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THE MOST FAMOUS ATHLETE IN THE WORLD
Pete Axthelm
October 24, 1966
Almost unknown in the U.S., Edson Arantes do Nascimento—nicknamed Pel�—is the idol of soccer-playing nations and a demigod in Brazil where he earns half a million dollars a year
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October 24, 1966

The Most Famous Athlete In The World

Almost unknown in the U.S., Edson Arantes do Nascimento—nicknamed Pel�—is the idol of soccer-playing nations and a demigod in Brazil where he earns half a million dollars a year

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That isn't always easy. The king of soccer is now surrounded by a self-appointed palace guard, a troupe of officials and hangers-on that acts as a sort of reverse public-relations service. Members of the group keep strangers and well-wishers and other mere mortals at arm's length, except at the soccer stadiums, protecting Pel� by means that often are devious and rude. They have nearly succeeded in presenting a distorted image of Pel� to the world. In his home city of Santos he is universally liked and admired; almost everywhere else he is suspected of being a brooding, temperamental man who wishes only to be left alone. At the recent World Cup matches in England, for example, Pel� weathered some very rough play and two injuries with commendable calm. Still, he was portrayed by The Sunday Times of London as "the sad millionaire...an introverted, remote figure imprisoned in the shell that protects him from the crushing weight of his fame."

Actually, Pel� claims, he has rarely been sad, is not a millionaire and will never be crushed or imprisoned by a game he loves or the people who love him. "I appreciate the crowds around me," he said. "Especially the kids. I know that when I was growing up football was one of the few things I could enjoy. Seeing a top player was always a big thrill. Now I get a thrill myself by having the kids around me. Of course, sometimes the people can get too enthusiastic."

Soccer fans almost always get overenthusiastic. One morning at Caracas airport Pel� and his teammates had to wait four hours inside their plane before the field was sufficiently cleared for them to disembark. In Dakar, Senegal a group showed up at 4 in the morning to mob the bus that took him from his plane to the airport waiting room. In Milan a crowd milled around for hours while Pel� hid behind a large pillar, waiting for a chance to dash to a car. In the Ivory Coast 15,000 Africans lined the road from the airport to the town of Abidjan, cheering wildly as their hero rode past in an open car, holding his hands over his head in triumph. "It was like a parade," marveled Julio Mazzei, the Santos team trainer, "for a president."

The adoring mobs, whatever inconvenience they cause, are the mark of Pel�'s supremacy. Every poll taken since 1958 has declared him the world's premier soccer player, yet in the passionate atmosphere of the sport a few thousand screaming fans can be more reassuring than any poll. "Yes, I would like more privacy, a chance to move around and go places without causing a disturbance," he says. Then he pauses, looking a little annoyed at this breach of the Pel� style, and becomes grateful once again: "But the attention is a compliment. When the crowds stop coming, then it will be time to worry."

At the moment Pel� is far more worried about things that are happening on the playing fields, things he darkly terms "the consequences of my fame." His glory and fortune and bright future can become meaningless when two burly defenders converge on him with the intent to commit mayhem. In the recent World Cup matches the Bulgarian team worked him over brutally, finally crippling him and costing the Brazilians whatever chance they had to win their third straight cup. In a recent New York exhibition game against Milan International he was shadowed by one Gianfanco Bedin, who was clearly assigned to employ any means at his disposal, legal or illegal, to keep Pel� out of scoring range. And even in Brazil, where affection for the game's beauty is supposed to preclude such get-the-star tactics, Pel� finds himself besieged more and more often. "There's always somebody gunning for me," he said. "I know that the players are ordered to do it, and I don't hold it against them so much. They have to do their jobs. But the referees aren't doing theirs. I've been pushed, tripped, kicked—every foul there is. If I tried the same things against someone else, I'd be thrown out of the game. But other players get away with it against me. What makes me most angry is that the public pays to see me play good football, and then the other teams won't let me."

This is the only subject that seems to upset Pel�. The smile was gone as he talked about it, and his frown showed both frustration and a certain amount of understandable fear. He had missed some World Cup games, he had just missed a league game that Santos lost to Campinas and now he was a doubtful starter in other games because of a shoulder injury administered by Milan's Bedin in New York. "Of course, you can get hurt just dribbling around by yourself," he said. "But when everyone is out to stop you, and the referees let them, you have a lot more chance of being injured."

It is not a pleasant thought, this possibility that the most brilliant and lucrative career in the history of soccer might be cut short; it is a thought that has produced a budding persecution complex in Pel�. But, having spoken of it, he stopped, pondered for a moment, then smiled again and changed the subject to another favorite theme.

"You know, when they do things like that to me, it can help the team. I can draw the defense out and pass to other men. When two or three are hanging on me, that leaves two other Santos players open, and they are not fools." He went on about his team and its achievements, which include at least one victory in every state, national and world championship. He looked happily around the room—at Gilmar, the colorful goalie who has joined Pel� on almost every all-star team; at Carlos Alberto, the fiery halfback; at Pepe, the aging star who has been Pel�'s closest friend in Santos; and at Edu, the 17-year-old hailed as Pel�'s eventual successor. Now he was relaxed again, no longer thinking of his own travails as Pel� the king; it was much easier to be Pel� the team player.

Sometimes the two roles conflict. When Queen Elizabeth invited him to a special audience during the World Cup competition, Pel� the star was flattered. But the Brazilian national team was in "concentration," the monastic ritual that precedes every game. Coach Vicente Feola decided that he could not let one player leave while the others stayed, so Pel� the team player turned down the Queen. The incident was widely interpreted as a snub, enhancing Pel�'s reputation as a moody individualist. "That's not true at all," he said. "I was doing what the team wanted. I would never do something like that out of temperament. On the contrary, I feel that, in my position, I have a special responsibility not to be temperamental."

Responsibility is another Pel� theme. Responsibility to his teammates, to the people who pay him, to his trusting fans. Responsibility to the thousands of kids who read Pel� magazines, eat Pel� candy bars, and do not smoke Pel� cigarettes. Pel� does not drink nor smoke, although training rules do not prohibit either habit, and he refuses to endorse any alcohol or tobacco products. On a recent Mexican tour he turned down a $10,000 offer for one beer ad. "It costs to give up such things," he said, "but it's one thing I can do to help the kids live good lives."

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