How Brazil turned Pelé into a national treasure to stop him from leaving the country

How Brazil turned Pelé into a national treasure to stop him from leaving the country

EDSON ARANTES DO NASCIMENTO, or Pelé as he is better known, holds a high place in the pantheon of footballing greats. During his career, the man from Três Corações won three World Cups, scored over a thousand goals and helped drive the NASL phenomena in the United States into overdrive.

Countless biographies, interviews and articles have centred on Pelé, but few have explored the role he played in Brazilian politics while still a young man at Santos in the early 1960s. During a time of political turmoil, Pelé was banned from leaving his club for pastures new. It was a rash decision that effectively decided the fate of his career.

When O Rei made his début for Santos in 1956, Brazilian politics was in a state of flux. Juscelino Kubitschek had just replaced Getúlio Vargas as president and was promising to completely reform the entire political system. Vargas, himself a former dictator of Brazil, had committed suicide whilst in office amid rumblings of discontent, and his time as president from 1951 to 1954 had created an intense chasm in Brazilian politics with opposition parties, military officers and media outlets all calling for significant change. Morale was at an all-time low.

Kubitschek came into office off the back of bold election promises that he would provide Brazil “50 years of progress in five”. Juscelino was unsurprisingly known for his optimism. Luckily he was justified in his beliefs. During his five-year tenure, he helped to stabilise Brazil’s political scene, revamp the economy, and ensure an equitable standard of living for the average Brazilian worker. In fact, by the end of his presidency, industrial production had grown by 80 percent. Unfortunately for Juscelino, inflation had also grown by 43 percent, a fact that his critics were never shy about publicising.

Despite the progressive changes Juscelino brought to Brazil, he was constantly and unfairly singled out as being corrupt. Both domestic and foreign media wrote about the vast fortune of the Brazilian president, implying that Juscelino was somehow obtaining riches clandestinely. Whilst such allegations were unfounded, they did damage his reputation amongst the local populace.

Jânio Quadros, the man who succeeded Juscelino as president in 1961, had run for office claiming that he would “sweep the corruption out of the country”. It was a thinly veiled swipe at Juscelino but one that won Quadros the election. Once in office, he quickly began to lay the blame for Brazil’s high rate of inflation at his predecessor.

Initially blaming the country’s woes on the last president worked with the electorate, but Quadros soon found himself isolated politically. Decisions to outlaw gambling and bikinis coupled with the establishment of relations with the USSR and Cuba soon saw him become an object of ridicule. Quadros’s decision to open relations with communist states also resulted in him losing the support of the UDN in congress, leaving him with little political power.

Whilst Brazilian politics had become a quagmire in the 1950s and 60s, on the pitch O Seleção were experiencing a golden period, with Pelé leading the line. Brazil’s World Cup win in 1958 had garnered significant attention both at home and abroad. Domestically, Brazilians were finally able to put the ghost of World Cup 1950 behind them.

Abroad, people were talking about Pelé, then the youngest player in World Cup history, and a devastating goalscorer domestically. By 1960, he had notched over 230 goals in just over 210 games for his club side Santos. It wasn’t long before European clubs began to inquire about the young man’s availability.

Whilst rumours had emerged in Brazilian newspaper sources for many years about European clubs coming in for Pelé, it wasn’t until the early 1960s when things began to intensify. It was during this time that Santos began to receive tempting offers from giants of the European game such as Real Madrid, Juventus, Inter Milan and Manchester United.

In 1961, Inter signalled their intent with a million dollar bid for the Santos striker. Rumours began to emerge around the streets of Vila Belmiro, Santos’s homeland, about Pelé leaving the club. Unsurprisingly, the fans weren’t happy. Santos, however, rejected the deal, much to the relief of their supporters. Nevertheless, fears remained about how long Pelé would remain in Brazil. 

It wasn’t just Santos being targeted, however, as clubs were also approaching Pelé personally. In an interview with FourFourTwo Magazine in 2005, Pelé revealed that Juventus chairman Gianni Agnelli had personally offered Pelé a share in Fiat in an attempt to lure the Brazilian to the Old Lady.

Back in his office in Brasília, Jânio Quadros had gotten wind about the European advances for Pelé. Quadros was aware by now that his public support was negligible at best. After all, a president who banned bikinis in a country rich in beaches was always going to be unpopular; it sounds trivial but it was a highly contentious issue.

Pelé’s departure to Europe had the potential to effectively end Quadros’ presidential tenure. He was more than a footballer to Brazil having contributed to their first ever World Cup, and Quadros knew he couldn’t be known as the man responsible for Pelé’s departure. Fearing for his political future, the president acted quickly, gathering together a coalition of willing partners and pushed through a bill naming Pelé as a national treasure. This was not a token act aimed at massaging the striker’s ego; it was a law that prevented Pelé from being transferred out of the country.

For Santos, it meant that they could hang on to a player who scored goals for fun. For Quadros, it brought him some much needed public support; for Pelé, it meant he was confined to Brazilian football for another decade. When O Seleção won the World Cup again in 1962, Santos could rest assured in the knowledge that they could hang onto Pelé no matter what.

Although Quadros’ tenure as president only lasted seven months, none of his successors ever revised the bill. Why would they? Pelé brought joy to the Brazilian people and could be relied upon to buy some good PR for a failing presidency. Quadros had proven that. In a strange interplay between politics and football, arguably the world’s greatest footballer had been legally confined to his own country.

Nowadays when pressed about why he never left Santos, Pelé is known to smile and respond by saying that leaving the club at the prime of his career never crossed his mind. Would the situation have been different had Quadros acted differently? Sadly that question is one of those great ‘what if’ moments in the long and uncertain history of football.

By Conor Heffernan