Edson Arantes do Nascimento is perfectly polite but equally firm. “I don’t want to wear make-up. I prefer that people see me as who I am and be myself—not covered up by make-up which will take my natural shine away!” he says.
Nobody could argue with these sentiments, spoken with such charm and a broad grin—even our photographer, whose jaw had momentarily hit the floor in panic. However, this is no ordinary interviewee. It is Pelé and there is not going to be a problem.
Once he goes under the lights, the world’s most famous footballer and arguably the greatest sportsman of all time—only Muhammad Ali could justifiably take issue with that tag—cracks a huge smile that lights up the room and works the camera with a grace that has everybody present mesmerised.
In London to launch the Pelé Sports clothing and boots range, he is sporting a stylish navy jacket—one of his favourite pieces from the collection (another is the white Celeste jumper, named after his mother)—and is keen to emphasise his hands-on approach to producing the range.
While changing clothes to model some different pieces from the collection, he takes off his top to reveal a midriff that shows little sign of over-indulgence in the good life (he doesn’t drink alcohol, which may help). Shorter than you might expect but stocky and well-built, he looks remarkably trim given his age—he turned 71 the week we meet him.
It is often argued that modern football is predominantly a game for athletes not artisans—witness the likes of Manchester City’s Yaya Touré and Chelsea’s Michael Essien prowling the midfield—and in many ways Pelé was half a century ahead of his time, as his skill was combined with a degree of speed and power equalled by few in that era.
It is the first time he has been involved in the actual design of anything bearing his name—previous endorsements with the likes of Nike and Puma simply involved Pelé putting his name to the products without having any input into the actual collections.
“This is my work,” he says with evident pride. “I’ve tried to produce a range which is very close to my character, using ideas which I built up over the years I have been involved in football.
“The garments are very delicate and simple. In my time we had good materials but we never had anything as light as this. And when it rained our tops would become so heavy and slow us down—it was hard work. If I had the opportunity to play in these type of boots it would have made me an even better player. I would have scored double the goals I did!” he jokes.
Well, at least I think he’s joking. Pelé scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 games for Santos, the New York Cosmos and Brazil, is the only player in the world to have three World Cup winner’s medals, and was named “Athlete of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee in 1999.
To put his scoring record into context, English forward Gary Lineker, regarded as one of the most prolific strikers of his generation, managed 329 goals throughout his career.
Pelé is best remembered, though, for that last World Cup appearance in Mexico in 1970—by happy coincidence, the first to be shown around the world in colour on television so everybody could enjoy his and Brazil’s brilliance in what was the best tournament ever: the audacious shot from within his own half that just went the wrong the side of the post against Czechoslovakia; the dummy against Uruguay, allowing the ball to go one side of the goalkeeper while he ran the other, but then just putting his shot wide again; and the epic clash with an England side generally rated as better than the one that had lifted the Jules Rimet trophy four years earlier—his powerful header that seemed destined for the bottom corner but was turned round the post by Gordon Banks, often regarded as the greatest save ever, before his iconic swapping of shirts and hug with Bobby Moore at the final whistle.
Finally his goal—Brazil’s opener—in the final against Italy and the iconic celebration that followed, shown on some of the tees in his new collection, as he jumps into Jairzinho’s arms, his face full of pure, unadulterated joy.
The kit material and boots are just two of the things that have changed about the game he clearly still loves. “Everything was different in those days: the pitches, the accommodation, the hotels, the facilities for the players were all very different.”
Perhaps thinking back to the 1966 World Cup, when he was kicked out of the tournament at Goodison Park by the Portuguese, of all countries, he reflects on how much of a better deal attacking players get in the modern game: “Today, forwards are protected by referees with all the yellow cards and red cards.”
After that match at Goodison he vowed never to play in the World Cup again. Fortunately, he reconsidered and was persuaded to play in Mexico four years later. But he says there would have been no need for him to change his game were he playing in 2012. “I would have played the same. My father was a player too and the advice he gave me was that to be able to play football was a gift from God. He said, ‘It’s something you get but if you respect your opponents and prepare properly then nothing will be able to stop you, as you have a very special gift.’”
So how does the man regarded as the greatest feel that the current Barcelona team, who clinically dismantled Manchester United to win the Champions League at Wembley in May, measure up against the sides he played in?
“I can’t compare them with my Brazil team because they are a club side but I can compare them with Santos. The style is very similar because Barcelona play in a more Latin than European style. That way, with their close ball control, is fantastic to watch.
“In my time the two best sides were 15 years apart—Real Madrid and then Santos. Now this Barcelona side is worthy to be talked about in the same breath. I think that Santos would play them in the final each time if either of those two sides [Real or Barcelona] were in the same era—it would be a very good game to watch!”
And what of Barcelona’s star player, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, whom some commentators are starting to murmur quietly could one day be the man to take Pelé’s title, unofficial or not, as the best to have set foot on the football field. “In every generation you have one [great player], and at the moment Messi is the best. Maradona, Platini and Zidane were the best of their times, and now it is Messi’s turn,” he says.
But all greats have a touch of arrogance about them, even Pelé, and he reminds us that the Barcelona man can’t match his all-round game just yet. “I would love to play with Messi but he is an incomplete player because he can’t use his head. Also, I played for 20 years, Messi has only played for several years.”
He adds, “If there is one player in the world today I would love to play with it is Neymar”—his fellow Brazilian, who also plays for Santos but has long been linked with a move to Europe, which would probably see him replace Cristiano Ronaldo as the most expensive player ever.
Asked who was the best player he played alongside during his career he throws his hands up in mock protest. “Asking me to choose one name is unfair,” he complains with good humour. “I have to say Garrincha but that causes a problem because then I have to mention Tostão, Carlos Alberto and Zito as well!”
