Ever wondered why Pelé never left Brazil in his prime? Conor Heffernan gives us a fascinating insight into Brazilian politics’ hold on the country’s star footballer.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pelé to you and me, is perhaps the greatest known name in world soccer. And for good reason too. During the course of a career that spanned over two decades, Pelé won three World Cups, became top goal scorer for club and country and even helped to kick-start the NASL phenomena in the United States.
He is widely credited with scoring the most goals in the history of football and when discussions about the greatest player begin, his name is inevitably mentioned.
So what else can one write about Pelé that people don’t already know? It’s a tough question that leads to an interesting interplay between Brazilian politics and sport in the early 1960s.
By 1960, the young Pelé had already become a household name. Four seasons with Brazilian league side Santos had seen Pelé score over 230 goals in 212 games. Coupled with his phenomenal domestic record, World Cup ’58 in Sweden had introduced the man from Minas Gerais to the outside world.
Becoming the youngest player ever to play in a World Cup, Pelé quickly announced himself with two goals in the final to secure Brazil’s first World Cup. The World Cup victory allowed Brazil to put the shadows of 1950 behind them. For Pelé, it ensured that every top European team worth its salt became interested in him.
Such interest never materialized into a transfer and this begs the question why? Was Pelé loyal to his Santos? Yes, but that hasn’t stopped transfers happening before. Did the European teams not offer enough money? Doubtful. What was it then? What prevented the world’s greatest footballer from moving to Europe? The answer appears to lie in the turbulent world of Brazilian politics.
Pelé’s rise to world stardom sadly coincided with perhaps the greatest period of political instability in 20th century Brazilian politics. From 1946 to 1964 the ‘Second Brazilian Republic’ was marked by political infighting, high inflation and bizarre situations. Following the suicide of then President, and former dictator, Getúlio Vargas in 1954, a new dawn emerged in Brazil with the rise of Juscelino Kubitschek as President.
Juscelino came to office off the back of bold claims that he would provide Brazil “fifty years of progress in five”. Perhaps understandably Juscelino was known for his optimism but arguably Juscelino was justified in his beliefs. During his five-year tenure, he helped to stabilize Brazil’s domestic political scene, revamp the economy and ensure an equitable standard of living for the average Brazilian worker.
In fact by the end of his Presidency, industrial production had grown by 80%. Unfortunately for Juscelino, inflation had also grown by 43%, a fact that his critics were never shy about publicising.
Despite the progressive changes Juscelino brought to Brazil, he was constantly and unfairly singled out as being corrupt. Both domestic and foreign media wrote about the ‘vast’ fortune of the Brazilian President, implying that Juscelino was somehow obtaining riches clandestinely. Whilst such allegations were unfounded, they did damage his reputation amongst the local populace.
Jânio Quadros, the man who succeeded Juscelino as President in 1961 had run for office claiming that he would “sweep the corruption out of the country.” It was a thinly veiled swipe at Juscelino but one that won Quadros the election.
Once in office, Quadros quickly began to lay the blame for Brazil’s high rate of inflation on Juscelino Kubitschek. Initially blaming the country’s woes on the last President worked with the electorate, but soon Quadros found himself isolated politically. Decisions to outlaw gambling and bikinis coupled with the establishment of relations with the USSR and Cuba soon saw Quadros become an object of ridicule. Quadros’s decision to open relations with Communist states saw him lose the support of the UDN in Congress, leaving him with little political power.
By 1961 Pelé was an established, albeit youthful, superstar. Clubs such as Real Madrid, Juventus, Inter Milan and Manchester United were all vying for his signature. Early in 1961, Inter Milan put in a million dollar bid for the Santos man. Rumblings of discontent began to surface around the streets of Vila Belmiro, Santos’s homeland, about Pelé leaving the club. Unsurprisingly fans weren’t happy about the prospect of their club’s best player leaving. When the Milan deal fell through, a sigh of relief descended across Brazil.
Soon offers returned, with Real Madrid and Juventus coming in with handsome deals for Pelé. In an interview with FourFourTwo in 2005, Pelé revealed that Juventus Chairman Giovanni Agnelli even offered Pelé a share in Fiat in return for his signature. It was a tempting offer to say the least.
Back in his office in Brasilia, Jânio Quadros had gotten wind about the European advances for Pelé. Aware that his public support was by this point negligible at best, Quadros knew Pelé’s departure would signal the end of his Presidential tenure. Pelé was more than a footballer to Brazil. He had provided them with their first ever World Cup. He had helped them to forget about the trauma of 1950. He was a national treasure and therein lay the solution.
Quadros’s tenure as president only lasted seven months. Few remember what he did once in office except for one influential policy decision. Fearing that Pelé was about to leave Brazil for pastures new, Quadros got together with the main actors in Brazilian politics and pushed through a law decreeing that Pelé was a ‘national treasure’. Not a national treasure in the sense that everyone loved him but a national treasure in the sense that he couldn’t be transferred out of Brazil.
For Quadros it meant that he wouldn’t be known as the man who lost Pelé and for Santos it meant they could hold onto one of the world’s greatest ever players for another decade and a half. For Pelé it meant he never had to worry about being disloyal to his home-town club.
In a strange interplay between politics and sport, Pelé’s fate had been sealed, not that he seemed to care mind you. Nowadays in interviews, Pelé is adamant that he never thought about leaving Santos during his career. It’s easy not to think about it when the government bans it after all.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena