Remembering Pele’s legacy and his impact in Nigeria

“Whether Pele stopped the war, ushered a ceasefire, or showed up to make money is none of my business. Those silly exercises of headbutting each other are worthless. The fact remains that the government and the breakaway Republic of Biafra accepted a ceasefire to allow his team, Santos, to play two exhibition matches against local teams. For 72 hours, football was more important than war.”

The death of a loved one is never an easy experience to accept, especially when it takes someone much sooner than we expect. We agree that everyone has to say bye-bye sooner or later but does this thinking make it easy? Anyone who has experienced death in his family or recovering from the loss of a loved one knows that the pain and shock never go away. No matter the reason for death, their death takes a tiny part of us with them. The same is true when it comes to celebrities and icons. Although we may not know them personally, we follow them, react to their news, sing along to their songs, play like them, dance to their music videos, and copy their steps and styles. Not only that, we also rejoice in their happiness and celebrate their achievements, moments, and victories. We feel sad about their loss and rejoice in their marriages. The point is that we have some connection to our favorite celebrities in several ways. But when we lose them all of a sudden in a shocking tragedy, it certainly takes a dig at us – we do feel heartbroken even when the person lives long.

Over the years, there have been dozens of deaths that have shocked me. It is not that these people are not supposed to die. It is because I could not come to terms with their death. In 2005, Pope John Paul II, the most well-traveled and the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century died in the Vatican. Although he died at 85, I was shocked to hear the news of the Pope I grew up to know in my childhood. That ripped the flesh off me. Two million people attended his funeral at the Vatican City, which is said to be one of the biggest in history. Three years later, I was shocked to hear about the death of American singer Michael Jackson at his home on North Carolwood Drive in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. His physician said he found Jackson in his apartment, not breathing and with a weak pulse. The paramedics tried to resuscitate him at the scene but pronounced him dead at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. In 2012, Whitney Houston died after being found unresponsive in bathtubs with drugs in her system. It was nothing more than tragic because her death got me thinking while a person of her caliber would do such a thing. In 2020 alone, we lost Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman and NBA legend Kobe Bryant. Boseman’s family revealed that he died of a secret battle with colon cancer. A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through sickness and brought many of the films we have come to love so much. The same year, Kobe Bryant, the world-famous basketball player, his daughter Gianna, and a handful of others perished in a helicopter crash in early 2020 while on their way to a basketball game. The weather conditions for flying were not the best of ideals on that day, but the pilot chose to fly and crashed, killing everyone on board.

So, today I am writing about another shocking death of an icon, the greatest of all time. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the Brazilian genius whose captivating skill and athleticism confirm him as one of the greatest football players died at 82. Popularly known by soccer fans as Pele, he had a colon tumor removed in 2021 and was readmitted to Albert Einstein hospital in Sao Paulo in November amid deteriorating health. A hospital statement confirmed the death of “our dear King of Football” due to the failure of several organs because of the progression of colon cancer related to his previous clinical condition. Moments after news emerged that Pele had passed away at 82, his daughter, Kely Nascimento, shared a photo that featured loved ones gathered at her father’s bedside with their hands over his. She also shared a heartbreaking Instagram post in the wake of the soccer icon’s death which translates as everything we are, is thanks to you, we love you infinitely, rest in peace. A statement from Pele’s official Instagram page added: Inspiration and love marked the journey of King Pele, who peacefully passed away today. On his journey, Edson enchanted the world with his genius in sports, stopped a war, carried out social work all over the world, and spread what he most believed to be the cure for all our problems: love. His message today becomes a legacy for future generations. Love, love, and love, forever. Who is this icon? What did he do for his country?

Pele was the record scorer for his country Brazil. He won three World Cups as a player, in 1958, 1962, and 1970, over a 14-year international career that included 77 goals in 92 appearances for his country. Nicknamed the Black Pearl and the King Pele was one of only three players to have scored in four World Cups. In 1,363 games, he scored 1,281 goals before his retirement in 1977, more than twice as many as his nearest challenger. It was the 1970 World Cup triumph for which he will be best celebrated, the key player of a charismatic team that included Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao, and Rivelino that swept through Mexico. His canary yellow No. 10 shirt became an icon of the sport. World Soccer described Brazil’s 1970 winners as more than a team. The Brazilian side that won the 1970 World Cup has become a myth, a team to be held up as the ultimate exponents of the beautiful game. Pele was their figurehead and inspiration. The Brazilian government declared three days of mourning while the arch at Wembley Stadium is littered with the colors of Brazil. Several icons of the sport, fans, soccer players, and heads of state bowed to the man who rose from childhood poverty to become a legend.

