honesty and a perceptive eye on modernity, tells us:
Pretty soon I didn’t want anything to do with school or studying. P26 And I was hard work: I fought with my classmates, I had no discipline. I deserved some punishments, but I think the particular punishments I was given were excessive. I know now that that isn’t how one ought to treat children, but in those days teachers were very highly respected and even they didn’t understand things as they do today.Thank goodness things have changed for the better for children we see how interesting they are, how much their questions and curiosity can teach us. We know how important each of their discoveries is. We know all about their energy, how their hormones operate, how intelligent they can be.’ P28/29
Looking back from his vantage point of one of the most respected athletes of the 20th century, as Brazil’s Sports Minister and as FIFA and UNICEF ambassador, Pele is able to reflect:
Although I got punished a lot at school, does that mean I was bad? There was a lot of talk of sin, but I don’t know if a child can sin. What’s a sin to a little boy?’ P28
These are poignant words that every teacher and coach, even today, should ponder. Despite our more enlightened attitudes towards young people, still I know that far too many youngsters are dismissed and rejected before they have had a chance to find their way. I got lucky but it could easily have gone the other way. As for Pele, he had very supportive parents even though they were dirt poor. Again, Pele got the breaks, while tens of millions of kids around the globe, in both the developed and developing world, do not.
A second theme that emerges throughout Pele’s story is the institutionalised Brazilian racism that he had to overcome. If there is any doubt of this fact one need only consider that when Pele became the Minister of Sport in 1995, he was, the first black man to become a government minister in Brazil’s history.’ P256 It should never be forgotten that beneath the veneer of the Samba loving, football loving, beach loving Brazil that the media love to toy with, lays a deeply racist, European colony whose ruling elite imported Africans as slave workers while the Portuguese colonists plundered the wealth from the indigenous people of Brazil. Pele elaborates:
As a black man who grew up in Brazil, I am the descendant of Africans brought over as slaves. Slavery is not too far in the past I am only the third generation in my family that was born free. In Brazil slavery was only abolished in 1888, the last country in the Americas to ban this evil practice.’ P160.
This is the same story throughout South and Central America, where even in Cuba, with its genuine fifty year attempt at social transformation, the Cubans of African decent are far more likely to be unemployed and disconnected than their European counterparts.
It is not surprising then that Pele experienced racism in his formative years. While recounting an early romantic episode, Pele recalls:
There was one (girl), one of the very first, with whom I was very smitten but her father soon put a stop to it he came to school one day and harangued her for hanging out with me. What are you doing with this negringho? he yelled. It was the first time I had directly experienced racism, I think, and it was completely shocking. My girlfriend was white but it just had not occurred to me that someone might have a problem with that or me. As her father grabbed her arm and put her across his knee I was so stunned I couldn’t move. Everyone was watching and I did nothing. And then I ran home and cried my eyes out. She never spoke to me again.’ P65
The same racism emerged again when Pele was about to get married for the first time. By then he was a Brazilian football star and Pele comments:
It was understandable that there was a lot of interest, but some of the attention went too far, and I was deeply offended by some articles expressing disapproval that I, a black man, was marrying a white woman. Race had never been an issue for Rose and me we were just two people in love and it shocked me to think that there were journalists out there making a living by commenting on it.’ P142
In his football career it is not surprising that Pele also experienced some racism although as his legendary footballing skills became ubiquitous, the racism faded into the background. Pele recounts one incidence when Brazil were playing their arch rivals Argentina. Of the Argentinean supporters Pele recalls:
‘They chanted ‘Macaquitos de Brasil’ at us (Brazilian Monkey) it got our adrenaline going but I was never really that bothered by this sort of racist chanting.’ P137
Pele sums up his personal position thus:
‘Of course racism exists in Brazil, but I was fortunate to become both famous and wealthy at a young age, and people treat you differently when you have money and celebrity. It is almost like a race apart – not black nor white but famous.’ P160
Although it is almost incomprehensible for us today, the World Cup of 1958 was nearly exclusively a White man’s affair. Pele recalls, ‘By this stage I had also made another observation about the World Cup. All the other teams had only white people. I thought it was really weird. I can remember asking my team-mates, ‘Is it only in Brazil that there are Blacks.’ P95 With the first FIFA World Cup to be played in Africa only a few weeks away, one can take some comfort in the progress humanity has made, at least on the racial front. The endemic poverty that will confront those who visit Africa for the first time, a poverty that is a direct legacy of five hundred years of European colonialism, will be a graphic reminder of just how much further we still have to travel.
