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HTLS 2018: Diego Maradona and I are not rivals - Pele

Pele, who spoke at the 16th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, wanted to ‘keep the ball rolling’ after injury cut short father Dondinho’s career and insisted he is friends with Diego Maradona

htls Updated: Oct 06, 2018 09:48 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
HTLS 2018,Pele,Diego Maradona
Pele (R) and Diego Maradona pose for a picture.(Twitter)

If football mirrors life — as so many who swear by the sport insist it does — it would be hard-pressed to find an ambassador better than Pele. That is why he stays relevant 41 years after he last kicked a football. That is why not a word seemed out of place when Bhaichung Bhutia ended Friday morning’s session at the 16th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi by saying that for him the pitch was always the temple but now not only has he met God but also had a conversation with him.

That the Pele the world sees is the epitome of grace and humility is well known, little about his life actually is not. “Never think that you know everything because you always have something to learn,” he had said during the session with Bhutia. Yet you still don’t expect that the deep, gravelly voice would say “first of all, let me tell you how much of an honour it is to speak to you” before beginning the interview.

Just as you don’t expect him to constantly apologise for his English not being very good. “Any more interviews, I think we will have to do it in Portuguese,” Pele said before breaking into a smile. But when you end the conversation with an ‘Obrigado’ instead of ‘Thank You’, Pele holds your hand in a tight clasp. And before we part, he said: ‘Thank you for remembering me’. This was in reference to being told that this reporter had met him at an event in Sao Paulo before the 2014 World Cup.

Between the kick-off and the final whistle — the ‘honour’ and the ‘obrigado’ — Pele spoke about his father, his friend Garrincha, his ‘rival’ Diego Maradona and more.


How difficult was it growing up in the house of a footballer whose career was cut short by injury. Did that play on your mind?

Yes, sometimes it did. I did think about my father (Dondinho) having a problem with injury but as a young boy, it meant that I must do my best to make him happy. That is how the young think.

My father was a player in Bauru (a city in Sao Paolo) and the only record that Pele didn’t break was the number of goals scored by headers (three) in one game. That belongs to my father, he was the best scorer with the head in football. I was young when my father got the injury (torn ligaments in his right knee) and had to stop but I felt like I had to keep the ball rolling (laughs). I just wanted to be like my father, I didn’t want to be Pele.

That is how everything started. God was so nice that he gave me more than I deserved.

Winning the World Cup was a big shock (surprise) for me because all I wanted to do was play for Brazil. And yet I didn’t believe it when my father said I had been selected to play in the World Cup in 1958. That was also the first time I got in a plane and I thought it was too dangerous.

Of the three World Cup-winning teams you were part of, which was the best?

You make me feel embarrassed in getting me to answer that because I played with so many good players. But I think it is a good question. I think individually, the players of the team of my first World Cup (in 1958) were the best. It was also the first World Cup Brazil got and formed the base (for the next triumph) because a lot of people don’t understand how one generation helps another…Then we came to the 1962 and 1966 World Cups.

In 1966, we went to England who were the ‘fathers of football’ and we thought we would show everybody what Brazil is but it was not to be. We had good teams (in those two World Cups) but not the level of 1958.

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Because in ’58 we had Garrincha, Didi, Vava, Nilton Santos, Djalma Santos among others. There wasn’t anyone in that team who was not very good. After that, I think 1970. It was fantastic…there was Pele, Carlos Alberto, Rivelinho, Jairzinho…I think these two would be the best.

Could you share your thoughts on Garrincha whom you have described as the best right-winger you have ever seen?

No doubt about that. Unfortunately, he had injuries and some problem (a heavy drinker, Garrincha died of cirrhosis of liver aged 49).

I used to sometimes joke with him and tell him ‘listen, right wing is good, you are good but it is not easy to score goals from there. Being in front of the goal and scoring, that is the difference between us, that is the reason why I scored more goals.’ But no doubt, in my opinion, one of the best players in Brazil ever was Garrincha.

Okay, Garrincha was your friend but this interview would seem incomplete without you talking about Diego Maradona…

Everybody tells me ‘you and Maradona have had a fight.’ I say ‘listen we are friends.’ Always when I meet Maradona, I take pictures with him and tease him. I tell him ‘you don’t head like me, your right foot is just to walk’. We joke with each other but it is the press that makes enemies out of us.

So, Maradona is my friend. For Brazilians, Argentine people are always big rivals and that is why they say Argentina had great players before Maradona too. Now they say to Maradona fans that we can talk after you get a Pele, so don’t compare. But Maradona and I are not rivals.

Do you think the domination of Europe is good for football. The biggest clubs are from there and teams from that continent have won four of the last five World Cups?

You are right, it looks like Europe is so much stronger but a minimum 25% of each top European club is from South America and nearly each top team has three to four Brazilians. Before you didn’t have that kind of support for Latin American players so what has really changed from my time is how European clubs have changed their methods (of recruitment).

In my time, you didn’t have too many Latin American players in Europe.

For someone who has long been involved in charity work — Pele has been an UNESCO Champion for Sport to help disadvantaged children and was Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations — what made you start the Pele Foundation?

The decision to start the foundation has its basis in my work with children all my life.

Then I said, ‘let’s see if you can do something big enough for the future for children.’ I have a friend who is part of that and I said ‘let’s do it’ because it is something I wanted to do from my heart… I don’t exactly know how many we have been able to reach out because every month it keeps growing. I think it now supports some five million.

We are trying to do our best. I want to give to the children what my father gave me. I want to give to the future. (Launched last month, the Pele Foundation helps uplift children from economically disadvantaged sections of society through partnerships with other charities).

Is there anything you would have done differently in what has largely been a beautiful life? Do you have any regrets?

Regrets I don’t have. Because God has been so good to me, I have to thank him for the family, fans and friends I have. And, if you will permit me, I would like to ask God to bless everyone who called me from all over the world to wish me to get well when I had to undergo surgery after a femur injury. I got messages from so many people all over the world. I would like to thank them all.

First Published: Oct 06, 2018 09:42 IST