Pele and the Art of Being Pele

Where lies the line between hero and savior? Underneath this man's feet.

Pele infographic

IT'S A TOUCH past 8 o'clock on an overcast April morning in Santos, Brazil. The man they call the King won't be here for another four hours. He doesn't do mornings. But inside the Santos Football Club museum his talents helped fill, a desperate intensity settles in. An elderly woman with chubby cheeks and a red-bristled broom follows anyone who enters, hunting for dirt. Two men carrying a white leather couch ponder the perfect VIP-room placement. A trio of chefs artfully prepare plates of sushi and fresh fruit.

Everything has to be perfect. A day earlier, the adjacent gym reeked of sweaty socks. Today it smells like fresh lilacs. Pristine white drapes cover the gym walls. Purple spotlights dance on the ceiling. And soothing Brazilian music fills the air. Outside, two women in Creamsicle-colored jumpsuits sweep and pick up trash.

Pele infographic

"Make sure you do it right," one woman says to the other. "Pele is coming."

It's always this way before the King arrives. Tempers grow short, security guards arrive large. Edson Arantes do Nascimento hasn't kicked a soccer ball professionally in 37 years. He hasn't done much of anything in retirement besides smile, shake hands, sign autographs and pitch products. He's evolved into a professional celebrity. A walking billboard. At 73, he is still one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, his mere presence the defining characteristic of anywhere he goes. And this summer, with the World Cup returning to Brazil for the first time since he transformed the country into a soccer mecca, his celebrity is magnified.

"He was born for this," Brazilian columnist Juca Kfouri says. "He was made to be an idol."

Today is another appearance, another sit-down interview. A rinse-wash-repeat type of day Pele has performed a million times before. Only this time the interview is meant to be with me. It's the culmination of five days trailing Pele on two continents, trying to gain a sliver of insight into the man behind the legend. I've seen people cry when they meet him. I've seen people yell that he's a fraud. But everywhere, he's treated like a god. He thrives on the pulse of this love affair.

The day was supposed to include only the interview. But when the Santos Football Club heard Pele was in town, it scheduled a news conference to announce a new partnership with UNICEF. Now, thanks to Pele's participation, 150 people are expected for an announcement that otherwise would have been all but ignored. There are current players, former players, the mayor and media from all over the state of São Paulo. But truthfully, his participation is a tease. When the news conference begins, Pele is on autopilot. He smiles. He waves. He talks about how great it is that Santos and UNICEF are going to help local children. Then he leaves. Four left-tackle-sized bodyguards escort him back to the museum, where an interview chair awaits.

"Hello," he says, extending his hand. "I'm Pele."

THREE WEEKS EARLIER, in a sterile hallway tucked into the back of a New York City bookstore, Pele found himself trapped. He'd spent the past two hours hawking his new autobiography, Why Soccer Matters, in another smile, sign and shake affair. Most of those in line -- young and old, male and female, white, black, Hispanic and Asian -- had purchased the maximum four books in hopes of extending their time with the star. Standing at the front were two brothers who had waited 10 hours. When they finally met Pele, their hands began to shake. Tears fell from their faces. Afterward, they embraced. "We did it," one said. Also in line was a blind boy from Staten Island who had never even seen Pele dance on the pitch yet still wanted to shake the man's hand. A Wall Street stockbroker removed his coat and tie and then unbuttoned his shirt to reveal the canary yellow Brazil jersey he'd been hiding all day.

"I thought the biggest circus I would ever see was the Kardashian sisters," said a publicist from the book publisher Penguin. "This blows that out of the water."

Everyone there had the same goal -- to meet the man who for 20 years defied the logic of what a human could do with a ball on his feet. Pele was a laugh-out-loud talent whose inventiveness resulted in the absurd. Meeting him isn't about a name on a piece of paper or a selfie to share with friends. It's about one of the most famous human beings in the world taking a few seconds to share his life with theirs. This is all Pele has known since 1958, when as a 17-year-old he helped Brazil win its first of a record five World Cups. That's why he made eye contact with everyone who stepped to the signing table. That's why he smiled and offered his hand. And that's why he posed for pictures, even when his handlers were frantically telling him there wasn't time.