A third topical theme running through Pele’s story is that of sporting celebrity and the comparisons between then and now. Pele explains:
Footballers returning from World Cups nowadays return home to lives of privilege and luxury that were unthinkable to us back then. It’s funny to think that, going back to Santos after Chile in 1962, I was still living at Dona Georgina’s place with Zoca and a bunch of team-mates. On a day-to-day level, life was pretty much as it had always been.’ P135
I am sure I am not alone in finding it wholly dispiriting to witness talented athletes in all sports, repeatedly succumb to the more seedy temptations of modern celebrity, Tiger Woods being the most recent and graphic example. In the world of football we see it time and again; great footballers being destroyed by too much wealth and adulation: George Best, Jimmy Greaves, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams, and of course, one of the most talented of all, Diego Maradona. More recently, you get the distinct feeling that John Terry is right on the edge, and that his gambling and partying could easily push him right over that edge.
How has Pele managed to stay relatively sane and focused throughout the decades of global adulation? Pele recounts the solid grounding his parents gave him that seemed to equip him for the celebrity status that was soon to engulf him:
At the age of twenty-one I was already a personality known across the globe. But I never forgot my origins and everything I’d learned at home, rules which have remained very useful to me. I should be polite and kind to everybody. I should be honest and responsible. I should always be humble, and I should work hard, totally devoted to what I was doing. I’m grateful for the discipline my family gave me. For all the prizes, receptions, the honour and the glory I’ve received, I’d like to think my basic character hasn’t changed.’ P130
How many top athletes can read these few lines and feel good about who and what they have become? Of course the pressures are greater today than ever before, because just as sport has become just one more commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder, so too have sportsmen and women become little more than commodities. To retain a sense of proportion and basic humanity when corporations are prepared to pay tens of millions of pounds for your services, must test a person’s integrity to the limit.
If Pele’s autobiography is to be believed, he appears to have survived some of the most potent dangers of global celebrity status, though reading between the lines, even Pele seems to have had a little difficulty keeping his trousers up. Still, no one’s perfect!
Finally, I cannot resist commenting on Pele’s religious convictions that he insists on raising at every opportunity. Every few pages, Pele gives thanks to his God for his successful career even to the point where he prays that should his team only manage a draw then at least that draw should be a score draw so the spectators will go home happy that Pele and his team have given good value for money.
There is nothing more irritating to me than watching an athlete make religious signs as they enter the sporting arena. You see it at every football match as the oncoming star crosses themselves and looks to the heavens for some kind of protection. I cannot for the life of me understand why their all powerful, omnipresent, omniscient god would bother himself with the outcome of a football match when he clearly cannot be bothered to deal with such other trifling matters as 14 million children dying each year of the most degrading death, simply for the lack of clean water and a regular bowl of food. Why would their god be concerned about the result of a football match if he cannot concern himself with war, pestilence and natural disasters. If Pele’s god does exist he must be the most heartless, uncaring, barbaric, and of course, racist supreme being that the universe has ever conjured up.
Having invoked god throughout his story, Pele is finally forced to put his god on the witness stand. In attempting to use his celebrity status for good humanitarian use, Pele cannot be faulted, but his god, whose Earthly representative is comfortably ensconced in the Vatican, most certainly can. Even Pele is forced to question:
Sometimes I get sad at how the World is and I ask God why it is that way. Why do millions of Brazilians get up early every day and commute for hours to get to exhausting and poorly paid- jobs, when the people in power are a bunch of crooks? Brazil is so rich in so many ways, but the country is full of favelas (slums), public health is in a pitiful state, education likewise and still so many people steal from the poor. Why does it have to be that way? It makes me so sad.’ P293
Of course the explanation to the heart-breaking mess that Pele so accurately describes cannot be answered by an imaginary god. He would be better off consulting some texts by Karl Marx and other like-minded thinkers, but I suspect Pele is already pretty close to the answer himself. While we humans are still trapped in a class based society, the majority will always suffer at the hands of a ‘bunch of crooks’ and those crooks always live a parasitic life by ‘stealing from the poor’. It began in earnest under the classical slave owning empires of Sumer, Egypt, Greece and Rome; it continued unabated during a further thousand years of brutal feudal rule; and it has reached its most callous and alienating form under national, and more recently, global capitalism.
The ‘bunch of crooks’ that Pele refers to, now reside in the corporate headquarters of the global multinationals, and their tentacles reach into every city, town and village on the planet. Football, like religion, drugs and celebrity culture, is merely the opiate to dull the senses of those who are daily being dispossessed. The joke is, those who are orchestrating this global economic rape, have the nerve to summon god to their cause. The head of investment bank, Goldman Sachs, currently under US Senate investigation for selling bankrupt financial packages that helped trigger off the recent global capitalist meltdown, had the outrageous audacity to claim that his company, was doing God’s work. I wonder what Pele would have to say about that?