Alex Bellos World Cup 2014 column: Pele heads a long list of Brazil's World Cup winners who are mocked for being out of tune with the public

Football legend, 73, is loved everywhere - except in his homeland

Earlier this week Pele got stuck in traffic on his way to watch Brazil v Mexico at a party in Sao Paulo. The 73-year-old had no choice but to follow the first half of the game on the radio – the first time he has listened to a Brazil World Cup game on the radio since before he won the competition in 1958.

Pele’s failure to get to the party on time reinforced a sense that Brazil’s greatest player is out of synch with his country. He is an ambassador for the World Cup but the association has been problematic. Shortly before the tournament started, for example, an anti-World Cup protestor held up a placard with a picture of Pele and the words: “Traitor of the Century.”  

Pele’s image within Brazil is very different from how he is seen abroad. Here, he’s outspoken, he says what he thinks, and because he is Pele, his comments always make the news. On the pitch he displayed a perfect touch. But off it he has proved to be a master at misjudging the public mood. In Brazil, knocking the King is a national sport.

“The problem with Pele is that he got involved in so many controversies and ended up on the wrong side,” said Marcelo Damato, columnist at the daily sports paper Lance! “Pele’s image is very damaged.”

During the Confederations Cup last year, Pele urged people to forget the protests and cheer on the national team. His comments caused outrage because it looked like he was dismissing the public’s anger. His patriotism came over as antipatriotic. “Please don’t misunderstand me,” he replied. “I am 100 per cent in favour of this movement for justice in Brazil.” But Brazilians do not give Pele the benefit of the doubt any more.

Back in 2005, Romario said: “Pele with his mouth shut is a poet.”

Another reason why Pele is not treated in Brazil with the respect he is given in the rest of the world is because Brazil has many former footballing heroes competing for attention. With more World Cups than anyone else, Brazil also has more World Cup winners, and they remain prominent in public life.

They are ordered by number. For example, Pele is a tri-campeao, Romario a tetra-campeao and Ronaldo a penta-campeao, meaning they are the champions of the third, fourth and fifth World Cup victories. While Pele was stuck in his car, Romario was watching the game at his home in Rio with Eduardo Campos, who is a candidate in Brazil’s presidential elections that will take place later this year. (Another candidate, Aecio Neves, was watching the game with the tri-campeao Wilson da Silva Piazza).

Beautiful game: Pelé celebrates after Brazil won the 1970 World Cup final against Italy, 4-1, in Mexico City Despite his status as a footballer, Pele does not garner the same respect in Brazil as he does from the international community

Four years ago, Romario was elected a member of the lower house of parliament for the Brazilian Socialist Party. Famous as a player for his individualism and dislike of training, Romario has surprised his critics and become an assiduous politician, championing two causes: disabled rights and anti-corruption in football. He is the main political voice articulating the anger at how the World Cup is being run. He is a candidate for Rio de Janeiro’s one senate seat this October, and currently narrowly second in the polls, behind the former state governor.

Despite his political role, however, Romario has not lost his image of a beach bum and chancer. He advertises a Brazilian beer brand, Devassa, even though he is famously teetotal and even though he cannot pronounce the name properly because of his lisp. (Which is the gag). He also appears in a World Cup ad for Havaiana flip-flops, in which he wears the right one (a Brazilian superstition) and sends the left one to Diego Maradona. His credentials as a democrat have suffered for appearing on adverts while also being a candidate in elections.

But the ex-footballer with his fingers in most pies is Ronaldo, who as well as being a member of the World Cup Local Organizing Committee, commentates on Brazil’s games for Globo, the main TV station, appears in Nike’s adverts and runs his own sports marketing company 9ine, which represents Neymar. Ronaldo remains much loved, especially in Sao Paulo were he finished his career with local club Corinthians, but has also come under fire for his many conflicts of interest. “Ronaldo is very respected but what bothers people is that he is everywhere. It gives the idea that he is too money-oriented,” says Marcelo Damato. Romario has the image of a beach bum and a chancer, despite being a politician

Preferring the pen to the microphone, the tri-campeao Tostao – a qualified doctor – writes erudite and poetic daily analyses of World Cup games for the Folha de S. Paulo, Sao Paulo’s biggest newspaper. But not all the former stars are doing well out of the event. Jairzinho, still the only player to  have scored a goal in every game of the World Cup, was forgotten by the Brazilian Football Confederation and not invited to attend any game. But at least he didn’t get stuck in traffic.

Alex Bellos is the  author of ‘Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life’

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