Pelé: Beyond the football pitch

Pelé will also be remembered as a great champion of peace and well-being of the world’s children. 

Pelé: Beyond the football pitch
Kul at signing of “UNICEF-FIFA Global Alliance for Children” with Carol Bellamy & Joseph Blatter flanked by Pele, Brandi Chastain, UNICEF GWA “James Bond” Roger Moore & UNICEF’s Samuel Koo, 20 Nov 2001.

Along with billions of people around the world—including millions of Nepalis—I was mesmerised by the magic of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe while watching the 2022 FIFA World Cup finale in Qatar. But another great player who constantly hovered in my heart and mind was my all-time favourite, the legendary Pelé of Brazil, battling for his life in a faraway hospital in Sao Paulo.

Pelé, the King of football, passed away peacefully last week at 82. The outpouring of grief, adulation and nostalgia for him from people worldwide is a tribute to the unparalleled love and respect he commanded. Although Pele was not in Qatar for what has been dubbed the greatest FIFA World Cup ever, pictures of him in his famous number 10 shirt adorned the new, shining football stadiums in Doha with “get well soon” messages. 

Everybody knows Pelé as the best football player in world history, but few know about his significant contribution to social causes. Pelé helped save lives and improve the health of millions of children in Brazil. He also helped to promote global causes such as ecology and environment, sports and development, and peaceful resolution of conflicts as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, UNESCO and UNICEF. 

UNICEF, Pelé and breastfeeding

In the 1980s and 1990s, UNICEF was involved in promoting many innovative methods of social mobilisation to influence child-friendly public policies in Brazil. One example was the promotion of breastfeeding to improve child health and reduce the rates of infant mortality and malnutrition. Due to the aggressive marketing of baby milk formulas by private multinational companies, breastfeeding had declined dramatically to the point where only 8 percent of Brazilian mothers exclusively breastfed their babies during the first six months in the 1980s. UNICEF explored how it could best help in reversing this dangerous trend. 

Efforts to promote breastfeeding by the Ministry of Health and concerned paediatricians were not yielding the desired results in the face of deceptive advertising by the infant formula companies. In their search for the most respected and credible messenger whose advice mothers would pay attention to, UNICEF came up with an unusual yet obvious choice—Pelé. He happily agreed to lend his name to this worthy mission of saving lives and protecting the health of millions of Brazilian children. The decline in breastfeeding affected all segments of Brazil’s population, but the worst consequences were among the poorest. Many poor women were influenced by milk-formula advertisers who presented bottle feeding as a healthy and glamorous alternative to breastfeeding. Rich and beautiful women were shown to prefer bottle-feeding over breastfeeding. Even doctors and nurses in hospitals were enlisted by infant formula companies to influence new mothers to switch to bottle feeding.

As the world’s leading child health organisations, UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, and the International Pediatric Association had uncontested scientific evidence that breastfeeding was the best nutrient for infants and that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years with a gradual introduction of healthy weaning foods protected children from infection, malnutrition and common childhood diseases. Breastfeeding has many lifelong advantages for infants, mothers, and society as a whole. After securing Pelé’s enthusiastic agreement, UNICEF helped prepare an attractive poster depicting Pelé’s mother patting her famous son on the shoulder and saying, “Of course, he is the best football player in the world—I breastfed him!”

This poster became the centre-piece of the breastfeeding promotion campaign that dramatically increased exclusive breastfeeding to almost 40 percent within a few years. As a result, the lives of thousands of Brazilian children were saved, and the health of millions was improved as a result of this campaign. 

Pelé’s childhood in poverty

Pelé was receptive to UNICEF’s message partly because of his experience growing up as a poor child. Born in 1940 in a poor community in the state of São Paulo in southern Brazil, Pelé’s real family name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento. He grew up in poverty, earning money as a servant in tea shops. His father taught him to play football, but he could not afford a proper football. He often played with a grapefruit or an improvised ball made of old socks stuffed with newspapers and tied with a string. Given his personal experience, Pelé was very sensitive to the plight of children in poverty. Thus, he became an enthusiastic supporter of UNICEF and the UN’s anti-poverty development goals. 

In Brazil, Pelé’s name is also associated with anti-corruption activism. In 1995, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had once been a UNICEF consultant on social policy, appointed Pelé as an Extraordinary Minister for Sport. During his tenure, Pelé proposed legislation to reduce corruption in Brazilian football, which became known as the “Pelé law”.

‘Say Yes for Children’ campaign

As UNICEF’s Chief for Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1980s and later as its global Programme Director, I had many opportunities to visit Brazil. I witnessed the impact of Pelé’s contribution and the country’s impressive progress in child survival and development. 

I also had a special opportunity to meet and interact with Pelé in 2001 when I was leading UNICEF’s plans to organise a Global Summit at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children. To build momentum for the Summit’s ambitious goals, UNICEF launched a “Say Yes for Children” campaign with the active support of luminaries like Nelson Mandela, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and dozens of world leaders. One of the highlights of the campaign was a special partnership with FIFA. We invited FIFA President Sepp Blatter and several famous football stars and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors to join. The most prominent among them was Pelé, who signed the campaign as part of the “UNICEF-FIFA Global Alliance for Children”.

In another memorable event, Pelé helped UNICEF and FIFA to kick off the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany as part of a campaign to utilise the power of football to instil in children self-esteem, mutual respect and fair play while also spreading the message of peace. Pelé carried the World Cup trophy onto the pitch in Munich alongside supermodel and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Claudia Schiffer. 

Maestro of the “Beautiful Game”

During his illustrious career, Pelé won three FIFA World Cups in 19581962 and 1970 and set many international records as the greatest football player of all time. His extraordinary skills, such as the ability to strike powerful and accurate shots with both feet and the elegance with which he manoeuvred the ball and outmanoeuvred his competitors are legendary. More than anyone else, Pelé is credited for popularising football as “The Beautiful Game”. 

There have been other great football stars in recent years, including Messi, Mbappe, Maradona, Ronaldo and Zidane, to name a few. But Pelé will be remembered as the most loved, admired and inspiring legend in history. Besides being the best football player, he will also be remembered as a great champion of worthy causes like peace, the environment and the well-being of the world’s children.