Pele the invisible man of this World Cup

Belgium fans hold up Pele masks before the World Cup quarter-final match against Argentina. Picture: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Considering his face is plastered on every other billboard and features in all manner of television adverts, it may seem strange to call Pele ‘the invisible man’.

But where has he been during this World Cup? They call him The King here in Brazil, but his throne has been empty for the last month, with no sign of the man who won three World Cups during an illustrious playing career.

There has been one confirmed sighting, when Pele opened a museum in his honour in Santos.

But apart from that he has been barely seen or heard, which seems strange considering how visible Diego Maradona — perhaps his only equivalent in the pantheon of South American superstars — has been.

So what has happened? Why has Pele gone from being the greatest of all time to a sideshow during what should be his finest hour? The most sensible place to ask is Santos and the Vila Belmira ground where Pele, and later Neymar, made their names.

It is a crumbling relic of a bygone age, a place where you can imagine Pele kneeling to take in the applause of the crowd after his final match for the club, as he did back in 1974.

Remarkably small and tight, the main entrance is guarded by Alemao. It is impossible to miss him. It might be the fact that he owns the bar over the road, or that he struggles to house himself in a small vest. Or it could be that he has six tattoos of the Santos crest running up each arm and another in the centre of his forehead.

Each of those is dedicated to a Sao Paulo state championship victory, with the one on his forehead the result of a rather foolish bet with then-managed Wanderley Luxemburgo that his side would not win the 2006 title.

A smiling, easy-going man, his demeanour changes when talk turns to Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele as he is better known.

“Pele with a ball at his feet is one person,” explains Alemao. “When he starts thinking, that’s another person. People don’t like that person.

“Pele is an excellent footballer. Edson is a bad man.”

But why? Why the separation between Pele the footballer, and Edson the man? To start with, Pele doesn’t fit the complicated image of what Brazil wants its footballers to be.

Brazilians like the imperfect image the world has of their country, and they want the same of their players. Garrincha, a brilliant, troubled genius who died at the age of 49 after a long battle with alcoholism, is a man the public here adore.

Pele, despite the 1281 goals, is not loved in the same way. When he scored his 1000th goal journalists stormed the pitch, demanding a quote. “Let us protect the needy little children,” he said. “For the love of God the Brazilian people can’t forget the children.”

That is not what Brazil wants to hear. They certainly didn’t want to hear Pele embroiled in an argument with Romario (an argument he spectacularly lost when Romario said ‘Pele with his mouth shut is a poet’ and then, as the dispute continued, ‘aside from a poet he is also an imbecile’). But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Pele criticised those protesting against the Confederations Cup last summer. There were millions on the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo urging the government to reconsider the amount being spent on both that tournament and this summer’s World Cup.

But Pele misjudged the mood spectacularly, releasing a YouTube clip in which he urged the Brazilian public to ‘forget the commotion’ and rally behind their team. It was a spectacular own-goal.

Yet not everyone is happy he has been ostracised. Inside Vila Belmiro sits Lima, a 72-year-old with the energy of a much younger man.

He spent 11 years as Pele’s room-mate, and played alongside him in the 1966 World Cup. Having gone into coaching he helped bring Neymar through the Santos youth system.

He feels that Fifa’s decision not to use Pele in an official capacity is a ridiculous own-goal.

“Pele is not just another guy,” he says. “How can a lack of appreciation from Fifa mean that the best player in the world won’t be present at the biggest championship in the world? How come he isn’t at every game? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

It doesn’t make sense to any number of people. But the problem Pele has in part is that Brazil has so many luminaries to choose from. Ronaldo has been omnipresent at this tournament, while Zico and Denilson are both also highlyvisible.

They know how to say the right things to ensure they remain in the public’s affection, something Pele has steadfastly failed to do.

There is also an idea that he is more concerned with personal gain than helping Brazilian football as a whole. He has set up Legends 10, which operates all his commercial dealings and he is now thought to be worth somewhere in the region of €73.5m.

On the flip side, his biggest contribution to Brazilian football is — according to most observers —simply belittling those who have succeeded him with the Selecao.

But his reputation is beyond salvation now.

“The fact he isn’t there shows a lack of knowledge of what this sport is about, especially in this country of football,” says Lima.

But that is a rogue view. Not many would agree with him. For some time to come, Pele is likely to remain an invisible man.

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