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!

====

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.

Diego Maradona, The Golden One, and Africa

Diego Armando Maradona with the World Cup in 1986

As a kid growing up on the African continent, football is everything… For many it is almost a religion! Which kid has not felt or touched a football? Which one has not been in awe of a football game? My two best football players of all times are Pelé and Maradona. Now Maradona has changed dimensions. I loved Maradona because he was just pure genius, and he had insane dribbling skills. He entered the annals of history for his impressive talent and charisma, for the famous “La Mano de Dios” in 1986, and more importantly for his dribbling from the 60 m line past 5 players to score the goal which was voted “Goal of the Century” by FIFA.com voters in 2002. He possessed an amazing ability, dexterity, and passion for the game on the field. I have viewed countless footings of him as he raised the cup in 1986, just as I watched as he cried for the second place in 1990. Learning to play football meant that you had to watch the maestro, the great Maradona. I have loved every play of this man. The man was a pure genius, an explosion of talent, a force of nature… no wonder that he was nicknamed “El Pibe de Oro” (the golden boy) as a young boy. Maradona was truly a golden boyHe has inspired so many. We all loved to wear the number 10 of Maradona, but very few have been found worthy of it. Just the other day, I found a small statue effigy of Maradona on my colleague’s table… yes So long El Pibe, you have touched all our hearts forever.

Below I share the words of a few famous African players; I have added words by my other all-time player, Pelé, at the end. Cameroon played against Argentina in 1990 and defeated Maradona’s Albiceleste in the opening game, and then went on to be the first African team to advance all the way to the quaterfinals in FIFA World Cup history, so this is special.

Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast said, “RIP Diego Armando Maradona, my first ever football shirt, the man behind my love for football.”

Roger Milla, the great Cameroonian player, a contemporary of Maradona, said, “My great friend Diego Maradona … Rest In Peace LEGEND.

Diego Maradona lifting the World Cup for Argentina, 1986

We have lost a legend and an icon,” former Liberia international and 1995 Ballon d’Or winner and now president of Liberia, George Weah tweeted. He added, “… His extraordinary story as a kid who unshackled himself from the yoke of poverty and used his mastery of football to bring joy, inspired millions. May his soul rest in perpetual peace.”

Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, who like Maradona starred for Barcelona, also reserved special praise for the football icon. “Maradona will always be with us. He was the idol for a whole generation, and for future generations, for what he did in football. He was from another planet. Diego, you’re god, you’ll always be alive in our hearts,” the former Cameroon international said as quoted by AS.

The other legend, the Brazilian Pelé, had this to say, “I’ve lost a great friend and the world has lost a legend. One day, I hope we can play ball together in the sky.