The recent death of Pelé has elicited universal admiration for him as a player and person. Considered the greatest soccer player of all time, he was eulogized well beyond his native Brazil. (Pelé was declared an “official national treasure” in 1961 by the Brazilian government to prevent him from being transferred to a foreign club.) Pelé’s enchanting smile and legendary soccer accomplishments endeared him to millions around the world. The president of the world’s soccer association, FIFA, told journalists: “We’re going to ask every country in the world to name one of their football stadiums with the name of Pelé.” Not since the heyday of Muhammad Ali had the world seen such a sports legend who became a larger-than-life figure capturing global popularity and veneration.
What is it about Pelé and Ali that led so many people to admire them?
Pelé was known simply as The King, Ali simply as The Champ or The Greatest. While they participated in very different sports – Pelé the “beautiful game” of soccer and Ali the vicious world of boxing – they became larger than life icons who enthralled beyond the pitch or ring.
Beyond their popularity, comparisons between Pelé and Ali are not simple. Pelé came from the slums of Sao Paolo and reached stardom at an early age, helping Brazil win the World Cup when he was only seventeen. He would go on to help Brazil win the Cup three times, the only country to do so. Nelson Mandela said: “To watch him play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full.” Among many honors, Pelé was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and was on the Time list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
Ali was very much the opposite to Pelé’s quiet charm and innate charisma. Also a young star – Olympic Champion at age 18 when he was known as Cassius Clay and later three-time World Heavyweight Boxing Champion – he was both an outlandish chanter of self-composed poetry and an outspoken political figure who refused U.S. military service during the Vietnam War – “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”.
Everything about Ali was public, helped by the TV sports-caster Howard Cosell who made a career of publicizing Ali’s religious, political and personal activities. Ali was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC.
Pele’s move to New York to play for the Cosmos club cemented his global reputation. To understand the importance of the move; for the NY team to sign Pelé, the head of the Cosmos managed to get a telegram from then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to his Brazilian colleague to allow Pelé to play outside Brazil.
Ali’s legend was cemented at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta when he was chosen by the United States. to light the Olympic torch to open the Games. Despite all his criticisms of the U.S. for racism and the Vietnam War, Ali’s surprise selection was universally applauded. And his efforts to start the Games, hands trembling because of advanced Parkinson’s disease, remain one of the most moving images in all Olympic history.
Pelé starred in a team sport. He did not individually become an international star as Ali did in his global fights – the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa or the Thrilla in Manila in Asia. Pelé toured with different teams to enhance his global reputation, but he did not have the charismatic, out-front personality of Ali.
Pelé, the team player in a peaceful sport, and Ali, the controversial, braggadocio in a violent individual sport, are legendary icons. Two contrasting sports; two contrasting personalities. The question remains how the two remain in a category above all other athletes.
Perhaps what joins Pelé and Ali and places them above all other athletes is not only their phenomenal sporting skills but their charisma and public personas. Upon retirement from playing, Pelé had an ambassadorial role for the United Nations that dealt with ecology and the environment as well as working with various foundations, including his own to help impoverished children around the world.
Ali’s persona after his fighting career ended was not the same. He was never publicly known for his political astuteness. He is remembered for his boxing catchy phrases – “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” – and his unique fighting style – “rope-a-dope” – but not any major post-fighting activities. President Carter asked him to recruit countries to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and his failure as “the Black Henry Kissinger” led Time to refer to the entire endeavor as “the most bizarre diplomatic mission in U.S. history.” Ali’s struggles with Parkinson’s disease elicited sympathy, except for the diehards who condemned him for his anti-Vietnam War position as well as converting to Islam and changing his name.
In different ways, there was something endearing about Pelé and Ali. Pelé’s charm was obvious. Ali’s charm was harder to explain, but there was never any doubt about his magnetism. As an example of Ali’s global presence, there is a wonderful moment in a film about Ali when he does a training run in the countryside in the then Zaire, today the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is followed by a band of street kids chanting “Ali, Ali.” Ali was their hero; Ali was someone to be followed wherever he was, whatever he did.
Ali and Pelé were of the same generation, Pelé two years older. They dominated sports headlines in the 1960s and 1970s, Ali perhaps more so since many of Pelé’s early accomplishments were not caught on camera. The two icons were friendly. When Pelé played his last match for Cosmos in 1977, Ali was in the stands and walked with Pelé to the locker room at the end of the game. Pelé wrote that he had lost a special person in his life at Ali’s death in 2016: “my friend, idol and hero. I wish him to rest with God”. Pelé added: “We spent many moments together and we always kept in touch during all these years.”
A noted sports journalist suggested that the two be sculpted on a sports Mount Rushmore because of the impact they had on their sports. After hesitation, he added to the necessary number of four, the number of historical U.S. figures engraved in the mountain, Michael Jordan for basketball and Tiger Woods for golf. I disagree. Pelé and Ali went way beyond just kicking a ball or jabbing left uppercuts. They alone belong on a sports Mount Rushmore. They represented more than any other athletes, more than a Jordan or Woods.
What that more may mean could be limited to extraordinary physical skills combined with extraordinary charisma. The outpouring of emotion at the death of Pelé, like that at the death of Ali, testifies to the universal emotional power of sports. As Mike Vicacaro of the NY Post concluded his comparison of Pelé and Ali: “It didn’t matter where you lived — North Dakota or Nepal, Kansas City or Kazakhstan, Boston or Beijing — you knew who Pelé was. You knew who Ali was. And no matter where either of them traveled, even long after their retirements, they were mobbed by admirers and fans.” Let’s leave that as their most fitting tribute.