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Pelé changed soccer – and Brazil. Can his legacy continue to heal divisions?

by Ana Ionova, CSM Contributor from Santos, Brazil

150446Brazil's soccer star Pelé bicycle-kicks a ball during a game in 1968. Pelé, the Brazilian king of soccer, won a record three World Cups and became one of the most commanding sports figures of the last century. He dies in São Paulo on Dec. 29, 2022. AP/File

January 5, 2023

If soccer is the sport that unites Brazilians across extreme economic, racial, and social inequalities, it’s Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the forward best known as Pelé, who acted as the glue.

As thousands of Brazilians made the pilgrimage to say goodbye to Pelé during his 24-hour public wake in the southeastern Brazilian city of Santos this week, most memories, whether of his more than 1,200 goals scored or his key role in winning three World Cup titles for Brazil, were inseparable from his impact off the pitch.

A poor Black child who used to shine shoes, Pelé had a rise to stardom in the late 1950s that included overcoming acute racial and economic barriers. Before he came to define the beauty of soccer for fans around the globe, few Black athletes were even allowed to play in private clubs or for Brazil’s international team, which nominally opened to Black players in the 1920s.

“We are constantly told that we are not capable, that we are not good enough, that we can’t do this or we can’t do that,” says Tatiana Marcela Vicente, a lawyer from São Paulo who traveled to Santos with her sister to pay respects to Pelé. The two were too young to witness his magic on the field firsthand, but they grew up hearing about his artful passes and how he blazed trails for Black children like them, she says.

150446Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters/FileBrazilian soccer legend Pelé speaks to journalists during an exhibition on the country's past World Cup tournaments, titled "Brazil, a Country, a World," in Brasília, Brazil, Dec. 17, 2013.

Pelé “could do everything. He showed us that we are equal, that we are capable,” Ms. Vicente says.

But decades later, many of the harsh realities he overcame still exist. The number of people going hungry in Brazil has jumped from 19.1 million in 2020 to 33.1 million in 2022. Welfare programs aimed at keeping children in school and providing housing to poor people were slashed over the past four years, under the outgoing far-right government. Black Brazilians are nearly three times more likely to be victims of police violence, while Black youth account for over 70% of school dropouts.

 

“It is very difficult at this moment for us to lose a figure like him precisely because of this symbolism,” says Thiago André, creator and host of the Brazilian podcast “Black History.” But, “even in his death, Pelé is inspiring us to reflect about the Brazil of the past, the Brazil of the present, and what kind of Brazil we want in the future.”

Breaking down barriers

Pelé first came to Santos F.C. as a scrawny teenager in the 1950s, with his athleticism and creativity quickly setting him apart from his peers. Just two years later, at the age of 17, he led Brazil to its first World Cup victory, scoring two goals in the final and cementing the country’s place on the world stage.

 

150446Andre Penner/APThe casket of late Brazilian soccer great Pelé is draped in the Brazilian and Santos soccer club flags as his remains are transported from Vila Belmiro stadium, where he laid in state, to the cemetery during his funeral procession in Santos, Brazil, Jan. 3, 2023.

“What we saw Pelé doing, nobody else had done before,” says Ronaldo George Helal, a sociologist and coordinator of the Sport and Culture Research Group at Rio de Janeiro State University. Pelé “turned into a symbol against racism.”

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. Racism and prejudice continued to vex the country – both in society and in sport – despite more than half the population being Black.

When Brazil lost the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium in 1950, the Black goalkeeper alone was blamed for the defeat and it ended his career. Four years later, one of the country’s top soccer officials said Brazil would never win a World Cup with Black players on the squad.

 

This legacy still looms large among fans. “For me, there is a Brazil before Pelé and a Brazil after Pelé,” says Guilherme Monteiro, a history teacher from São Paulo. “A Black man getting as far as he did, in a country with such a history of slavery, is so symbolic.”

“We began to have hope because of Pelé,” says Silvana Aparecida Alves de Souza Cruz, a homemaker clad in a black-and-white Santos shirt. “We saw people like us could also succeed.”

150446Lee Smith/Action Images/ReutersNewcastle United player Bruno Guimaraes wears a Brazil jersey with the name Pelé and the number 10 written on the back during minuteslong applause in memory of the Brazilian legend, Dec. 31, 2022.

“Possibility of a different Brazil”

Despite advances on the pitch, changes off the field have been slow to come. Inequalities have been exacerbated in Brazil by a painful economic crisis: More than 15% of the population is now going hungry, and white Brazilians earn nearly double that of Black or multiracial Brazilians, according to the national statistics agency.

“Life has become harder for the Black population” in recent years, says Dr. Xavier.

Brazil had far-reaching success in reducing racial and economic disparities in the early 2000s. Under the government of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, referred to simply as Lula, inclusive policies were introduced to tackle deep-seated challenges, like university quotas and generous spending on housing, education, and anti-hunger programs.

But many of these advances have unraveled amid a deepening economic crisis, soaring unemployment, and cuts to public spending on affordable housing and education. Police violence against Black Brazilians rose 5.8% between 2020 and 2021, accounting for 84% of all Brazilians killed by police. This is even as overall police killings eased by 5% over the same period, from a record 6,412 in 2020, and the killings of white Brazilians declined by nearly a third.

“In Pelé, many saw the possibility of a different Brazil,” says Dr. Xavier. “But having a hero alone doesn’t change reality for the Black population, and it doesn’t improve living conditions for Black people.”

150446Peter Karas/USA TODAY NETWORK/FilePelé celebrates his goal with Cosmos teammate Jadranko Topic during a soccer match at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, April 17, 1977.

Still, many Brazilians see a glimmer of hope in the return of Lula, who was inaugurated as president on Jan. 1, beginning his third, nonconsecutive term after narrowly defeating Jair Bolsonaro last fall.

Lula has promised to restore government programs that combat hunger and social inequality, vowing to once again help lift millions out of poverty.

“We are committed to fighting, day and night, all forms of inequality. In terms of income, gender, and race. Inequality between those who throw food away and those who only eat leftovers,” Lula said in his inauguration speech last weekend. 

Lula has also signaled plans to run a more inclusive government, appointing a host of Black and Indigenous ministers to his Cabinet. In a symbolic move, a Black garbage collector handed the presidential sash to Lula on inauguration day. She was meant to represent the Brazilian population passing the torch, though the role is typically reserved for the outgoing president (Mr. Bolsonaro fled for Florida just days before the transition of power).

Two days after his inauguration, Lula arrived at the Santos stadium to pay his respects. Outside, hundreds of fans erupted in cheers, both for their new president and for their soccer hero. Some threw their hands up in an “L” sign, a symbol of support for the leftist. “Lula is our president! Pelé is our king!” the crowd chanted.

Taísa Julio Vicente, a high school teacher in São Paulo, traveled to say goodbye to Pelé with her sister, the lawyer. She fought back tears while waiting in line to see Pelé’s casket: His legacy in Brazil feels ever-present in her own life. When she searches for ways to keep her mostly poor, Black students engaged in the classroom, she often turns to his story.

“I teach adolescents. How many Black boys do we have who are completely hopeless?” says Ms. Vicente. “It’s necessary to have an idol, to have someone to look up to, who gives you hope,” she says.

“Pelé is resistance.”

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Page created on 1/6/2023 3:42:59 PM

Last edited 1/6/2023 4:01:52 PM

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