Amongst them is former U. S. President Barack Obama, who wrote that Pele was one of the greatest to have ever played football beautifully. And as one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, he understood the power of sports to bring people together. Our thoughts are with his family and everyone who loved and admired him. President Joe Biden said that for a sport that brings the world together like no other, Pele’s rise from humble beginnings to soccer legend is a story of what is possible. Today, his thoughts and those of his family are with Pele’s family and all those who loved him. Mr. Raila Odinga, the former Prime Minister of Kenya from 2008 to 2013, wrote: What a loss for humanity. Pele was a great and charismatic personality who changed football forever. He deserves credit for the entertainment matches we have come to expect. In many ways, he was the best pioneer. He will surely miss him. Our little wonder kid, Kylian Mbappe, said that the king of football left us, but his legacy will forever remain in our hearts. On his Instagram page, Gareth Bale notes that a giant of the game and the reason so many of us love football has left us. Rest in peace, legend. Cristiano Ronaldo sends his deepest condolences to all Brazilian people and, in particular, to the family of Edson Arantes do Nascimento. According to him, a mere bye-bye to the eternal King Pele will never be enough to express the pain the football world is now embracing. An inspiration to so many millions, a reference yesterday, today, and forever. Pele reciprocated the love for him in every moment they shared at a distance. He will never forget Pele. His memory will live forever in every football lover. According to Neymar, before Pele, football was just a sport. Pele changed it all. He turned football into art, into entertainment. He gave voice to the poor and blacks and gave visibility to Brazil. Soccer and Brazil have raised their status thanks to the king. He is gone, but his magic remains.

I was born a year after Pele retired from football but watching his soccer matches on video and reading about him, I came to appreciate his contribution to soccer and our world. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on 23 October 1940, Pele began his professional career at 15 and made his international debut a year later. In 1999, a poll of Ballon d’Or winners voted him as the player of the century. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. In his prime, Pele’s fame was such that he gained audiences with popes and heads of state. For many years, news networks have widely reported that Pele stopped the Nigerian Civil War when the two sides put aside their weapons to allow Nigerians to watch him and his Brazilian club Santos play. The Nigerian civil war was fought between 6 July 1967-15 January 1970 over the secession of the state of Biafra from Nigeria. It was one of the bloodiest civil wars in Africa. But some journalists have argued that the story often credited to Pele for ushering in a ceasefire during the civil war was a myth. According to these authors, the purpose of the African tour was to make money for the club through appearance fees. The excursion took the team to Congo, Nigeria, Mozambique, Ghana, and Algeria. So, did the war stop? Whether Pele stopped the war, ushered a ceasefire, or showed up to make money is none of my business. Those silly exercises of headbutting each other are worthless. The fact remains that the government and the independent Republic of Biafra accepted a ceasefire to allow his team, Santos, to play two exhibition matches against local teams. For 72 hours, football was more important than war. Again, this notion goes to the point I always make that, in a chaotic world, sports becomes a unique and vital connective tissue that brings people together across and within societies.

His legacy

Before his retirement in 1977, Pele had amassed a series of seemingly unbreakable records. He had racked up 1,283 goals in 1,363 matches, making him the top scorer in Brazilian national team history and FIFA history. Just as impressively, he managed to pull off 92 hat-tricks. He also set a record for most FIFA World Cup wins for an individual, with three medals to his name. We should also not overlook his early years, though. The youthful Pele burned bright, becoming the youngest person to score a hat-trick and the youngest player to score in a World Cup final match. Retirement saw Pele go on to campaign for a variety of causes, including poverty reduction, anti-corruption movements, and environmental protection. He also received an honorary knighthood, served as the Minister of Sport in Brazil, and assumed the role of a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador. Of course, he never stopped promoting the game worldwide, including FIFA events and Olympic ceremonies. Perhaps most memorable of all, he popularized the phrase the beautiful game as a shorthand for the game he loved so much.

Generations of enthusiasts have imagined themselves playing with the grace and beauty of The Black Pearl. He could strike the ball with astonishing accuracy or flick it off to a teammate through a thick web of defenders. His iconic goal-scoring bicycle kick in Belgium in 1968 sent young players from all over rushing outside for hours of painful practice. What amazed his fellow players was his uncanny ability to work his way out of almost any situation with sheer skill. And for those who have wondered about the origin of his name Pele, the explanation proves illusory. Some have claimed that it came from Pele’s poor pronunciation of the name of a goalie he admired named Bile. According to this version of events, his teammates half-mockingly gave him the name Pele, which he could not shake off. Pele never gave a definitive account of how he got the name. He claimed he never cared for it much. So, when looking at the superstar’s life, the magic is not in tiny biographical details or trivia but in Pele’s legacy on the field.

As impressive as his achievements were with the Brazil national team and Santos, if he had not existed, that country and club would still have won many titles, played great football, and produced great players. But in the world of soccer, Pele’s arrival and legacy transformed the game forever, lighting the spark that has driven five decades of rapid advancement in soccer. Without Pele, the sport in the world could very well be far behind where we see it today. Without Pele, the government and Biafra would never have been able to have a few days of ceasefire and allow people to watch the game they love so much. The man may be gone, but his name and spirit will live on in the sport forever.

While today the tributes flow, it will not be long before Pele’s career is sliced and diced into oblivion as first-hand accounts of his greatness diminish and the fascination with anointing one true footballing deity consumes the game. What is certain is that Pele invented the sport, creating the idea of an individual global sports superstar in a way that cannot be replicated now. Forget the giant cakes, the solid silver headgear, and the urge to sweep this icon aside. That part of him, the man Pele, is a gift to all of us. It will remain untouchable.

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.