There is very little that has not already been said about Pele. Now 73, the Brazilian is a living legend, with three FIFA World Cup™ winner’s medals to his name. With just a matter of days to go before his country hosts the biggest footballing show on Earth, the man regarded by many as the greatest player of all time shares his recollections of the 1950 world finals with FIFA.com.
Recalling the tears his father shed when Brazil slumped to a shock defeat to Uruguay in the last match of that tournament – the infamous Maracanazo – he cast his mind back to that fateful day, reflected on his love affair with the World Cup and gave his views on the Seleção’s chances of success at Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: There are only a few days to go before the FIFA World Cup makes its return to Brazil after a 64-year absence. What is your most vivid memory of that bittersweet experience in 1950?
Pele: I’ve got many great footballing memories, but the first of them all is Brazil losing the World Cup that year. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry, and all because of that defeat. I was nine or ten years old and I remember seeing him sitting next to the radio, sobbing. I asked him: ‘Why are you crying, Papa?’. And he said to me: ‘Brazil have lost the World Cup’. That’s the image that’s etched in my mind from 1950. God was very good to me, though, because eight years later I was in Sweden and I won the title. I played in four World Cups and won three, including the last one in 1970. I think I can safely say that God gave everything back to me.
You’ve mentioned before that seeing your father cry on that occasion had an impact on your career. Can you tell us more about that?
My father was a footballer too, and that day I was with three or four friends, who were children of his team-mates. There was no TV at that time, and he had invited them round to listen to the match on the radio. Us little ones went to play in the street. I remember that there were a lot of people around and so much going on. And then, later in the afternoon, everything suddenly went dead quiet. We went inside to find out what was going on. My father was crying and he told me that we had lost. I remember jokingly saying to him: ‘Don’t cry, Papa. I’ll win the World Cup for you’. I just came out with it because I didn’t know what else to say, but eight years later there I was in the national team, and we won the title.
How did that shock defeat to Uruguay affect the country?
I was just a boy and it was the first time I’d seen so many people depressed and so many people crying. I even heard that two or three people died of heart attacks. I was only young but I remember that huge sense of sadness. There’s no way you could forget that.
If you had been born earlier and played in that FIFA World Cup, would the Maracanazo ever have happened?
That’s a good question (laughs). It goes without saying that you always want the best for your people and your family, but if I could choose, I’d ask God to let me be born earlier to help Brazil and stop it from happening.
Moacir Barbosa, the Brazil goalkeeper that day, came in for a lot of criticism for letting in Alcides Ghiggia’s winning goal. Do you still remember that?
I’ve seen interviews with him, where he says that people crucified him for that goal. He said: ‘I’ve played lots of games for the national games and we got to the final, thanks in part to all my saves. But now people blame me for one goal’. I feel very sorry about all that, but that’s life. Unfortunately, fans can be very emotional and all they want are victories. Sometimes you get criticised when you lose. That’s just the way it is.
Ghiggia, the man who made you father cry, was at the Brazil 2014 Final Draw. What was it like to meet up with him?
I’d seen him two or three times before the draw. Obviously we spoke about the game and our stories that day. He even told me that neither he nor his team-mates believed they could beat our team. Brazil were the best side and they’d won all their games easily. He told me: ‘For us it was a miracle. We didn’t expect it’. And to tell you the truth, us Brazilians didn’t expect it either.
Eight years later you won the title yourself. What memories do you have of that?
That was another surprise. I was 15 when we played a tournament in Rio, in a team made up of players from Santos and Vasco da Gama. We played a few internationals at the Maracana and they decided to pick me. I didn’t expect it at all. It came as a surprise to everyone, not just to me.
How would you compare your first world title in 1958 and your last in 1970?
That’s not a difficult question for me to answer. I played in four World Cups and we were lucky enough to win three. Everyone asks me if it was hard to play in the World Cup at the age of only 17, but I can honestly say that all I wanted at the time was to be in the team. It was like a dream. We won, but I didn’t have any responsibility on my shoulders. In 1970 I was at my peak. We had a great team and it was my last World Cup. But if I compare it to the first one, when I didn’t have any experience, I have to say Mexico was tougher. We had a fantastic side and everyone expected us to win, which gave me the shakes. I was very nervous and under a lot of pressure. Maybe people have forgotten, but the political situation in Brazil was not good and we felt that we simply had to win the title. That was the difference. Thank God we were able to do it.
Time passes quickly, doesn’t it?
It’s incredible, but the thing that amazes me most is all the changes and progress there’s been in the media. We didn’t have a TV or new technologies in 1958. I remember that I wanted to call my father and tell him that we’d won the World Cup, and we had to go to a train station in Sweden. I said to him: ‘Papa, we’ve won the World Cup’. And he said: ‘I didn’t see it but I listened to it’. It’s a huge change. Today players score a goal and blow a kiss to the cameras. We couldn’t do that and that’s the biggest difference that I see.
There is a lot of footage from the 1970 tournament around these days, though. Do you watch it?
Sometimes, yes. I watch it because there are a lot of videos available and TV programmes that put it on. I’ll tell you something, though: if I’m not careful I always start crying. When I see those players and the people cheering me around, I get all emotional. I’m a sensitive guy!
You recently said that you didn’t want your children to catch you crying and see what you saw back in 1950 with your father. Who do you think has the potential to be a Ghiggia this time? Lionel Messi or Luis Suarez maybe?
I’m sorry, but I hope nobody comes and does what Ghiggia did in 1950. What we all want to see is Brazil having a good World Cup, reaching the Final and winning the title, if possible. I don’t want to remember what happened in 1950. I have to have faith and believe that victory is possible, because you just never know. Football is a big box full of surprises and the best team doesn’t always win. Just look at 1982. Brazil had the best side but we lost to Italy and went out. I don’t want to think about how the games might go in Brazil. I just want to be positive and think that Brazil will win the Cup. That’s what I want to believe.