Pelé in Africa

A Young Pele at Santos FC smiling at the camera (Source: Daniel Edwards, Goal.com)

Football has played an integral part to the lives of many around the globe. The 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup this past November is a testimony to that. The legend Edson Arantes do Nascimento, often known as Pelé, believed by many to be the greatest player that ever lived, passed away at the end of last year. Three-time World Cup winner, Pelé managed to score 757 goals in 831 games throughout his 20 year career although his club Santos claims his tally was closer to one thousand. Pelé was deeply loved in Africa; he was a gifted Black Brazilian footballer, among the first of African heritage to receive such international acclaim, no wonder that in the African independence era, Africans identified with him. His story with Africa was a great love story. To Black Brazilians, he was key in carving out space and recognition for black people in Brazilian football, acclaimed by the masses, without being directly involved in the fight against racism. To Africans and multitudes in the world, he was simply Pelé, the king. Below are excerpts from the BBC article. Enjoy!

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Being one of the very first young black sporting superstars of the television era, Pelé drew the love and affinity of Africans across the continent.

As decolonisation movements swept across Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pelé was invited by newly independent countries to play in prestigious friendlies with his club Santos FC and the Brazilian national team.

In his autobiography, Pelé said that the following decades and subsequent repeated trips to the African continent, “changed not only my view of the world, but also the way the world perceived me“.

The author of the Almanac of FC Santos, Guilherme Nascimento, correctly pointed out that the African trips were “so full of stories that there is no clear boundary between legend and fact“.

His time in Algeria, for instance, was like something out of a film. In 1965, the 24-year-old arrived while film director Gillo Pontecorvo was shooting The Battle of Algiers. As a result, it was perfectly normal to see battle tanks shuttle across Algiers from downtown to the Casbah. Algeria’s football-loving President Ahmed Ben Bella scheduled two friendly matches for the occasion – one in Oran on 15 June, and one in the capital, Algiers, four days later. However, on 17 June, Ben Bella’s own Minister of Defence Houari Boumediene carried out a coup d’etat, deposing the president and cancelling the second match. Some credible journalists and historians believe that Boumediene may have used the commotion around Pele’s arrival as a distraction in order to carry out his coup.

Pele’s trips to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also become shrouded in lore. During both trips, he was apocryphally credited with instilling peace in the country that was hosting him. The Nigerian Civil War raged from 1967-1970, yet when Pele visited in 1969 to play in an exhibition match versus the Nigerian national team, there were claims that a 48-hour ceasefire had been declared. I’m not sure it’s completely true,” Pelé said in his book. But the Nigerians certainly made sure the Biafrans wouldn’t invade Lagos while we were there,” he said, recalling a huge military presence. There was never much of a chance of that happening though, as the Biafran separatists were at least 500km (310 miles) away and being pushed back by the army.

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