As the world says goodbye to Pele…
By Femi Olugbile
As I write this, I am watching the funeral cortege of Edson Arantes do Nascimento wending its way through the streets of Santos. Progress is slow. The casket is sitting on top of a fire truck. It is draped in a Brazilian flag.
The crowd break into spontaneous applause as the body pauses in front of the home of the mother of the deceased, who is alive, but ailing. Family members watch from a balcony.
The scenes are not choreographed. It is a people’s funeral, not a state funeral, although President Lula was at the wake-keeping last night to pay his respects.
The crowd have come to say farewell to an icon of football, and a formally designated national treasure of Brazil.
The emotions aroused in me by Pele’s death are complex. They go beyond the gushing reportage of the female anchor of the television network I am watching, who recalls that Pele was the face of football, and helped to make it a world game. She once interviewed him, she remembers. She forgot to take a photograph with him, to her eternal regret.
The mystique of the man, all over the world, is about the power of the game he himself dubbed ‘The Beautiful Game’, and more besides. Pele won three football World Cups, scoring in each, a feat that is hard to see how anyone may equal.
One of the stories surrounding the legend concerns Nigeria, and it is repeated now as Pele’s body is on its way to its final resting place in a multi-storey cemetery – the tallest cemetery in the world. His father’s body lies on the ninth floor of the cemetery.
The Nigerian story concerns Pele’s visit, with his Santos team, to Lagos, which took place in 1969, during the Nigerian Civil War. It is alleged that Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu Ojukwu called a forty-eight-hour truce in the Civil War so that Nigerian soldiers and Biafran soldiers could watch Pele play football.
A little fact-checking would show that this is no more than a fond myth. There was indeed a buzz all over Lagos when Pele came to town to play against local favourites like Felix Owolabi. But there was no truce between Nigeria and Biafra.
In his life, he was received by Kings and Presidents, and knighted by the Queen of England. In the slums of Sao Paolo, as in the dusty streets of Awka, a child who dribbled nimbly past opposition and scored a brilliant goal would be hail himself, or be hailed, as ‘Pele’. The real Pele was awarded the FIFA Player of the Century, with Maradona, in 2000. And the FIFA World Cup Best Young Player in 1958, when he won his first World Cup with Brazil. He won the French Balloon d’Or seven times between 1958 and 1970. In 1970, the year the whole world was finally able to see his dazzling skills in colour on television, and the year he led the Brazilian team considered the best team ever to victory in the World Cup in Sweden, he won the FIFA World Cup Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament.
But the story of Pele is not just how far he got, but how far he, and his people, had to travel to get there. When he was born, in 1940, Slavery had only been abolished in Brazil for fifty-two years exactly. That means there were many black Brazilians walking the streets who had been born as slaves. A significant part of the population of Brazil then, as now, were black people descended from slaves forcibly taken from Africa, mostly the West Coast of the continent, and many from the area and peoples now known as Nigeria. A version of Yoruba language is one of the widely spoken languages in the country. Yoruba traditional religion, especially the worship of Orisha in several syncretic versions, is common in Brazil.
The Brazil in which Pele grew up was a fun-loving, exciting tourist destination known for Samba and the annual Rio Carnival. But it was also a vicious, racist country where black people were badly used and hugely disadvantaged. There were massive divisions between the mostly white elite who lived in palaces and controlled the power, and the poor, many of them black, who lived in favelas that were havens of crime and drugs.
Surely when President Nelson Mandela was shaking Pele’s hand and honouring him in South Africa, this journey, and not just the football, was what he had in mind. For Pele had by then become the face and national symbol of Brazil, lifting the nation’s stature and burnishing its image all over the world. He went beyond race, and in so doing lifted his race from the pit of hell, without carrying a placard or marching for freedom on the streets.
The difference between Brazil, a country that has elevated Pele, and been promoted by him, in its still-ongoing journey to equity and egalitarianism, and Argentina, another football-loving South American country with horrible racist antecedents which chose a different path, killing off almost all its black population while stealing their music and culture and denying they ever existed, is stark. Argentina’s racism is evident today from the attitudes of its players and citizens, including their behaviour after their triumph in the recent World Cup. It was just as evident in 1996, when major Argentine newspapers described Nwankwo Kanu and his exquisitely brilliant Nigerian team which included J.J. Okocha, as ‘Monkeys’ after the Nigerians beat the Brazilian team, and just before they went on to wallop the Argentine team in the finals to take the Olympic gold medal.
Pele is dead.
As I watch, his body is being taken down from the fire truck, and conveyed into the mortuary, where it will overlook his beloved Santos Stadium.
All the world, perhaps excluding a few Argentines, are celebrating his life.
And so, I say – Long live the King.