Dave Zirin has a book out next week called Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. His travels to Brazil and work on that project inform much of this article.
By criticizing the 2014 World Cup and the spending priorities of the Brazilian government, soccer legend Pelé has accomplished the rarest of feats in twenty-first-century sports media: he has shown the capacity to shock and surprise.
“It’s clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been,” Pelé said during a lecture at Anahuac University in Mexico City. “Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals.… Brazil needs it. That’s clear. On that point, I agree [with the protests]. But I lament what protesters are doing, which is breaking and burning everything. It’s money that we will have to spend again.”
These comments are without question tepid given the scale of the assault taking place on Brazil’s poor in the lead-up to the World Cup. It also ignores that much of the violence has been perpetrated by the Brazilian military police, who merit nary a dollop of criticism from the 73-year-old legend. What is remarkable is that Pelé said anything at all. There is a reason why Brazilian soccer star turned politician Romário once said of the soccer legend, “He is a poet when he does not speak.” Romário said this because Pelé has never failed to plant himself on the wrong side of history. Pelé was there arm-in-arm with Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva when Brazil secured the World Cup for 2014 and the Olympics for 2016. To hear him raising actual criticisms of how the money has been spent is akin to Michael Jordan taking a stand against labor abuses perpetrated by Nike.
After all, this is Pelé: the first athlete to ever trademark his own name. This is Pelé, who as a brand and a blank-slate superstar athlete, was both ahead of his time and out of touch. This is Pelé, the person who said last year, as rubber bullets were flying and tear gas was being shot directly into the eyes of demonstrators and bystanders, that people should stop protesting and ”think about the national team.” This is Pelé, who advised that demonstrations should be postponed until after the Cup and was roundly jeered.