Brazilian legend Pele revealed a poignant side to being a global icon

‘It is difficult being Pele’: In his final interview at the start of last summer, for a new book on his life, the Brazilian legend revealed a poignant side to being a global icon and discussed why he came back from the wilderness for his crowning glory in 170

  • Pele, one of the greatest footballers of all time, has died at the age of 82 
  • Publisher Karl Fowler was working on a book detailing the Brazilian’s life
  • For the book, Pele conducted a final interview looking back on his career
  • The Brazilian reflected on a legendary run that included three World Cup wins
  • READ: OBITUARY – Pele was a cut jewel – sharp-edged, glittering and flawless
  • READ: VIEW FROM BRAZIL – No 10 shirt will always belong to legend Pele

When Pele travelled to the UK a decade ago to promote the reformed New York Cosmos, he charmed the young and old, modest and stately. 

At a charity reception in Downing Street, he spent several hours in the garden playing football with children and signing autographs. 

To coincide with a trip to Old Trafford, he said Manchester United circa 2011 would have been a good fit for his talents. He also patiently fulfilled media commitments and flashed a winning smile for the photographer David Bailey.

Brazilian footballing legend Pele revealed a poignant side to being a global icon during the final interview conducted before his death

At one point, he agreed in principle to an Opus book in his name, too. The latest in a series of coffee-table tomes, the publisher Karl Fowler hoped the book would stand in handsome tribute to its subject’s career, combining photography, biography and an interview with Pele himself. 

It would focus on his three World Cup triumphs, in 1958, 1962 and 1970. More than any other feat, they had secured his legacy.

‘We said, “Look, we’ve got to tell your story”,’ Fowler, who was involved in getting Pele to Downing Street, told The Mail on Sunday. ‘“Celebrate your career, and particularly the World Cups”.’

The project took a while to get off the ground and was slowed by the pandemic, but Fowler and his team spent enough time with Pele to glean insight into the man, travelling to his apartment in Sao Paulo and his princely beach home south of the city. 

In discussions over content and design, they met with a gentleman host who showed calm, patience and clear enthusiasm for the work.

The Brazilian reflected on lifting the World Cup at just 17 when Brazil defeated Sweden in 1958 

In discussions over content and design, they found their host to be gentlemanly, showing calm, patience and clear enthusiasm for the work.

‘There were photographs that he was seeing in their entirety for the first time,’ Fowler said. ‘He was reliving those memories again and he wasn’t afraid to show his emotion. For me, that showed his sincerity. He was humble, no airs and graces, and a very genuine person.’

Eventually, at the start of last summer, Pele sat down at his beach house to conduct what is understood to be his final interview, published here for the first time. 

Pele was perhaps the most famous footballer of all-time and featured in four World Cups

He was in reflective mood, discussing how he wished to be remembered, the difficulty with living up to the expectations of his countless fans and the relief he felt at winning the 1970 World Cup, his career’s crowning achievement.

He also revealed how close he came never to competing in that tournament at all, having quit international football in what he described as the ‘shameful’ aftermath of the 1966 World Cup, with Brazil having been eliminated in the group stage as defending champions.

It followed his personal disappointment of leaving the 1962 tournament early through injury. ‘I didn’t want to play in another World Cup,’ he said. ‘This was the second tournament in a row where I managed only to play in two games before being injured.

Brazilian legend Pele (pictured) celebrates his goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup

‘It was bad enough in 1962 but at least Brazil still were world champions. But to be forced out of the World Cup in 1966 in such a manner was devastating. I’d had enough. I wanted to say goodbye to the World Cup. I was very depressed.’

He stuck to his word until the 1970 tournament in Mexico grew near and Brazil’s political leaders joined those imploring the team’s talisman to return. ‘There were people wanting me to come back,’ Pele said. ‘I didn’t want to play because I didn’t want to go through what happened in England in 1966 again. 

‘But I wanted to be remembered and I knew I had not done much in the World Cup since 1958. I also knew this would be my last World Cup. In the end I changed my mind and joined the squad. I did it for me.’

The former Santos star also detailed his reservations around returning to the Brazil squad for the 1970 tournament

For all that his decision pleased many Brazil supporters, its media was sceptical about his ability to improve a squad studded with exceptional talents, among them Jairzinho, Tostao and Rivellino. 

Like Pele, they were all attacking players. ‘Everyone in the press was saying that I wasn’t in good shape, and that I didn’t have it in me to come back. I felt under a lot of pressure. Being Pele was difficult. I didn’t like it or want it, but I did want to take one final chance.’

Initially the criticism told on Pele and his training performances suffered. It took a promise from the recently appointed manager Mario Zagallo, Pele’s old Brazil team-mate, to revive him. ‘He told me he didn’t think I was myself. He said, “You’re not getting stuck in”. 

He was right. But he said he would play me in every game and my confidence came back.’

Zagallo also selected the other three mentioned forwards, along with the brilliant playmaker Gerson, in a famously ambitious line-up. 

‘The 1970 team was the best Brazil team I played in,’ Pele said. ‘We had three world-class players for every position, especially my own. Now I was desperate to succeed.’

After edging out England 1-0 in the group stage, a game which featured Gordon Banks’s memorable save from Pele, they got through to the final against Italy with relative ease. 

Pele recalled the coach journey to the Aztec Stadium through the thronged streets of Mexico City. ‘I looked out of the window and saw all the fans waving flags and shouting, “Brazil, Brazil, Pele, Pele”. I burst into tears.

Despite his reservations, Pele would return to help lead Brazil to a third World Cup triumph in Mexico

‘I was the oldest player in the squad, and I didn’t want my team-mates to see me crying. After everything that had happened over the past 12 years, this was an outpouring. I was asking God to help me one more time.’

At 29, Pele was in fact the second-oldest outfield player in the squad, after the defender Brito. 

No surprise then that he played a pivotal role in the final. He put Brazil ahead early on with a typically athletic header and then took the penultimate touch in a legendary team goal, setting up Carlos Alberto to seal a 4-1 triumph.

In his final interview, 52 years on the three-time winner put his achievement into perspective

Images of Pele celebrating in the arms of team-mates have been published around the world in the past few days. 

Fifty-two years on from the victory, the man himself put the achievement in perspective. ‘The 1970 World Cup was the best time of my life, but it was more important for my country,’ he said. ‘It did more for Brazil than for football.

‘The emotion I felt more than anything else was not happiness or joy, but relief. I was relieved that my decision to come back had been the right one, that we had come through. Now my job was complete. My World Cup journey was over and I was happy.’

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