Pele: Soccer legend has spoken on race, but some say not enough

For some Atlantans, their love affair with soccer began with the formation of the Atlanta United team in 2017, its attacking offensive style and its “rowdy and proud” fans.

For much of the world, the endearment with “the beautiful game” began with a man known as Pele.

The Brazilian-born soccer legend, whose career began in the late 1950s, is considered the world’s first superstar in the sport. More than four decades after his playing days ended, Pele is still universally described as soccer’s greatest player.

He’s frequently included in conversations and lists as one of the 20th century’s greatest athletes. So beloved in his native land, Pele, 78, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, is often referred to is “O Rei,” or “the king.”

ExploreRELATED: Read the AJC’s full Black History Month series

Pele, though, is part of a complicated conversation in Brazil concerning race, sports and identity that frequently occurs in America. Pele, an Afro-Brazilian, a racial minority in his homeland, has openly discussed racism he faced in his career, but some Afro-Brazilians and others believe “O Rei” has been self-muted when it comes to calling out racial discrimination.

“He shows no solidarity with the cause, black people, or even social issues in general,” Paulo Rogerio, executive director of Brazil’s Instituto Mídia Étnica, said in a July 2014 article on, a website devoted to African-American affairs and culture. “He has a history of never having publicly spoken in favor of the black struggle.”

Pele’s approach to race-related controversies has generally been not to be overly critical, fearing additional publicity only encourages more racism.

“If I’d started fighting every time they used the n-word in the United States, Latin America and Brazil, I’d still be embroiled in legal cases the world over,” Pele said in one interview.

African-American sports superstars such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have faced similar criticism for not being frequently vocal on race relations. Noted sports journalist Howard Bryant chronicled the issue in a book published last year titled “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.”

Many African-American activists and fellow North Carolinians felt Jordan was more concerned about losing lucrative endorsement deals than with speaking against a white U.S. senator in his home state many considered racist who eventually won a closely contested campaign against a black candidate. Woods, who is biracial, was derided and the subject of many jokes years ago for his self-description as “Cablinasian” — a mix of Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian.

RELATED: Willie O'Ree: First African-American to play in NHL skates into the Hall of Fame

RELATED: The Louisville Lip: Muhammad Ali's fighting words fueled a movement

RELATED: Mamie "Peanut" Johnson: Pitching pioneer

Despite those complaints, Jordan and Woods, and Pele, are admired for their mastery of their sport.

Pele won three World Cup championships in 1958, 1962 and 1970. He was 17 when he scored a “hat trick,” three goals, in a 1958 World Cup match, the youngest person to achieve such a feat. In 1967, there was a 48-hour cease-fire in Nigeria’s civil war to watch Pele play there.

Pele accomplished something else remarkable. He popularized soccer in America. Pele and his Brazilian team, Santos FC, visited Atlanta in 1968 to play an exhibition match against the Atlanta Chiefs, who won the North American Soccer League championship that year. Several years later, Pele joined the league to play with the New York Cosmos, drawing sellout crowds and winning a championship.

In 2014, Pele and Santos FC agreed to a lifetime contract for the team to use his image in its marketing, publicity and social media campaigns.

Not bad for someone initially rejected by some Brazilian teams.


Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.