Nigeria: Adieu Pele, the Goat

In January 1969, the legendary football maestro, Pele whose real name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, travelled to Nigeria in one of his football club’s” Santos” famous globetrotting tours. It was two years into the Nigerian Civil War at the time and both the Nigerian and Biafran sides were immersed in conflict. Pelé and his team mates were in Nigeria to play friendly matches with the Super Eagles, who were then known as the Green Eagles.

Pelé & Co arrived right in the middle of the war, ready to play a match in Lagos on January 26. As soon as they rolled into town, the guns fell silent. Due to the great footballer’s charisma, the warring parties — Nigeria and Biafra — decided to put a 48-hour halt to hostilities so they could watch the friendly match. Santos drew 2-2 with the Super Eagles, with Pelé scoring both goals and receiving a standing ovation from the home fans.

Benin was the next stop for Pelé where the military governor at the time Samuel Ogbemudia decreed a holiday and opened up the bridge that connected Benin with Biafra so that both sides of the divide could witness Santos’ 2-1 victory over Nigeria in front of a crowd of 25,000 spectators. Pelé has since been credited with “stopping the war” with a 2005 article in Time magazine stating that “although diplomats and emissaries had tried in vain for two years to stop the fighting in what was then Africa’s bloodiest civil war, the 1969 arrival in Nigeria of Brazilian soccer legend Pele brought a three-day ceasefire.”

While this is still contentious hitherto, it cannot be denied that Pelé’s spectacular career was filled with logic-defying feats that are unlikely to ever be repeated. No other player can boast three World Cup wins or a thousand goals scored at top level. The Brazilian legend, who died on Thursday 29th December 2022, reached heights to which few of his peers, past or present, could dream of or ever even aspire. He undoubtedly changed the round leather game forever and his legacy will certainly be shared from generation to generation until the end of time.

Born in 1940, he was the elder of two siblings and was named after the American inventor Thomas Edison. He received the nickname “Pelé” during his school days because of his pronunciation of the name of his favorite player, Vasco da Gama’s goalkeeper Bilé, which he misspoke as Pelé. He grew up in poverty earning extra money by working in tea shops. He could not afford a proper football and usually played with a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with string. Hebegan playing for Santos at age 15 and the Brazilian national team at 16.

In September 2021, Pelé had surgery to remove a tumor on the right side of his colon. By November the following year, he was taken to hospital with general swelling, along with cardiac issues and concerns that his chemotherapy treatment was not having the expected effect. In December, his tumor had advanced and on the 29th of the same month, at the age of 82, he passed away due to multiple organ failure, a complication of colon cancer. Tributes have continued to pour in from football stars, sporting legends and world leaders around the world.

Pelé will continue to be regarded as an icon and one of the top players to ever kick a ball professionally. Averaging almost a goal per game throughout his career, he was adept at striking the ball with either foot. While predominantly a striker, he could also drop deep and take on a playmaking role, providing assists with his vision and passing ability, and he would also use his dribbling skills to go past opponents. In Brazil, he was hailed as a national hero for his accomplishments in football and for his outspoken support of policies that improve the social conditions of the poor.

Apart from his peace-brokering visit to Nigeria, Pelé also visited Nigeria in 1976. He arrived Lagos in his role as a Pepsi brand ambassador to partake in an exhibition match and a set of football clinics designed to help spread the gospel of football and also fortify the longstanding link between the soft drinks company and the football industry. Interestingly his visit engendered the Pepsi Football Academy- initially operating as an independent football academy which upon receiving backing of Pepsi morphed into a series of football schools spread across the country. They would go on to produce future Super Eagles stars like Mikel Obi, Sunday Mba and Elderson Echiejile.

Pele (1940- 2022)

In 2016, the football maestro again landed on the shores of Nigeria. This time, his visit was part of a two-day programme focused on the development of football and the Nigerian youth. It started with a football clinic with Pelé, a celebrity exhibition match and concluded with an exclusive dinner with selected guests and Pele. His electrifying play and penchant for spectacular goals made him a star around the world, and his teams toured internationally to take full advantage of his popularity. During his playing days, he was for a period the best-paid athlete in the world. After retiring in 1977, Pelé was a worldwide ambassador for football and made many acting and commercial ventures.

With 77 international goals scored in 92 appearances, he is Brazil’s all-time leading goal scorer. Twelve of those goals came in 14 World Cup appearances, including four in 1970. On club goals, he represented more than just the World Cup. He won six Brazilian crowns, two Copa Libertadores trophies, and one North American Soccer League Bowl victory in 1977. As documented by the Guinness Book of World Records, Pelé scored 92 hat-tricks in football for Santos, NY Cosmos, and Brazil.

Pelé the great will certainly be remembered for a life beyond the field, for transcending the sport of football and becoming perhaps the most well-known person on Earth. Before Pelé, the number ’10’ jersey was just a number, but the legend popularized the number so much so that any player that adorns the number on the field, a huge responsibility is carried on his shoulder. He transformed football into art and entertainment. He gave voice to the poor, to Blacks in the sport and above all he gave Brazil visibility. Football and Brazil have become synonymous and elevated their standing thanks to Pelé. He is gone but will not soon be forgotten, and his magic still lives on.

Au revoir to the undisputed GOAT of football, Edson Arantes do Nascimento… Adieu Pele!

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