When it comes to opponents, he is more effusive. “Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer. Plus, I played against some excellent goalkeepers, such as Yashin of Russia.”
Beckenbauer is more than happy to repay the compliment, saying, “Pelé is the greatest player of all time. He reigned supreme for 20 years. All the others—Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini—rank beneath him. There’s no one to compare with Pelé.”
With the exception of his three years with the New York Cosmos, as part of the bold but ultimately futile 1970s experiment to sell football to the United States, Pelé spent his whole career at Santos. With hindsight, does he regret not moving to Europe to experience the different style of the game that prevails over here?
“I had a lot of offers to come to Europe, but I was always happy with Santos. In those days, the money they offered was not so big. Real Madrid made an offer, and Juventus offered me shares in Fiat for signing [the club and the car company were owned by the Agnelli family] but I never felt I needed to leave Santos—they were the best team in the world at that time.”
His loyalty to Santos would be a rarity in the game these days (Ryan Giggs at Manchester United is one of the few examples that springs to mind) and it is the one thing about the modern game that seems to anger him as his eyes darken.
“Now a lot of players are with one club for a year or even six months then they move to another team for the money. They say, ‘I love Real Madrid,’ then a few months later move to Manchester United and say, ‘I love this club.’ For me, this is the biggest shame in football now. Players used to stay at clubs for five years, longer, one club for their whole career.”
Some sporting greats divide opinion but Pelé seems to generate good will wherever he travels around the world—a legacy not just of his brilliance and sportsmanship on the pitch but also the various humanitarian and charity projects that keep his diary full, even into his eighth decade.
The evening before his private audience with PODIUM, assorted footballers, including England stars Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole, former internationals, agents, media types and hangers-on assembled for the launch of the Pelé Sports collection. Normally at these dos some kind of decorum prevails but the only thing on everybody’s mind was getting a picture with, or at the very least of, Pelé. As he was escorted out of the venue, grown men jostled to touch the 71-year-old in a manner more akin to teenage girls driven into a frenzy by the latest X Factor pin-ups.
“I feel very proud and I just thank God because it means that now, five decades on from my first World Cup, in Sweden, people respect me and people love me. But at the same time it’s a big responsibility and I try not to disappoint people. I ask God to give me power to use the gifts I have been blessed with,” he says.
“I am one of the few people who can go anywhere in the world and the door will be always open for me. This is fantastic.”
Much of his work and travel involves acting as a global ambassador for his country, which is preparing for an almost unprecedented decade of sporting prominence as it hosts both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics in the space of just two years.
Brazil being Brazil, there are already murmurings that preparations are behind schedule, and the day before Pelé meets PODIUM, Sports Minister Orlando Silva, in charge of preparations for both competitions, resigned after being accused of corruption. Pelé, who was Brazil’s Extraordinary Minister for Sport, and actually the country’s first black government minister, between 1995 and 1998, acknowledges that corruption has long been and still is a problem in his country, but is confident the warring factions that seem to dominate its political landscape can come together to deliver great shows for the world and lasting benefits to his people.
“These huge events always bring investment to a country. We now have the World Cup and the Olympics taking place in Brazil over the coming few years, which is a great opportunity, but we have to make the most of it. When I say we, I mean the government, of course. As everybody knows, we have problems in Brazil with communication at the top.
“Brazil are one of the top sides and on the pitch we will have a good chance to win the World Cup, but the real prize will be after the event if there is a legacy left behind for the people.
“I have a lot of confidence in our new President, Dilma Vana Rousseff—she really wants to ensure that we leave a legacy for the country, and I am working with her to ensure that is the case.”
Turning his attention to the current Brazil side, he rebuts the critique that it falls between two stools, trying to marry South American flair with a more European-orientated and defensive approach. “The media make a mistake when they say the Brazil team is starting to play like a European side. Of course, the players play over here for their clubs but the problem with the Brazil team is that the coach has been changed four times in less than two years so we can’t develop one playing pattern.
“Besides that, the team was changed every game. For the World Cup it will be different. We will have some time to prepare the team and for them to train together and gel. But this doesn’t mean they just have to turn up to be champions. It will still be very hard.”
Although he makes a handsome living from the game he graced —at one stage he was earning £18m a year from the likes of MasterCard and Coca-Cola—Pelé doesn’t seem like a hard-headed businessman, trying to squeeze every last penny out of his fame and popularity. His warmth and the enthusiasm with which he still speaks about football is infectious, and he seems to genuinely enjoy the adoration he inspires, even among those who would not have been born when he was still playing.
Brazil shirts are duly signed for the daughters of our photographer and make-up artist (who’s not been too taxed for his morning’s work!) with the minimum of fuss, and he is happily engaging with all the PODIUM team, hurried along only by his efficient but friendly management team, aware he is on a tight schedule to fit in the demands of everybody desperate to get their own piece of the maestro.
“Earlier in the week, I was in Japan. Tonight I fly to New York. I live in an aeroplane,” he jokes. “But I will be back in Brazil for Christmas with my family.”
With the game currently scarred by the antics of players who take home sums each week that the average fan would pinch themselves if they earned in a year, an audience with Pelé goes a long way to convincing us that all is not yet lost.
He says, “People talk about how much some players earn today but you have to remember that this is just the very top few per cent of players. Just think how many players there are across the world in all the different countries. People forget about the rest of the players.”
And can we still talk about the sport using the words that he will be forever associated with? “Of course, football is still the beautiful game—all over the world,” he insists.
Pelé Sports is the new sportswear and lifestyle clothing range from Pelé. www.pele-sports.com