"He's keenly aware how Pele makes people happy," says his daughter Kely Nascimento-DeLuca, one of seven children. "He believes this is what he is here to do."

On this day, though, there wasn't enough time. He signed for two hours but then needed to leave. Another appointment awaited. Yet there were close to 150 people still in line. They'd waited, at minimum, five hours. And they were not happy. Pele's people blamed the store. They had sold all 900 of the books they had on hand, a seemingly impossible number for anyone to sign in two hours. "They had no idea what they were getting into," one Pele rep insisted. Store management pointed the finger at Pele and his people, insisting that if he hadn't shown up 90 minutes late, he would have had time to finish. "I just don't agree with how they're handling this," a store manager said. Tensions rose. The behind-the-scenes back-and-forth got testy. But Pele didn't even seem to notice. Until he was told to stop, he just kept signing and smiling, oblivious to the chaos around him.

When he was finally pulled from the table, Pele and his people huddled in a closed-off hallway, waiting for word that the path to his car had been cleared. When word came, the group surrounded Pele and began to make its move. Two strides in, a store security guard who'd been with Pele for much of the night asked for a photo.

"NO!" one of Pele's reps yelled. "We have to go! NOW!"

Pele lifted his hand. Everyone stopped. He walked over to the woman, put his arm around her. She handed her phone to a friend. Click. The woman then realized her phone was set to video, not photo. "We do it again," Pele said. His entourage groaned. Another security guard shook his head. Pele didn't care. He and the woman smiled again. "1, 2, 3 ... SEXY!" Pele said. Everyone laughed. The push to the car resumed. On the street, the fans were four and five deep, lunging at Pele as he walked by, his hand waving like a politician grasping for votes. Back upstairs, the security guard was almost out of breath. As she looked at her camera, she raised her hand to her chest. "I can't believe it," she said.


Pele's locker is still locked and kept for him in the dressing room at Vila Belmiro Stadium. Luiz Maximiano

A WEEK LATER, a packed auditorium on the campus of Hofstra University waited. Fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes. An hour. The university was awarding Pele an honorary degree. And he was late for the ceremony. The school president was apparently less than thrilled. But, as Pele once told his manager Paul Kelmsley when they were late for a meeting at a Spanish bank, "There are millions of banks. There is only one Pele."

The extra hour was excruciating for Sara Campolina, a senior on the Hofstra volleyball team and a native Brazilian. Campolina and her 60-year-old father had combed over every word of the speech she would give in front of her idol. Now she waited, knowing the double doors next to her would open any minute and Pele would walk through.

Pele: Follow The Bouncing Ball

A photographic look at the life of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele. Popperfoto/Getty Images

It's the dream of every Brazilian to meet Pele, she explained -- which is surely true. But retirement has complicated the image of a man who could do no wrong on the pitch. There are those who say the charm is a fraud, that Pele's motivation is always his next payday. There are others who were done with him in the 1990s when he fought the paternity claims of a woman who, through DNA testing, eventually proved she was his daughter before writing a book called The Daughter the King Did Not Want. And now has come perhaps the biggest challenge to his off-pitch reputation: Pele's position at the epicenter of criticism over billions spent on World Cup preparations in Brazil that could have been used elsewhere in this complicated country.

The boy who grew up in poverty is now a man of the establishment. In this World Cup year, Kelmsley estimates the Pele brand will earn more than $25 million. In addition to Why Soccer Matters, there's Pele 1283, a $2,000, 500-page autographed monstrosity of a coffee-table book with silk, leather and clamshell binding. A $20,000 watch. A motion picture of his life due out next year. A Pele app. And now you can buy diamonds made from carbon taken out of Pele's hair -- one for each of the 1,283 goals he scored in his career.

"It's difficult for foreign people to understand, but if you go with Pele on the street, everybody will want an autograph and take pictures and hug him," Kfouri says. "But a lot of people who do this will then say, 'I took an autograph from that son of a bitch.' Everyone believes he's the best soccer player ever. But now some think he's not a good citizen."

