SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

The good life of Edson Arantes do Nascimento began inauspiciously enough, in a small backwoods town called Tres Corac�es. Pel�'s father, Jo�o Ramos do Nascimento, was an undistinguished soccer player with the nickname Dondinho. (All Brazilian players are known exclusively by nicknames, some meaningful and others obscure; Pel� himself does not remember how he got his or what it means.) When Pel� was 5, Dondinho was promoted to a slightly higher-class team in Bauru and moved there with his wife Celeste and their three children.

Pel� soon established himself as a standout in neighborhood soccer games, and something less in the neighborhood school. He made bad grades, got into a series of disputes and left in fourth grade by mutual agreement with a truant officer whose grim visage he still remembers vividly. His mind free of scholastic details, he devoted all his energies to playing games. "Football was the only career I ever thought of," he said. "I became a cobbler's apprentice, but I never really thought I'd stick to it. I wanted to follow my father's path. I was convinced he was the best player who ever lived but that he never got a chance to prove it."

Pel� got his own chance from a friend of his father, former S�o Paulo Player Waldemar de Brito. De Brito was tall and lean, with a deep, commanding voice that scared Pel� a little and drove the boy to work hard at his training. De Brito found his prot�g� when Pel� was only 11 and helped him become a top Bauru player by the time he was 14. The following year, with no more worlds to conquer in the hinterlands, De Brito took Pel� to S�o Paulo to take a shot at the major leagues.

The S�o Paulo teams were not exactly waiting with open arms. Reputations made in Bauru are scorned in the richer and prouder cities near the Brazilian coast. "I was very naive," said Pel�, "but I really thought I could make some team." Many of the teams he visited were less naive but were less impressed with his ability. They were also, as they have since found out over and over, very wrong. They rejected Pel�, and De Brito turned to the team in the seacoast city of Santos. Luiz Alonso Perez, the coach, who is called Lula, agreed to look at Pel�. After one practice session and an argument with reluctant club officials, Lula hired him on a trial basis.

Pel�'s self-confidence, badly shaken in S�o Paulo, was slow to return to him in Santos. "I felt as if I was lost," he said. "I was only 15 and suddenly I had to live with strange people in a strange place. I was scared of failing, but even more I was scared of the dark." After two months he was still a little scared of the dark dormitory where the team lived and of the city that seemed so large and impersonal to him. But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was not going to fail on the field. He graduated from the junior team to the reserves of the Santos first team, with a salary hike from $75 to about $600 a month. Club officials lost their skepticism and began to lavish praise on him; they voluntarily paid a $1,000 bonus to De Brito, who went home to Bauru with his judgment rewarded and his place secure in the legends that were about to spring up around Pel�.

"My first real chance," recalled Pel�, "came when four of us were loaned by Santos to the Vasco da Gama team in Rio, when they were shorthanded for a tournament. We won and I scored some goals. When I got back to Santos everyone was saying I was great, and I was put on our-first team. But I still wasn't sure I had made it. I was only 16 and I needed my coach to keep teaching me and giving me confidence."

Lula, the coach, is a large, phlegmatic man with a sleepy, everything's-under-control smile that he maintains through all but the most frenzied moments of a game. He has coached Santos for 15 years, an unheard-of tenure in a precarious business. He produced winning teams before Pel� arrived and will probably produce them after Pel� is gone. However, Lula will always be known primarily as the man who coached Pel�. He accepts this fact—and his handsome salary—and cheerfully submits to the routine questions that have sustained Brazilian fan magazines for eight years: What was Pel�'s greatest moment? "The 1962 game against Benfica in Lisbon, when we won our first World Cup for Clubs [as distinguished from [tie quadrennial World Cup for all-star teams from each country]. Pel� led us to our best game ever."

What was Pel� like at first? "Just an errand boy for the older players. He would buy soda for them, things like that. Then, before they knew it, they were looking up to him."

And, the unnecessary question at the end of each interview: Is Pel� the greatest player you've ever coached? Lula smiles, pauses for dramatic effect and says crisply, "Pel� is the greatest player anyone has ever coached."

Pel� began to show this to the world when he was 17, by leading Brazil to victory in the 1958 World Cup matches in Stockholm. He was praised in every soccer-playing nation, toasted in champagne by Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek and pronounced, for the first time, the king of soccer in Brazil. "I still think that World Cup was my biggest thrill," he said, "because I was so young. I wasn't prepared for it psychologically."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5