ZURICH - Pelé doesn’t shake your hand; he takes you in his arms and gives you a hug so tight you can hear his heart beating. On Jan. 11, the day after the FIFA Golden Ball award ceremony in Zurich, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, sat down for an extended interview with Le Monde. Now 71 years old and still as stylish as ever, “King” Pelé talks about: Pelé, Brazil, and the World Cup, a crown he helped win three times (1958, 1962 and 1970) -- and which will next be held in his home country in 2014.
What does the 2014 World Cup in Brazil represent for you as its official ‘Ambassador’?
I don’t want to give the impression that I am the World Cup. The most important thing is the image of my country and its influence throughout the world. I remember no one really knew about Brazil in 1958 when I went to Europe. When I arrived at the training camp in Switzerland where the World Cup was being held, the Brazilian flag had a circle instead of the diamond. From then on, I have had just one wish for the World Cup: to use it to help my people, my country.
What image of Brazil do you want to show the world?
Brazil is the fifth most powerful country in the world! But I would like there to be less poverty and more social equality. After the World Cup, there will be the Olympic Games in 2016. The government and the people must make the most of these important occasions to modernize the country. These two events will consolidate the changes already underway. We want to make sure that the income from the World Cup and the Olympics is shared amongst all the population. We have to do a good job. This will give investors the confidence to come to Brazil: we have lots of space, land and minerals. Now is the time to invest here!
What could stop investors from believing in Brazil?
It is the political differences in the country that worry us. They could endanger the work currently underway to make the World Cup a success. These internal political problems can also lead to corruption and excessive spending. Spending too much on the construction of the stadiums is out of the question because the money is coming from the people. We cannot afford to find ourselves with these “white elephants,” which won’t have any use after the World Cup. We need to make the most of this opportunity to build schools and universities that will actually be of use afterwards.
How can you fight against corruption?
I have a lot of trust in (President) Dilma Rousseff. She has been in power just under a year, and she has already gotten rid of six ministers. This is the first time in the history of Brazil that so many politicians have been ousted from government for corruption. The fight must continue…
Brazilian football is also being undermined by corruption …
There is some cleaning up to be done, but not only in Brazilian football. Now is the time to clean things up, from the top of FIFA down to the bottom.
Will the future of Brazilian football be written without Ricardo Teixeira, president of the national association since 1989 and personally implicated in these scandals?
I will be sad if it is proven to be the case. I am waiting for the evidence. What I would like is for all football associations to be clean, from Japan to Brazil. Football is something in the blood of the Brazilian people, and it will always continue. Before Teixeira, there was a different president and we still played football, and we will keep playing after he’s gone.
How would you explain the fact that Brazil football is no longer at the top of the world rankings?
The best Brazilian players develop in Europe. Brazilian clubs have sold far too many players: all the top ones go abroad. This means that the national team doesn’t have enough time to play together. This is proof of the bad management of football. If the top teams, like Flamengo, Corinthians and Vasco, were better run, they wouldn’t need to sell their players all the time. However, our training works well. We just need to keep the young players in the country for longer.
You were Minister for Sports between 1995 and 1998. What did you take away from that experience?
I was very proud of that; I freed Brazilians footballers from slavery. Before I took the post, the player belonged completely to his club: he wasn’t free to transfer, even at the end of his contract. And when some clubs had no money left, they would go to the bank and say: “I will give you my player.” They treated the players like merchandise, like slaves. Fortunately, thanks to Henrique Cardozo who was president at the time, this situation ended in 1996. But we need to go even further. We need to further limit the role of agents, who are given too much importance.
Is there too much money in modern football?
No. The only difference with my era is that today there are sponsors involved. The true question is not about money, but who is the best player in the world.
And who is the best player in the world?
Today? I like (Argentina’s Lionel) Messi. He’s a top player.
What differentiates you from him?
There are some big differences. Technically, we are at practically the same level. With me, nobody ever knew which foot I was going to use: I played with both. I also scored lots of goals with headers. Messi’s left foot is good, but his right foot is better. He is a very good player at Barcelona, but when he plays with the Argentinian national team he doesn’t have the same level of success. I also think (Brazil’s) Neymar, who plays for Santos, has the possibility of becoming a top player. He is very strong with both feet, very intelligent. This comparison of styles makes me think of (France’s Michel) Platini, who was a very good player, but (the Netherlands’ Johan) Cruyff was quicker.
So, is Messi better than you?
It is difficult to say: football lovers would say “he is the man of the moment.” Some will say Beethoven didn’t know how to play the piano, others will say Michelangelo didn’t know how to paint, and Pelé didn’t know how to play football. But we all received a gift from God. When Messi has scored 1283 goals as I have and wins three World Cups, we’ll talk about it again. We don’t need to compare people. Football changes, records are made to be broken, but it will be difficult to beat mine. People ask me all the time “When will the next Pelé be born?” Never! My mother and father have closed the factory.
You were the first black man to become a minister in Brazil. Is there a problem with racism?
Racism doesn’t exist in Brazil. It is absurd to say that there is racism in football. How many matches are played each week throughout the world? A huge number! Football is multi-colored.
And yet, you have been insulted on the pitch, haven’t you?
Many times, and I took my revenge by scoring two extra goals for every insult. Players apologized after the incident. I have insulted players as well, but it was never racist. With all the media coverage and the Internet, we just talk about it a lot more.
Do you think that you have contributed to changing the image of black people?
Yes, I think so. There were two occasions in particular. The 1958 World Cup, when the King of Sweden came down onto the pitch: for the first time in history, there was a photo taken of him shaking hands with a black man. That photo was seen worldwide. The second event was when Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain knighted me; that sent a very important message. Something else also happened to me: in 1975, my contract with Santos ended and Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, came to see me to say: “You have to come to the United States to develop football.” And, in the US, there was racism. I think that my presence on the Cosmos in New York helped to change things. One last anecdote, I went to play in Zaire in 1969 with Santos. The civil war there stopped for our match. At the time, there was no Internet, but everyone found out what happened.
How would you like people to remember you?
You know, Pelé is the most famous name in the world. I can go anywhere; if I’m looking for a job, I will find one. More seriously, after my death, I would like people to remember that I was a good person who always wanted to unite people and draw communities together. And for them to remember me as….a good player.
Read more from Le Monde in French.
Photo - desbyrnephotos