Pelé, sometimes to the frustration of activists, rarely spoke out about racism during his playing profession or afterward. He would often repeat the consensus view that Brazil was in truth a “racial democracy,” a position that has been challenged with the expansion of the Black consciousness movement. His refusal to take political stands also stood out in a period when Brazil was ruled by a series of dictatorships, during which Brazil’s military sought to benefit from soccer’s popularity to sustain its hold over the country.
“I believed his behavior was that of a Black one that only said, ‘Yes sir,’ a Black one that is submissive, accepts every thing,” Paulo Cézar Lima, a former teammate on the Brazilian national team, said in a 2021 Netflix documentary made with Pelé. “A single word would have meant a lot in Brazil.”
Yet to a few of his other compatriots, Pelé’s very presence as a globally recognized Black Brazilian was enough. Taking over a dictatorship, in any case, carried risks.
Pelé’s legacy was sealed on the 1970 World Cup, a tournament wherein he initially didn’t wish to play. Brazil’s team, a double defending champion, had been eliminated within the group stage within the 1966 championship in England, with Pelé literally kicked out of the tournament by the roughhouse play of Brazil’s opponents. He was nearing 30 because the 1970 tournament neared, and he had said he had enough. Yet his country, and its military leaders, wanted him to go, and he finally buckled to the pressure and traveled to Mexico with a team few at home believed could win the title.
That it did so, in stunning style and with Pelé at its heart, brought joy to a rustic then living through a number of the darkest years of its modern history, a time when the federal government of Emílio Garrastazu Médici killed and disappeared scores of its opponents and tortured hundreds more.
“I’m convinced that I helped Brazil loads more with my football, with my way of being, than the politicians whose job it was to do that very thing,” a frail-looking Pelé told the Netflix filmmakers for the documentary released last yr.
As Pelé’s star rose, so did that of Brazilian soccer. His team, Santos, which had given Pelé his debut at 15, became a world force. With Pelé in its ranks, it was lured to Europe for monthslong tours, where it took on — and took apart — a few of Europe’s biggest clubs. Those European teams quickly got here to understand what Brazil was, Pelé would say. But he at all times got here home.