Pelé: The only Brazilian to come out of the World Cup (even) bigger than he started

Mauricio Savarese on the upsurge in popularity of Brazil's prized treasure during the South American showpiece...

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“A thousand goals! A thousand goals! A thousand goals! A thousand goals! A thousand goooals! Only Peléééé! Only Peléééé! Maradona (is a cocaine) sniffer!”

“If you are Argentinian... then tell me how it feels... to have only two World Cups... one less than Pelé!”

Before the World Cup began, most Brazilians had a there-he-goes-again feeling whenever Pelé was on TV. They can’t be blamed for that. Most of the 200 million people here have never seen him play.

Last year the king told protesters to go home because supporting the Seleção was “more important.” He spent decades being criticised for his support of FIFA, strange deals, the rejection of one of his daughters and bizarre predictions… but during football’s main event at his birthplace, it was all forgotten. He is pop again.

Pelé’s name was chanted in those songs in all 12 stadiums, in most matches, including the final and the 7-1 hammering Brazil got from Germany. In the final, as the Argentinians sang Maradona is bigger than him, Edson Arantes do Nascimento giggled in the VIP area.

When he was noticed by fans (except for the Argentinians), a standing ovation took place and he stood up to clap back, pretending he was hugging everyone in a typical Pelé feature. Hard to say that he was impressed, but surely much happier than in recent times.

“Football is also about fun, it is great that Brazilians and Argentinians are having fun,” he said before taking a swipe at his rival. “If Leo Messi wins the final he can be at the same level of Maradona…”

"Am I bovvered...?"

It didn’t happen that way. But days after the final Pelé’s name is still being sung by Brazilians and foreigners who have learned enough Portuguese or are drunk enough to try. Quite a lot for a king that was almost an outcast when the tournament began: rare public apperances and interviews until a few weeks ago.

Since Germany are a team without a star and Messi didn’t quite live up to the expectations in the decider, it is fair to say Pelé was actually one of the stars of the World Cup final: his songs were heard at least 15 times during the 1-0 German victory, according to FFT’s count.

Argentinians sang the pro-Maradona version seven times (of course they had something more important to think about during the match). When reality failed Brazilians, history was their best choice - and no choice could be better than a three-time World Cup champion hailed as the best ever.

But it wasn’t only in the few World Cup games he attended that Pelé was a star. Thousands of people paid around US$30 just to be in another stadium with him. For one month the Morumbi, in São Paulo, became Casa Pelé de Futebol, filled with crying fans desperate to have their pictures taken with the legend of legends.

Flag unfurling in Fortaleza

“It wouldn’t make any sense to say Pelé is bigger than Maradona or Messi,” says broker Luiz Ramalho after singing one of the Pelé songs at Rio’s bus terminal. “It would be like saying The Beatles are bigger than Coldplay. Not that Maradona is Coldplay, but the distance between him and Pelé is the distance between The Beatles and Coldplay. That’s why we had to make the sniffing cocaine joke. Pelé is a bigger moral reference.”

Businessman Andrew Naddeo, one of the most enthusiastic Brazil fans FFT has come across in Rio, spent the Saturday night before the final singing Pelé songs all over, to anyone, for hours.

“They deserve to hear it. We have the best player in history and they have been annoying us with Maradona chants for too long. We have forgotten Pelé for too long,” he says, before abruptly leaving. “Only Peléééé!!! Only Peléééé! Maradona is a cocaine sniffer!”

Yes, fans are volatile. At least Pelé’s legacy is not.