And so it is that on this April morning in Santos, the morning of our Pele interview, we have devised a crowdsourcing group of sorts: To better gauge Pele's complex place in Brazil, we invite five random people off the street outside the Santos stadium, Vila Belmiro, to ask a question of "a famous Brazilian athlete." We escort them into a waiting room in the Memorial das Conquistas museum. They have no idea the man they're about to meet is Pele. And in the end, age, sex, background -- none of it matters. Their reactions are nearly identical. When the door swings open and Pele turns around, they freeze. Most of them can't even form a question.

Venceslau Carvalho Jr., 59, lives in a poor part of nearby Guaruja, the same town where Pele has a beachfront home. As he lingers in an adjacent room, waiting to ask his question, he is excited just to see Pele's 43-year-old son, Edinho, in the waiting room. "That's the son of Pele," he says, marveling. When he turns the corner and sees Pele, he almost falls to his knees. He can't speak. He's told to ask Pele a question. He can't. Tears begin to fall from his face. Pele opens his arms. He gives the man a hug.

Electrician Guilherme Jerson, 50, has just picked up his race packet for an upcoming 8K race. He needs to be reminded too: Ask a question. But he too is frozen. "You like to run?" Pele asks, alleviating the awkwardness. Jerson nods. After Pele signs his shirt, Jerson turns to leave. His wife is waiting outside. She wants to know what all the fuss was about. "Well, who was it?" she asks. "Pele!" he eagerly tells her. The woman rolls her eyes. She shakes her head. "She hates him," Jerson explains. "She thinks he's not a good person." Jerson is asked what he thinks about Pele. "He is a soccer genius," he says.

And that, of course, is the origin of all this love. During Campolina's speech at Hofstra, she said nothing about the tension back in her homeland. Instead, she shared the tale of the time she told a friend that Pele was her godfather. Everyone laughed. When it was Pele's turn to speak, he talked of how he hated the name Pele as a boy and was once suspended after fighting a group of kids who refused to call him Edson. Yet again, everyone laughed. After the ceremony, Pele was whisked away to a private room where a table of World Cup posters awaited his signature. "To sign this?" he asked. He was told it could wait. There's plenty of time. Relax. But he can't. "I have nothing to do," he said. "I sign now." As he signed, Pele spotted two boys outside, maybe 10 years old, waiting for him. He sent his manager outside with an autographed Brazil jersey and a soccer ball. Their jaws fell. The problems of Brazil couldn't have seemed further away.


Mr. Didi, Pele's first and only barber, covers his Santos, Brazil shop in Pele memorabilia. Luiz Maximiano

IN AN UNASSUMING storefront across the street from Vila Belmiro rests a 75-year-old man who has witnessed the transformation from Edson to Pele as closely as anyone. His name is Didi. And most every 15 days for the past 57 years, he has stood behind Pele with a set of shears and shaped the hair that has been photographed around the world. On this day, Didi is slumped over in his barber's chair sleeping. The door is open. A light rain falls outside. Business is slow. The walls are covered with pictures, posters and autographs from his most famous client. A bright red canopy hangs above the door. It reads cabeleireiro do pele (barber for Pele).

Didi is a quiet, unassuming man of few words. Or perhaps today he's just tired. It isn't that he's keeping secrets; it's just that, despite all their years together, there's not much to offer. Pele, of course, is his most important client. He doesn't want to say anything to upset that. And things are different now than they were early on. They used to talk about family and football, he says. They used to laugh and joke and tease each other. Every 15 days. But now when Didi cuts Pele's hair, they barely speak. There's usually a crowd outside, drawn in by the Mercedes. And someone in the shop talking to Pele. "I don't worry about it," he says. "I know I'm going to see him in another 15 days." Even on the occasions when he's invited to Pele's house for a haircut and the two share lunch, there is always a cloud of chaos around. I ask what he and Pele do together besides haircuts. "It's not like that," he says.

This has long been the message of following the King. You can be around Pele. But that doesn't mean you're ever with him. Even his family knows this. On the day of our interview at Santos, Pele's son Edinho has shown up. Edinho played goalkeeper at Santos and is currently an assistant coach with the club. He still lives in the area. Today he heard that his dad was in town, so he stopped by the stadium to visit. "I hadn't seen him in a while," he explains. And so on this day, surrounded by various VIPs, publicists and handlers, father and son sit on those white leather couches and catch up. The conversation goes on for some 20 minutes before Edinho is gone.

