This year  marked the 40th anniversary of one Edson Arantes do Nascimento aka Pele, playing on the hallow turf of Villa Park. On February 21st 1972, a crowd of 54,437 saw Villa (then in Division 3) triumph 2-1 in the friendly, a game that made the headlines even before a ball was kicked.
In a period of electricity rationing, Villa had purchased a £5000 generator to power the floodlights (although there was only enough power to get three out of four working), and then there was the matter of Santos haggling for an increased match fee with the threat of withdrawing Pele, if Villa didn’t cough up.
A few years ago, as I went about the day job interviewing film folk at the Cannes Film Festival, the chance to speak to Pele cropped up. Pele was in town promoting ‘Pele Forever’, a documentary film he’d commissioned on his life.
Pele had been to the film festival in the south of France, a couple of times before, most notably for Escape to Victory, starring a young Sylvester Stallone (and the likes of Ipswich’s John Wark and Russell Osman), but as Pele said, at the time, this was the first time he had come to talk about his life.
To mark the occasion of meeting the footballing legend, I wore my Zico T-shirt (Zico was nicknamed the ‘White Pele’), after all, I was a worshipper of Brazil teams of the 1980’s, especially the 1982 World Cup team from the first World Cup I actually remember.
Pele, the godfather of Brazilian football in the 1960’s and 1970’s, didn’t disappoint when we met poolside in the garden of a small hotel in Cannes. He was warm, relaxed, uncensored, humorous and just oozing a genuine love of football from every pore.
MOMS: There’s been many TV programs and videos of your career, why did you want to do your own one Pele Forever?
Pele: First of all, a lot of shows, they don’t have the patience or the essence of what the movie needs. The script and the edit was made to make a quality movie, rather than just editing any old interviews and footage together. The other reason was the youngsters of today, they haven’t seen Pele.
Yes, I only saw Zico [pointing to my Zico T-shirt].
[Laughs] I think it’s good to have something to show the new generation. 1970 was my last World Cup and the media and TV shows didn’t really take off until later, that’s why it took about five years to produce this film.
Is this the definitive story of Pele?
I teased my director. I said, ‘Listen, we only have 350 to 400 goals, so we have a 1000 goals to find the footage of’! I think the quality of the film, is that I can call it the bible of Pele. It’s not only the goals, it includes all of my family too. I don’t think I will have the opportunity again to get everybody together for any other film.
Why was it important for you to have your family in it and show them all?
The film is about my life, it’s not about football. In my life, what supported me was the base of my family. This was the most important thing in my life, was the base of my family. First god, then my family. If you’re going to leave something for the future generation, you must deliver the truth. There was a little problem with a certain family matter. After my first marriage, when I got divorced, five or six years later appeared a 28-year-old girl, saying she was my daughter.
You didn’t know she existed?
No. When she appeared, I discussed if we should put it in the film. It was a little complicated [laughs], but I think we did the right thing.
But she’s your daughter, definitely?
At the time she was born, I didn’t know her or when she appeared later, I didn’t know. Now I know. The director was worried to show it or not. I said, ‘No, it’s my life, I think it’s good to show the truth’. There’s a lot of messages for younger people. You see me at school, in the army…people used to say, ‘Oh, Pele, he never went to the army’ – but I was there!’ A lot of women went to the film to bring their children or to go with their partners, they thought it would be about football, but liked it because it was about a real person.
With this daughter have you become close with her?
Yeah, now we’ve become friends. She comes to my house, she knew my mother. I had a second marriage and I had two children, I have twins.
Was it easy for you to accept her, it must have been a big surprise?
It was complicated. When she first came to talk to my mother and brother, they told me, after they met her, ‘Her face looks like yours!’ [laughs]
So, if she was 28, this must have been when your first marriage broke down?
Do you remember her mother?
No…that’s the problem. I think I met her once!
But you’re a very famous man, why leave so much time to get in touch?
Yes, I don’t understand why she waited so long.
How many children do you have in total now?
From two marriages – six, and now with Flavia, seven.
Have you had any problems with the fame of being Pele?
