Pelé, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, was born in Três Corações, Minas Gerais, Brazil. He was raised in Bauru, São Paulo, Brazil.
Pelé is just about as religious as it gets, and it started from the beginning. He says he came from a “very religious” family. And he doesn’t miss an opportunity to talk about his faith. He’ll talk about how his talent was God-given, how God’s hand was in play on the pitch, and even how his nickname was a gift from the Man Upstairs.
As would be expected of a Brazilian, Pelé is a Roman Catholic. And he’s even had the honor of meeting several Popes, although the reaction has been mixed. When he met Pope Paul VI, the religious leader reportedly said,
Don’t be nervous my son. I am more nervous than you. I have been waiting to meet Pelé personally for a long time.
But then when he met Pope Benedict XVI, the pontiff apparently didn’t even know who he was. But regardless of which Popes know him by name, Pelé’s devotion to God and the church cannot be questioned. As he said,
All my life I thank God.
And with a career like that, who wouldn’t?
Pelé’s political influence goes far beyond the typical celebrity. His status as a megastar athlete, which he has held for many decades, means he’s had audiences with all sorts of powerful political players across the globe. He’s danced the tango with American President Bill Clinton, he’s been knighted by the Queen of England, and he says in 1958, when he met the King of Sweden, it was the first time a picture was ever taken of the royal Swede shaking hands with a black man.
His work on the international stage has included several ambassadorships for the United Nations, including Ambassador for Ecology and the Environemnt, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). But he’s been especially active in his own country’s political scene.
In 1995 he was appointed as Minister of Sports by Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. From his position, he passed the “Pelé Law” which attempted to curb corruption in national football and succeeded in giving players more power over their careers. Corruption is a theme in Brazilian politics, and Pelé is still concerned about how it might turn away potential international investors. But he thinks President Dilma Rousseff is doing a good job to clean things up. In 2012 he said,
She has been in power just under a year, and she has already gotten rid of six ministers. This is the first time in the history of Brazil that so many politicians have been ousted from government for corruption. The fight must continue.
In addition to corruption, Pelé has encountered more than his share of racism throughout his career. And even though he thinks he had a role in improving the image of black people across the globe, these days he downplays the existence of racism in soccer, even saying there is none. He laments the fact that minor incidents are now highly publicized. He said,
Today, because of the cameras, they give more emphasis to [racist behaviour]. It’s a shame. Things that were not too important, today have become very important.
Regardless of Pelé’s view of racism in sports today, it seems clear that today’s black athletes owe a little bit of the progress made in athletic race relations to this Brazilian football god.