By Ken Pendleton - EUGENE, OR (Dec. 9, 2005) USSoccerPlayers – In recent years, the World Cup draw has only been marred by one major controversy: Pelé’s formal exclusion from USA 94 by FIFA president João Havelange. It turns out that the dispute between the two gradually escalated from a petty misunderstanding to potentially serious criminal allegations.
In 1984, Havelange invited Pelé to participate in FIFA’s 70th anniversary celebration, but Pele claimed that he had never received the invitation. Maybe FIFA’s social secretary forgot to call him, or the electricity went out and deleted the message from his answering machine (if only they had e-mail or voice mail back then). Whatever the reason, Havelange held a grudge, saying “I invited you three years ago to be part of FIFA’s 70th anniversary, but you didn’t appear.”
After a formal meeting, relations appeared to improve. Pelé even supported Havelange’s son, Ricardo Teixeira, in his bid to become president of the Brazilian FA (the CBF). Pelé was assured that Teixeira was going to ring in some much needed reforms, but matters quickly deteriorated after Teixeira, for whatever unfathomable reasons, refused to allow any Brazilian internationals playing abroad to participate in a match to celebrate Pelé’s 50th birthday. Sadly, Harry Harris, who wrote Pelé: His Life and Times, spared enquiring minds the juicy quotes but nonetheless claimed, “it was clear that Pelé himself was far from pleased.”
The you-know-what really hit the fan in 1993 after Pelé accused the CBF, and by implication Teixeira, of bribery. Pelé’s company appeared to have the inside track to the rights to the 1994 Brazilian championships, but he alleged that the CBF demanded a $1 million bribe before they would approve his application. Needless to say, he didn’t pony up and the company, Traffic, who secured the rights just happened to bid $1 million less than Pelé’s company. Traffic was also aided by the fact that Havelange wrote a letter of support on their behalf.
The fact that Pelé was the face of soccer to most Americans clearly didn’t matter to the president of FIFA:
I have given every attention and kindness to this lad, but playing soccer is one thing, being a businessmen quite another. This lad should not have done what he did. Ricardo is married to my only daughter. He’s the father of my grandchildren. Whatever he needs, I will do for him. When I was a boy my father used to slap if I was disrespectful. This is what I have done metaphorically to Pelé. He must learn to show respect. I launched him in the national team when he was seventeen.
In other words, Pelé is ungrateful and he needs to be taught, by his figurative father, that he should stick to soccer and keep his nose out of business. Furthermore, he will do whatever serves his families’ interests even that directly conflicts what is in the best interest of the body he was elected to govern.
And that was that, end of story: Pelé was formally out. It may be good to be the king of soccer, but it is better, and perhaps far more profitable, to be the president of FIFA.
Pelé conceded that there was no point in battling to play a formal role in USA 94, but also clearly signaled his intentions to continue fighting the larger war: “Havelange has been my idol since the 1958 World Cup, and because he’s the boss of FIFA, he can say who comes in and who stays out. But his son-in-law is president of the Brazilian federation, and I will not serve corruption.”
Shortly after the 94 World Cup, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, as the engraving on Pelé’s office door identified him, was appointed Brazilian Minister of Sport with the avowed intention – “football cannot carry on the way it is” – of crippling the CBF and ending the corruption in Brazilian soccer. He wanted to give players the same freedom of movement peers enjoyed in Europe, allow clubs to from leagues that were not under the jurisdiction of the CBF, and introduce transparency to the financial operations of clubs and the CBF.
Not surprisingly, Havelange went nuclear, or, in Pelé’s words, “I think he is really becoming gaga.” Havelange was adamant that Brazilian soccer was well organized and threatened to ban Brazil from France 98 if what was called the Pelé Law passed. Pelé correctly predicted that the latter idea would go nowhere and few neutral observers, or Brazilian fans, shared Havelange’s upbeat appraisal of the domestic game. There were too many matches, too many fouls (more than 50 a game and more than a 100 in one match), the stadiums were decrepit, attendance was in sharp decline, the best players were all going to Europe, the results that occurred on the field were frequently overturned, and powerful clubs that were supposed to be relegated were summarily reinstated by the CBF.
Pelé resigned in 1998, for reasons that were never made clear, but Havelange still did not allow him to participate in the draw for France 98, even though it featured some of the greatest players from the past. This led to a rather remarkable press conference, in which Havelange’s successor, Sepp Blatter, did everything in his power to avoid addressing the issue:
Journalist: “Why hasn’t Pelé been invited to take part in the draw?”
Blatter: “We do not have a problem with Mr. Pelé.
Another journalist: “So why had he not been invited to take part in the draw along with the other great footballers?”
Blatter: “We have no problem with Mr. Pelé.”
By way of heading off another round, Blatter repeated himself a third time using a tone that made it quite clear that he said all he would about the matter. Pelé was among the 1,500 special guests, in the seat assigned to Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but he was not featured on the main stage.
The postscript to this story is fraught with ironies.
Ronaldo’s controversial role in Brazil’s 3-0 loss to France in that World Cup led to a congressional inquiry that more or less vindicated Pelé. Teixeira was accused of committing 13 crimes, including, according to Alex Bellos in his book Futebol: Soccer, the Brazilian Way, “making bad loans, tax evasion, withholding information, lying on his tax from, and using CBF money for his private needs.”
Given this, the biggest irony is that Pelé and Teixeira have reconciled, perhaps because Pelé’s business partner, Helio Viana was also accused of five crimes in the same report. It would be hard to overstate just how badly this has devastated the reform movement in Brazilian soccer. Juca Kfouri, perhaps the most influential sports journalist in Brazil, ended his friendship with Pelé and claimed that, “The King has been exposed as a commoner. It was a terrible letdown. And a great surprise. For eight years Pelé had an essential role in the denouncing of corruption.” Another journalist added, “Pelé has let us all down . . . He has sold his soul to the devil.”
Another irony is that the Pelé Law passed, but he asked to have his name withdrawn because only eleven percent of the original text was left and the essential reforms were all blunted.
The final irony is that the CBF is actually getting its act together. I wouldn’t want to overstate the point – there still far too many scandals – but the national championship has been run the same way for three straight years (it had never used the same format for consecutive years before 2003), teams that get relegated remain relegated, and Teixeira is adamant that Brazilian calendar must be aligned with the European one so that a mass exodus of players does not occur during the season. Given the way that all best talent migrates to Europe, there is no foreseeable chance that Brazilian clubs can play the way they did thirty years ago, but the fouls have decreased, play is far more open, and, as a result, attendance increased dramatically this year.
The Pelé Law was muted and his role in the reform process has become problematic, but thee is some evidence that his goal – to end the corruption and return the sport to the Brazilian people – which has been taken up by many others, including Socrates, has gained a momentum all its own.