Cover Story: Long Live The King

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 24, 2017 - July 30, 2017.

Pelé, sporting Hublot (of course), signing autographs for fans during the #HublotLovesFootball gala dinner at the TSUM Department Store in Moscow

A thrilling balalaika ensemble at the #HublotLovesFootball gala dinner

Pelé and Guadalupe

Russia’s mascot for the 2018 World Cup, Zabivaka the wolf

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One of the most popular sports on the planet, the religion of football is not without its deities. Diana Khoo was in Moscow recently to meet with Pelé, ambassador and friend of Hublot, in conjunction with the 2018 FIFA World Cup 1 Year to Go countdown at Russia’s iconic Red Square, and Ricardo Guadalupe, CEO of Hublot.

 

In the history of the world, you know you’ve pretty much made it to the heights of public consciousness when you are known by just a single name. From Plato of ancient Greece to the 18th-century French writer Voltaire, mononymity has traditionally been the privilege of royalty and top-tier celebs although it’s still a rarity in the sporting world. That is, of course, with the exception of Pelé. After all, few stars can claim to have had the president of the United States introduce himself by saying, “My name is Ronald Reagan. But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pelé is.”

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on Oct 23, 1940 in Brazil, Pelé — a nickname he picked up while in school — seemed destined for greatness. His father, Dondinho, a footballer of repute himself, had big dreams, naming his infant son after the famous American inventor and “wizard of Menlo Park”, Thomas Edison. Despite having a footballer father, the story goes that Pelé only kicked his first football on his sixth birthday after Sosa, one of Dondinho’s team mates, had gifted him with a real ball, where before old socks stuffed with newspapers or a grapefruit had to do.

Fast forward 77 years, Pelé has entered the realm of legends and is, without doubt, one of the sport’s best known, best loved and most highly regarded personalities. Bobby Moore, a former captain of England who led his country to World Cup victory in 1966, had remarked how Pelé was “the most complete player I’ve ever seen” while English football writer Geoffrey Green had gushed, “Pelé was made in heaven”. 

So, it was with great excitement and trepidation that I, together with selected journalists from Asean, trooped into Vasnetsov Hall of the St Regis Nikolskaya Moscow to meet the man widely regarded as the greatest football player of all time.

Already seated, the bright-eyed septuagenarian seemed fresh and positively indefatigable, despite having flown in specially from São Paulo for the 2018 FIFA World Cup 1 Year to Go event at the Hublot Countdown Clock in Red Square, which had taken place just a couple of hours before, in the company of Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe and Philippe Le Floc’h, chief commercial officer of FIFA. This had been swiftly followed by the opening of a new Hublot boutique, the brand for which he is both ambassador and friend, at the historic Metropol Hotel in Moscow. “I had told Pelé about Moscow and our countdown clock and he said, ‘I come for you’,” says Guadalupe. “Pelé has other more important commercial partners than us but he really loves Hublot.”

Flashing his trademark megawatt smile, Pelé’s laid-back friendliness immediately changed the atmosphere in the room, from expectant anxiety to warm geniality. He had earlier quipped for all of us to please excuse him as he wouldn’t be able to play in the next World Cup due to recent hip surgery. Watching him chat with genuine ease, it’s easy to forget he is one of the greatest athletes in history. For those uninformed of Pelé’s sporting career, it began at the age of 15 when he joined Santos FC, to whom he stayed loyal for nearly two decades — unheard of today — after which he was also picked to join the Seleção Brasileira (as Brazil’s national team is often referred to). He made his first trip out of Brazil soon after — to play against Argentina at its hallowed Maracanã stadium, scoring a goal and earning his first cap with the national team.

Just a year later, the whole world would come to know of the boy from Brazil — still not yet 18 — after his stunning international debut at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, showing glimpses of the magic to come and, in the course of the tournament, becoming the youngest World Cup winner in history. To date, Pelé remains the only player to have been part of three winning World Cup teams and whose efforts earned Brazil the right to retain the Jules Rimet Trophy (the name of the trophy used from 1930 to 1970) permanently after winning the World Cup a record three times. Subsequent trophies are referred to as the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

Pelé clearly inherited his father’s talent for prolific goal-scoring, with pundits estimating his career goals to come close to the 1,300 mark, including 77 for Brazil. And it was Pelé himself who is said to have coined the term joga bonito — Portuguese for “the beautiful game” — when he published his 1977 autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game, thus entering it into the modern vernacular as a synonym for football. And he himself is certainly one of its most expressive exponents, whose style of play is best described as just that. Style.

A friend of mine once commented that Brazilians appear to be born with brains in their feet, and how they don’t just play on the pitch, they samba. Fusing technical skill with free-flowing grace and ingenuity, it is best described as physical poetry on the pitch, or ballet with a ball. Since Pelé’s time, however, there has been some grumbling about how the Seleção has moved from joga bonito to futebol força — eschewing skilful elegance for a more defensive yet aggressive and physical style of play. “I think today is more physical than before,” nods Pelé in agreement. “It is more important now to fight … to win the game. It doesn’t matter if it is a good game so long as you win. That is totally the difference.”

