Triumphant in three of the four FIFA World Cup™ competitions in which he appeared, Pele’s appetite for the greatest footballing show on the planet remains undimmed at the age of 71.
An enthusiastic and sprightly ambassador for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, Pele is eagerly awaiting the chance to welcome the world in two years’ time, his passion for the game burning as brightly now as it did when he was in his magnificent prime.
Holding court in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com, O Rei Pele gave his view on the upcoming tournament, Brazil’s hopes of emerging with the trophy, Barcelona's style of football and the secret behind his amazing career.
FIFA.com: Pele, the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil is approaching. How do you feel about it?
Pele: It’s a very special time and a very important one for me personally, no question. The World Cup is finally coming to my country. I supported the tournament in South Korea and Japan, in the USA – where we saw one of the best organised competitions ever – and then South Africa. Now it’s my country’s turn, and I want to be part of the team, even if it’s off the pitch (laughs).
What’s the feeling in Brazil ahead of the tournament?
Brazil eats, sleeps and drinks football. It lives football! There’s a huge sense of expectation and ambition to match. As everyone knows, there were a few problems to begin with, but that’s all been sorted out now. It’s all in order. President Dilma Rousseff is working very hard to ensure that the tournament’s a success and that everyone’s pulling in the right direction.
It’s a great opportunity, and not just in footballing terms. Brazil has to show the world what it has to offer. A lot of people will be coming and we need to make the most of this chance to grow as a country. The economy’s doing really well but we need to seize this opportunity so that we can push on even more.
I’ve been watching this Barça side a lot lately and they’re like Santos were in my heyday, or the great Benfica, Ajax, AC Milan and Real Madrid sides. They all set the standard in their day.
Let’s talk about A Seleçao. Do you think there’s going to be too much pressure on key young players like Neymar and Ganso?
It depends what you mean by ‘young’. They’re 20 years old but I was only 17 when I played in my first World Cup. They’re not kids any more (laughs). There’s a lot of pressure on them because they’re the stars of the moment. It’s not just about individuals, though. The most important thing is that the team performs as a unit. Brazil’s always had great players, both at home and abroad, but we need to put all that talent together and mould a team out of it. And we’ve still got time to do that.
Brazil had some big-name players at my last World Cup in 1970: people like Rivelino, Tostao and Pele. But we were very well organised too and we worked hard as a team. It was a very strong unit and I think that was the key.
Do you think the team’s heading in the right direction?
I hope so! The good thing is that the coach has got our backing and that we’re giving him time to get his philosophy across. If you change the coach, then the new guy goes and changes the players and that’s not good. You have to remember that Brazil have a tremendous responsibility because they’re at home and the fans will be expecting an awful lot of them.
Which of the more experienced players do you think can help meet that challenge?
We’ve got some big names but there are still two years to go. It’s a long-term job and we need to have a proper plan in place and be very, very disciplined. The players have to get used to playing together, which is the way forward, as we’ve seen in recent years. The Netherlands, Spain and Barcelona are all teams that have been together for a long time.
Talking of Barcelona, were you surprised by how comfortably they beat Santos in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup?
No, not really. I’ve been watching this Barça side a lot lately and they’re like Santos were in my heyday, or the great Benfica, Ajax, AC Milan and Real Madrid sides. They all set the standard in their day and, like I said, the key to their success was the fact they had settled line-ups over a long period of time. And don’t forget that Barcelona is the core of the Spanish team. There’s a connection there, just as there was between Ajax and the Dutch national team all those years ago and between Santos and Brazil.
Is their style the future of football?
That’s the football people want to see and I really hope it’s the blueprint for the future. I really hope skill wins out over strength. Look at Germany. They play a much more technical game today, and that’s the football we want to see. We want to see the ball moving, not the players, and you only get that with teams that are really well organised. That’s the way Barça play today and that’s the way my Santos played. I was very lucky.
But your success was down to talent, not luck.
My father used to say to me: ‘You were born to play football. You’ve got a gift for it. But if you don’t work at it and you don’t practice, then you’ll be just like the rest.’ He was absolutely right, but then again, I was born to play football, just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint.