For once, he looks close to his age: 53 going on immortal. Edson Arantes do Nascimento—Pelé to the world—has been a globe-trotting fool since the advent of 1994, and the symptoms of terminal jet lag are beginning to show around his laughing brown eyes. Yesterday he flew from Japan to New York. He will be in the Big Apple for 26 hours to sign some contracts and to do an interview, then tonight he will fly home to Brazil.
Since January, representing a smorgasbord of multinational companies—including MasterCard, Pizza Hut, Procter & Gamble, Time Warner, Tokyo Gas, Umbro and Pelé Sports & Marketing—Pelé has made appearances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Miami, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Montevideo, Dubai, Rome, Tunisia, Madrid, Paris, Cannes, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. It has been insane. He knows it, and his business managers know it. But with an estimated $30 million in endorsement deals and sponsorships coming his way this year alone, and with only one Pelé, it's a load the man is willing to shoulder. Between trips he snatches a few days at his homes in East Hampton, N.Y., and Santos, Brazil, near São Paulo. And somehow, in the midst of all the madness, this rolling stone found time to gather a boss: Pelé and 34-year-old Assíria Seixas Lemos were married in Recife, Brazil, on April 30, each for the second time.
It was Pelé's dream to have a World Cup in the U.S. Talk about crazy. Even Americans thought he was off his rocker. "I remember in 1977 talking to my friends Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson about holding the World Cup in the United States," Pelé says, rolling those travel-bleary eyes. "Nobody believed it."
The showcase event of the world's most popular sport held in a country where football was a game played with an oblong object, and strikers were people who walked a picket line? Lunacy. But that was Pelé's dream from the time he signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975, pumping temporary life into the North American Soccer League. Ever since, Pelé has been one of the few names—and in most cases the only one—that Americans associate with soccer. As far back as 1983 he lobbied FIFA, the sport's governing body, to grant the U.S., rather than Mexico, the 1986 World Cup, a position that irritated his fellow Brazilians, who remembered the strong support Mexican fans gave Brazil's last World Cup-winning team in 1970, a team led by Pelé himself.
In 1988 that irritation turned to anger when Brazil, Morocco and the U.S. were announced as the three finalists for the coveted 1994 World Cup, and Pelé endorsed the U.S. bid. "A country where millions of people are starving and which has the Third World's largest foreign debt cannot consider the sponsorship of a World Cup with government money," Pelé said of Brazil's aspirations. Latin American columnists called him a stooge for corporate America, but Pelé was un-apologetic. And when the U.S. got the bid he said, "This was a dream come true."
"He lit the fires," says Alan Rothenberg, head of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "Pelé was the single most important person in bringing the World Cup to the U.S.A."
It is almost impossible to overstate the extent of Pelé's influence. He is instantly recognized in any country where soccer is played. A cartoon series, Pelezinho—Little Pelé—is being done in Spain that will be seen around the world. When he visited Biafra in 1968, a two-day truce was declared in a bloody civil war. "In Africa, Pelé's like a god," he says, without bragging. By most assessments he has passed Muhammad Ali as the most recognizable athlete in the world, with Michael Jordan third. And, if you are wondering where Pelé goes from here, he is a spokesman for Japan 2002, the organization attempting to bring the World Cup to that country eight years from now. Pelé, a Roman Catholic, has had audiences with most of the popes since Pius XII. He has been courted by presidents and kings, but it is his common touch that corporate advertisers are drawn to.
"He continues to be the same humble, simple boy who came to the camp for a tryout when he was 14 years old," says Julio Mazzei, Pelé's longtime friend and the former trainer of Santos, Pelé's first professional team. "It's his charisma and being. He's the kind of person who makes people comfortable, that children trust. I've seen it at our soccer camps. Pelé will arrive, and 300 kids will charge across the held and climb all over him, grab onto him, shake his hand. Pelé has that smile that asks you to touch him."
Dismissing the suggestion that he has become an icon for hire, motivated by the huge sums of money he commands as a corporate spokesman, Pelé says, "It is a mission. I could make money without traveling so much. But to bring soccer to the countries where soccer is undeveloped, this is my passion. I want to see soccer all over the world. All people can be part of it. Poor people can play it. Other sports are so expensive for kids. But soccer is easy."
Certainly it was always easy for Pelé, who is so universally hailed as the greatest player in the game's history that one can't even strike up an argument on the subject. The son of a journeyman pro, Pelé learned the game barefoot in the streets of Três Corações (Three Hearts), a town 170 miles northwest of Rio de Janiero, playing with a ball made of rags. When he was about eight the other kids began calling him this strange name: Pelé. He still doesn't know why. The word means nothing in Portuguese, which is the native tongue in Brazil. Pelada is the word for street soccer today, but according to Pelé that was not a word they used when he was a child.