Followers of the sport would also have noticed another striking difference — how it has become more of a business than anything. Certainly, if one were to look back at the jerseys of yesteryear, you would be hard pressed to find a big logo emblazoned across it. A quick look at today’s selections however, and it would be impossible to find one without it. Pelé nods sagely, saying, “Unfortunately, life is like that now. Today, business is very important. Before, people were more focused on the game. But now, with all the big investments — in clothes, shoes, equipment — football becomes a business. 

“But, more importantly, and even so, football remains the best sport that brings people together. Unfortunately, somebody has to pay the bill. That is part of life,” he adds with a laugh.

As Russia prepares to host the World Cup next year, which is expected to bring in 32 teams as well as millions of fans (the previous World Cup attracted 3.3 million attendees), we ask Pelé who he thinks will win, to which he chuckles, saying coyly, “I never predict, but Brazil has a new coach now who I think has more experience than Dunga (Carlos Verri), the previous one.” 

Tite (Adenor Bacchi) appears to have pleased Pelé already with his performance, quickly guiding the Seleção to eight consecutive victories in World Cup qualifiers since his June 2016 arrival, as well as making Brazil the first country to qualify for Russia 2018. “I wish Brazil to be one of the finalists of the World Cup in Russia … at least to the final,” he says, before cheekily adding, “but if we win, is better.”

Certainly the memories of his own final World Cup win in 1970 remain particularly vivid. Brazil, then under Emilio Medici’s military rule, was a country in turmoil and the Seleção felt enormous pressure to win. No longer a young ingénue enjoying a lighthearted debut, Pelé had by then reached national hero status and was under intense pressure to bring home the proverbial “golden fleece”. It’s hard to imagine a time when nation and sport were embroiled in a more fraught relationship. “A lot of people think maybe my first World Cup in Sweden was the most important,” he shares, “but, no. It was very bad in Brazil in 1970 with our political problems. I prayed to win and God was so good. God gave me the strength and we won — Brazil was champion. That was a very important moment in my life.” His smile flashes broadly upon the recollection. Certainly, it was a time of football par excellence. Adjectives like “spectacular”, “spellbinding” and “brilliant” were all the order of the day with sports writers benchmarking Brazil’s 1970 World Cup victory as the pinnacle performance in football history.

When asked if he ever considered coaching as a second career, Pelé remarks: “I have had a lot of opportunities, invitations, to be a coach. It was nice (to be invited) but I had decided my life already and I said ‘no’. To be a coach is not for me … too much ‘suffer’. I wish good luck for the coaches but never for me … too complicated. It is difficult. I worked with good coaches and lost and won with some bad coaches,” he chuckles.

On the possibility of seeing a champion emerge from Asia or Africa in the near future, Pelé thinks for a minute before answering, “It is difficult to say but I love football and it would be very important for the game all over the world if so, because it is to bring people together. Because of football, we could have the opportunity to stop the war in Africa,” he says, referencing the 1967 48-hour ceasefire between federal and rebel troops in Lagos so they could watch Pelé play in an exhibition game during a visit to war-torn Nigeria.

Though he has long hung up his football boots (and with coaching certainly not an option), Pelé’s responsibilities today revolve around promoting the values of health, education and sport, with a particular tenderness towards children. When he scored his thousandth goal in 1969, Pelé dedicated it to the Brazilian youth.

It was, in fact, Hublot’s dedication to sport that appealed to Pelé and that led to him being appointed an ambassador for the brand. “It is an honour for me to represent Hublot, a brand that stands for innovation and watchmaking tradition. They share my commitment to the sport of football,” he says. Guadalupe adds: “When we choose an ambassador, we want a legend. And a legend is someone who has achieved everything, is indisputable. And in football, the first name that comes to mind is, of course, Pelé.”

“I have a lot of endorsements, proposals to promote things,” continues Pelé. “But to beer and alcohol, I say ‘no!’ If it is not good for [the image of] sport or people ... I don’t accept. I always pray that God will give me the conditions to pass good messages to children. And this is what I look for when I enter into partnerships and the reason why I don’t accept a lot of endorsements. But Hublot, I think it was an important one as Hublot supports sport. And sport is important for the life of people, children … and that is the reason why I accepted.”

One of the more touching moments in the previous World Cup was when Pelé and Guadalupe both attended a party to celebrate the opening of a football pitch that Hublot had donated to the children of Rio de Janeiro’s Jacarezinho favela, the city’s third densest slum, bringing the joy of the joga bonito to where it was really needed. “The most important thing,” Pelé continues, “is to work with and connect with children. I may have scored a lot of goals but the most important thing is to give the message to children to live a good life. It is good to be a good player but one should also be a good man.”

All too soon, we are told it is time for the last question, to which Pelé cheekily interjects, “Not last question, please ... but last for today,” before qualifying that statement by adding, with a bright smile, “I’m too young.” Indeed, as we look at him, seemingly not aged a day, it reminded me of a story I had read about Pelé that has stayed in my mind. The setting was the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico where Pelé, then just 29, had been part of the triumphant team that beat Italy 4-1. Although he didn’t score the winning goal (the honour belongs to team captain Carlos Alberto), it was Alberto himself who had said: “We were teammates at Santos so I knew how important Pelé was to winning. Playing with Pelé felt like you had God on your side.” Hitting the proverbial nail on the head, it was reported that the London Sunday Times’ headline the next day read: “How do you spell Pelé? G-O-D”. As we said at the start, the religion of football isn’t without its deities.