The author with Pelé [1940-2022] in Kolkata, October 16, 2015 (Courtesy: Boria Majumdar)
THEY REMAIN FOND memories. Several conversations with King Pelé during his 2015 visit to Kolkata when we travelled all over the city. Some of these were formal interviews; others were chats on the fly. When Pelé died at the age of 82 on December 29, 2022 in São Paulo, I checked my old notes and put together some of the best answers that he had given in the course of those talks.
Almost everyone considers you the greatest. The king of the Beautiful Game. Can there be a second Pelé? Who comes closest to Pelé?
Everywhere I go people say X or Y is the new Pelé. As if there has to be a second Pelé. So, when I go to Argentina people say Maradona is the new Pelé. In England, people say George Best was the new Pelé and came closest to Pelé. In Germany, people consider Beckenbauer the new Pelé. In Holland, Cruyff is the new Pelé. Every place you go, there is always a new Pelé. That’s why I tell people, “Listen, my mother and father have closed the machine and there can no longer be a Pelé! I am the one and only. There was always one Pelé and there will always be the one Pelé. No second Pelé ever.”
You have won three World Cups. In Sweden, you were just 17. How was it when you got selected for the national team?
You are absolutely right. I was just 17 when I went to Sweden. When I was selected for the national team, I was first told about it by a few of my friends. When they said this to me I did not believe them. I thought they must be joking. Playing for the Brazil national team was a dream. And I had no idea I could be selected. That’s why I went home and asked my father if what they were saying was true. Father said Brazil had picked five young players and I was indeed one of them. I immediately asked him that I did not speak Swedish so how would I manage in Sweden! Father said I did not need to know Swedish to go to Sweden. That’s how naïve I was. I did not have any idea how it was like in other parts of the world and was only at peace after speaking to my father. However, if you ask me which was the most difficult World Cup to win, I will say 1970. In the first World Cup in 1958, there was no pressure. No one really thought I was the one to look out for. Whatever I did I was able to do without pressure. The one in 1962 was different, but even then with Garrincha there things were different. In 1970, everyone was looking out for me. I had become the one to look out for. It was very difficult. That’s why winning the 1970World Cup had given me most satisfaction. Three World Cups was a dream and Brazil was the first country to win three.
“If you ask me which was the most difficult World Cup to win, I will say 1970. In the first World Cup in 1958, there was no pressure. In 1970, everyone was looking out for me. It was very difficult”
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You had travelled to Kolkata in 1977 with Cosmos. What are your memories from that visit?
I have very fond memories from the tour for two reasons. In very few places have I seen this level of passion. I remember when we were landing we looked from the aircraft window and all we could see was a sea of human beings. I was scared. I thought what was going on here! Little did we know that all of them had come to receive us. The stretch from the airport to the hotel only had people waving to us. None of us could believe what we were seeing. The craze for football in this city was just mind-blowing. Second, when we played, the crowd was fantastic. It was a wet pitch but the euphoria of the people was a sight to see. They wanted to see me play and the love was tremendous. I have to say the kind of affection I received in Kolkata was very special.
When do you think an African or Asian team can win the World Cup? What will it take for any of these teams?
Winning the World Cup is not easy. Take the case of Brazil. We have won five World Cups. But when it comes to our home World Cups, we have lost. In 1950, we lost the final to Uruguay. In front of 100,000 people at the Maracanã. Everybody thought we would win. But we did not. I remember my father crying after we lost. I was 10 and did not really understand what had happened. Again, in 2014, the World Cup was played in Brazil and we lost 1:7 to Germany. The whole country was shocked. So it is difficult to say really. Having said that, what you need to create a winning team is a top-quality league and you must get your players to play against the other best players in the world. They need to experience what it is like to play the best so that they don’t feel overawed and don’t feel the pressure when the World Cup comes round. For new players to do well a good domestic league and playing experience in other parts of the world are very important.
“Winning the World Cup is not easy. What you need to create a winning team is a top-quality league and you must get your players to play against the other best players in the world”
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You have already said there can’t be a second Pelé. But can you tell me who are the other players you would pay money to go and watch?
Every generation has some very good players. In my time there were Garrincha and Didi. Then there was Beckenbauer. And Johan Cruyff. In Brazil in the 1980s, Zico and Sócrates were very good players, not to forget Maradona. I loved watching Maradona play. In more recent times you can add Ronaldo and Romário to the list. And at this point one has to mention Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Each is a very good footballer and I have enjoyed watching them.
Finally, what’s your fondest memory?
I have to say winning the 1970 World Cup. That is the best footballing memory for me. Scoring goals for Santos and Brazil was special and winning many tournaments for Santos was always going to be special. But nothing comes close to winning the 1970 World Cup for Brazil. I was the happiest when we were able to do so for I had managed to prove a point.