Analysis | Pelé Was The Most Important Soccer Player Of All Time

Analysis | Pelé Was The Most Important Soccer Player Of All Time

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The debate over whether Pelé, who died on Thursday at 82, was the greatest soccer player ever will never be settled. (For what it’s worth, I think that title belongs to Leo Messi.) But there can be no question that he was the most important player in the history of the world’s most popular sport.

Modern soccer — a spectacle with billions of fans that generates hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues — would not be possible but for Pelé. As the first truly international sporting superstar, he made the game accessible to a global audience. In turn, this brought soccer to the attention of advertisers and sponsors who craved the attention of that audience.  

And the fact that Pelé was a person of color was vital to his appeal — and to the rub-off effect it would have on soccer.

When he first emerged on the world stage, at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the sport was still predominantly the preserve of white men. The five previous editions of the tournament had been won by Italy, Uruguay and West Germany. Brazil’s run to the final in 1950 was a harbinger of change to come, but it was with the arrival of the 17-year-old Pelé two tournaments later that brought together the perfect amalgam of talent, charisma and success needed to shatter the racial divide.

Here, suddenly, was a player with whom non-White audiences could reflexively identify. While European spectators swooned over his sporting prowess, little boys and girls playing in the streets and fields of Asia and Africa saw themselves in him. It helped, too, that he came from the wrong side of the tracks in the municipality of Bauru, in Brazil’s São Paulo state.

In this, Pelé preceded by a few years the boxer Muhammad Ali, the next sportsperson of color to become a global icon. In the 1960s, it was hard to know which of them had the most famous face on the planet. I suspect it was the Brazilian. 

Inevitably, he was dubbed the “Black Pearl” by contemporary (mostly white) sportswriters. If this gave off a whiff of superciliousness, it mattered not a jot to the legions of the pigmented, whose hearts raced with the excitement of watching one of their own shine on the pitch. The Brazilian national team and Santos, the club for which he competed professionally, were invited to play all over the world, and stadiums were filled to bursting point with people who came to see O Rei, “the King.”  

The clamor only grew louder when, with Pelé as talisman and top scorer, Brazil went on to dominate world soccer for over a decade, winning the World Cup in 1962 and 1970. This coincided with the spread of television in much of the globe, bringing the star that much closer to his fans.

Riding on Pelé’s appeal, the market for soccer expanded rapidly, making the sport — and especially its quadrennial contest — the delight of advertisers as much as audiences. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, raked in the revenues: a record $7.5 billion from last month’s World Cup, hosted by Qatar.

Late in his playing career, Pelé brought what the rest of the world called football to its final frontier: the US. His three-year stint in the mid-1970s with the New York Cosmos introduced Americans to the sport. Ten million people tuned in to watch the live broadcast of his debut match, an unprecedented audience for a soccer game. 

The first experiment with a professional league in the US would not long outlast Pelé’s 1977 retirement, but the second attempt, Major League Soccer, has put down roots. He seemed to take great joy from the US hosting the World Cup in 1994 — and the fact that it was won by Brazil, for the first time since his 1970 triumph.

RIP Edson Arantes do Nascimento. With your feet and your star-power, you enriched soccer and inspired the world.

Rest in Peace, #Pele #brazil #soccer #football #worldcup #greatestofalltime #sports #orei #rip #news #breakingnews #fyp #foryou #foryoupage

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Soccer Is the Future of Sports in America: Conor Sen

• Messi May Not Be Soccer’s GOAT for Long: Bobby Ghosh

• The World Cup’s Biggest Winner May Be Kansas City: Conor Sen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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