Everything that happened in my life, I never had a problem with. I have a lot of famous friends, movie stars and known big players, they have problems because they are no prepared for that. First they want to be famous and well-known, but after they become well-known, they want to disappear, because for me personally when I was 15 and playing for Santos, it remained the same life, playing for the same team for many years [Pele was at Santos for 18 years between 1956 and 1974], which isn’t like now.
You must be happy to a certain extent to have played when you did? For example, when Beckham was brought for Real Madrid, there was some suggestion he was signed for business reasons to make money from merchandise and shirt sales.
It’s different. It depends on the personality of the player. Some players let people use them, while others don’t. It also depends on the time. In my time, it was a little different. When I’ve travelled with Ronaldo, Cafu or Roberto Carlos, I used to tease them and say, ‘Listen, I played ten-years to get to where you get in one year!’ In that time you’d play all around the world for Santos and for Brazil, then you would get well-known after two World Cups and after ten years Now a guy scores one goal and he’s known all over the world in one game! It’s a big difference.
If you were playing now, which team would you be playing for? Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United would be trying to buy you…
It was the same then. I was ok at Santos, I had no idea to leave. I had proposals to go to Italy and to go to Real Madrid, a lot of players at that time did come to Europe.
Any offers from England?
Manchester United, but I was ok at Santos.
The money was ok?
I got good money at Santos, of course, now it would be better. This was a different time. For example, when I went to New York Cosmos in 1975, I stopped playing in Brazil. At the same time, I got approached to come to Europe. But to come to Europe would be the same, in the United States it was different; there it was to promote football, the season there was just five-six months and I’d get eight million dollars.
At the time, that was huge…
Yes, at the time that was the highest payment. I was retired already.
But soccer, as they call it there, hasn’t gripped the nation, even to this day..
For kids from 7-to-20, the best sport is soccer, but when you get to pro level, then there’s a problem with the competition of American football, baseball and basket ball. For woman, it’s different, the American girls were twice champions of the world, they get gold medals at the Olympics. In Brazil we would say, my father used to be great footballer or my father used to be a world champion footballer’. I used to joke, in America they say, ‘my mother was a great player, my mother was a world champion!’
Isn’t the woman’s game as good a standard in Brazil?
They are ok, but not as professional as in Europe or in America, or even Canada. I used to train the girls in New York. A lot of the colleges there had good pitches and training facilities. They also have soccer camps, more so than Brazil. Internationally, FIFA have recently given it attention and take the woman’s game very seriously.
Can England win the World Cup again?
In football, you always get surprises! One year, Argentina and France were the best teams but didn’t get through the groups. Holland, they always have a good team, but when they get to the finals, I don’t know what happens. In 2002, Germany were a poor team, but they still got into the final against Brazil.
England should have knocked Brazil out that year in the quarters after being 1-0 up…
Yep, even Brazil need luck, and it was luck why they beat England in 2002. England would have gone to the final.
What do you think about video evidence and goal-line technology?
Having worked with FIFA we have obviously discussed it a lot. I was in favour if they wanted to try the chip in the ball. I think that is ok. But to use the TV and video replays in the game, you cannot stop the game and say, let’s see the TV, then go back. You can’t do that.
But when there’s an incident, the game stops anyway, while people are arguing for a few minutes!
Well, for example, England vs Germany , even until today, Beckenbauer and Bobby Charlton, they talk about this [laughing]. No seriously. When we have a meeting, they always start! I voted to have another referee behind the goal, because when there is a long pass from midfield, how can a referee then see what happens?
How do you find working with FIFA? Is there a lot of bureaucracy?
Very slow. For 18 years, I’ve fought for one change in the rules. Everyone wants to see goals or an open game, but when a forward breaks from the midfield and beats three or four players, and the last defender fouls him, outside the penalty box, there’s a free kick, but when they make a wall everything is against that player who has just beaten three or four players. I said this is not fair, we must change this. If one player makes the foul, maybe just have one player in the wall. Because of the unfairness, I fight for it.
Yes, still, because they didn’t change it. They’ve made changes, but not this one. It’s very hard for them to accept change, but I keep trying.
Listen to the Pele interview and the backstory below
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