"I realized early in my life he's not mine," Edinho explains later. "We share him with the world. I don't get upset. It's not personal. It's not like you can be abandoned if he was never mine. I feel privileged whatever time I do get."

Before our interview, Pele bends over, picks up a soccer ball and gives it a kiss. "Thanks for everything," he quietly whispers. It's yet another moment that seems too perfect ... too calculated. Four days on two continents have revealed nothing but the smiling, waving, hand-shaking celebrity. He never gets frustrated. He never loses patience. Pele is always on.


Pele jumps over the Portugal goalkeeper in 1963. Popperfoto/Getty Images

As our interview begins, I wonder: What does Pele do when the carousel of commotion stops? Are there days when he is alone? And when it happens, does he sit around and laugh at all the adoration? Does he bask in the glory of all this love? Does he worry about the mounting criticism? Armed with my questions, I chip away.

Asked what he does to get away, Pele smiles. He rubs his hands together. He talks glowingly about how much he loves to cook and fish and roam the fields of his farm, spending time with his horses and pigs and baby goats. He explains that he writes his own music, plays the guitar and loves nothing more than to host dinner parties for close friends. He does it all, he explains. The cooking, the cleaning, the setting of the table. And, of course, the entertainment.

The interview is carefully timed. When the 30 minutes is up, it's over. Afterward, Pele reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cellphone. He wants to show how he gets away. He wants to share a piece of Edson. He begins thumbing through the snapshots on his phone. There are pictures of him, his children, other family and friends. He stops at a shot of himself sitting on a riverbed, proudly posing with a tilapia dangling from the end of his fishing rod.

"It's a St. Peters fish," he says, beaming.

He explains that it's best served deep-fried or baked. Then he begins shuffling through photos again. They fly by in a blur. Pele mugging for the camera with Jackie Chan. "He is my fan," he says, "and I am his fan." Pele, in shorts, sandals and a Red Bull T-shirt, grinning with a huge skillet of shrimp- and clam-filled paella in his hands. "I cook verrry good paella. The best." Now, he says, it's time for the most important photo of all.

"Nothing with the food," he tells me.

He begins shuffling yet again. And then he stops. "See this?" he asks. It's a black-and-white photo of Pele soaring for a header in a 1963 friendly against Portugal. The bottoms of his feet are dangling at the knees of the Portuguese keeper. His head, shoulders and chest climb higher than his opponent's head.

"Look how high Pele used to jump," he says. "Look at the height Pele used to jump. You forgot about that, didn't you? People forget that Pele used to jump this high."

By now a crowd has gathered. He turns the phone to make sure everyone can see. It's as if he's still trying to prove, all these years later, that he was the greatest ever. As if he worries people will forget. As if he's trapped, like a professional wrestler who can't escape his alter ego.

For 56 years, he has never faced the reality of being ignored. The cheers have never stopped. Asked in the interview what it would be like if the adoration all went away, Pele had struggled to answer.

"I don't know," he'd said. "Maybe I think disappointment. Because nobody say hello to me, nobody say I love you. I think it would be very frustrating to me. I never have this experience."

Before long, Pele and his entourage are heading to another car. Yet again, the transition is complicated. Santos employees have lined a stadium walkway hoping for their own moment. Pele poses with one of the women who cleaned the museum before his arrival. He meets the three chefs who made his sushi. Another man rolls up his shorts to reveal a photo of Pele tattooed on his thigh. He begs Pele to sign beneath it in marker so he can have the signature sewn into his skin later that night.

When he reaches the waiting car, Pele stumbles into a 28-year-old woman who is in town with her husband and 10-month-old baby on vacation. They have heard that Pele is at Vila Belmiro today and have waited for six hours, hoping they might catch a glimpse. The woman hands her baby to her husband and jumps into Pele's arms. He gives her a kiss on the cheek, then looks at the husband. "Are you jealous?" he says with a laugh. He then climbs into the backseat of the car. Its windows are tinted to protect the identity of its famous passenger. But as the car pulls away, the window rolls down. A hand emerges. It's Pele. Waving goodbye one last time.

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