Pelé Turns 80: Soccer Icon Continues to Speak Out Against Racism in the Game

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Pelé, one of the greatest soccer players in the history of the game, turns 80 on Oct. 23. The iconic Brazilian is not only known for his impressive sports career— he is the only man to win three World Cups— but is recognized for his work championing for the poor in his home country.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in 1940, Pelé grew up poor and played soccer barefoot with balls made of coconuts or rolled up socks, according to CNN. When he was 14, the soccer prodigy began playing juniors for Sao Paulo’s Baura Athletic Club. Two years later, he signed with the Brazilian club Santos, which he played for the majority of his professional career.

Pelé wasn’t just good at his craft, he performed extraordinarily well for his Brazilian club. According to CNN, he averaged nearly a goal a game, scoring 619 goals in 638 appearances with Santos.

In 1958, then 17-year-old Pelé made his debut at the World Cup, scoring Brazil's sole quarter final-winning goal. He went on to score a hat-trick against France in the semifinals and netted two goals during the finals against Sweden, securing his first World Cup victory.

Pelé would win the World Cup again in 1962 and for a third time in 1970. Following his national victories, Pelé set his sights on the U.S., signing with the New York Cosmos for $1.4 million a year. In 2000, FIFA recognized “The King” as its Player of the Century alongside Argentina’s Diego Maradona.

Pelé Fights For the Poor and Against Racism

But soccer isn’t the only thing the sports icon is known for. The Brazilian has used his star power to call out harmful government policies and to champion for Brazil’s poor. Pelé has also been vocal about the rampant racism that pervades the sport.

Pelé has acknowledged that racism in soccer has not changed since he was a young Black player for Brazil. In a March interview with CNN, Pelé said that he does not believe racism has changed in the sport but he does think the media’s attention on the issue has.

“When we went to play in Europe many times, or playing here against the Argentines, they called us apes, chimpanzees, they called all creoles that. See if there was any scandal. And they already said these things at that time,” the retired soccer star said.

His interview with CNN was not the only time Pelé claimed the media made a bigger deal out of racist incidents in soccer than it should have. After Brazil’s sports tribunal banned club Gremio when fans shouted racist remarks against an opposing player in 2014, Pelé called on Brazilian league players and the media to not over-publicize racist acts.

He said players should follow the example set by player Daniel Alves, who responded to a fan throwing a banana at him by picking it up and eating it. “Nobody talked about it again,” Pelé told ESPN. “It was an act of racism [against Alves]. I think that if Dani had taken the banana and had thrown it back to stands, we would still be talking about it today.”

Pelé continued: “I think we have to fight racism. But prohibition will not come in a public way. There was a time where Santos DC had Dorval, a Black right winger. Pelé was Black. Mengalvio was Black. Coutinho was Black. Santos were a world champions with only Pepe being white. When we had to play in the interior of Brazil, they called us every word possible. Did you ever hear about any news on racism at that time? It was because we didn’t give publicity to this. I think that when we have more publicity on something like this, the more likely it is that it will happen again.”

While Pelé’s answer to acts of racism in soccer is a valid response, it remains true that racism needs to be eradicated from the sport. Statistics released by England’s anti-racism and pro-inclusion group for soccer, Kick It Out, revealed that racist incidents constituted 65% of reports of discrimination during the 2018-2019 season.

In 2019, racism became such a problem in the sport that it was called an “epidemic” by anti-racism advocates, ABC News reported. UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, attempted to address the issue by introducing a new protocol in October 2019 that allows referees to stop a match if racist acts continue after two warnings by the stadium announcer.

Both UEFA and FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body, have reaffirmed their commitment to fight racism in the sport. But announcing their intention to eradicate racism is far different than actually doing it. It remains to be seen what concrete measures will be enacted to tackle this issue and how the voices of iconic soccer star’s like Pelé will be used.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.