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Talk Asia

Interview with Football Star and Ambassador, Pele

Aired April 27, 2011 - 06:30   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN ANCHOR: The year was 1971. And America was making its first official push into the world of soccer. In a country where baseball and American football reigned supreme, the managers of the New York Cosmos turned to sports legend, Pele.

No ordinary footballer, this three-time world cup winner took America by storm and carved an unlikely spot of soccer in the U.S. After Pele's three hugely successful seasons with the Cosmos in the '70s, the club and the league fell into decline and dissolved in 1985.

Today, 34 years after Pele hung up his boots, millions around the globe still admire the talent he showed during his career. So much so that now, under new management, the New York Cosmos are making a comeback and have turned to the soccer superstar for help once again.

We caught up with Pele in Hong Kong on his promotional tour of Asia with the Cosmos.


COREN: Well, Pele, welcome to "Talk Asia".

PELE, NEW YORK COSMOS HONORARY PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

COREN: It's great to have you with us. Now it's been three decades since you retired from your illustrious career. And, to this day, you are still considered the world's greatest football player. How does that feel?

PELE: That's a big responsibility, you know? This was a gift from God. And I try to be at my best. I try to respect people. I try to prepare myself. I try to be always in good shape, you know? The most important -- respect for people.

COREN: You spent your career playing for the Brazilian club, Santos. But, before you hung up your boots completely, you spent a couple of years with the New York Cosmos. Tell me, you are here in Hong Kong to represent that club -- to revive it. What is your involvement?

PELE: When I retired with Santos, I was already champion of the world in the '70s in Mexico. In '74, Santos was champion in Sao Paulo from the league. I was the best scorer for the league. Then, I retire, and at that time I had a lot of propose to go to play in Europe. You know, England, Italy, Spain, Mexico, but I say "no". After 18 years old, I want to rest, because I was going to retire.

Then appeared the propose to, you know, go to New York because they want to make the soccer big in the United States. That was the reason, you know, I come back to play. Then I start my mission and now I am here because of this, you know? Because we're going to revive the New York Cosmos. To me, is a fun task, because I start with New York Cosmos and become a very big sport in the United States, and now we come back.

COREN: Because you joined the New York Cosmos in 1975 and only for two years, but I believe that the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Henry Kissinger, personally called you and begged you to join the team, because they wanted to make football great in the United States and the knew the only person who could do that was you.

PELE: Yes, that was a big responsibility, because say then, "oh my God, what I going to do in New York?" The team was a very young team. Most were university players, you know, college players. But we became very well known.

COREN: Soccer has never been -- or I should call it football -- has never been as popular in the United States as in South America or Europe. Do you think it will ever become as popular?

PELE: Well, I think soccer is very popular. No doubt, because you have a lot of foreigners there. You have a German, you'll have Latins, Europeans, in the United States. Then, it is very popular. I think, to talk about the pro level, because then you compete with American football, with baseball, and with basketball -- then it's a little complicated, but the United States almost came to the finals. Last two World Cup, the United States did very well, you know?

And then, to talk about the game -- talk about pastime, soccer is the best pastime for the young in the United States. Since I was there from eight years old and from 18 to 19-years-old. The biggest pastime is soccer for the girls. The girls in the United States, they are known the best in the world. Then it is very important to continue with my mission.

COREN: Pele, what is the greatest match you have ever played?

PELE: My first game with the National Team of Brazil was in Maracana. I had 16-years-old. We play against Argentina. You know Brazil and Argentina is very rival, no? This was something who I can spend my emotion, the pressure -- but after that, then I have the world cups -- three world cups, I have some final with my team Santos. This is very difficult to explain which one was more important.

COREN: You had an amazing moment in your career in 1969, when you scored your 1,000th goal. I think it was something like 13 minutes left on the clock and Santos had been awarded a penalty. And the ball had been given to you, and the crowd just erupts. 80,000 people are yelling your name. That must have been exhilarating.

PELE: Yes. That was another big, big surprise. Nobody scored 1,000 until now. It was a penalty kick. Everybody think penalty kick is the easiest to score, but is not so easy. You know, it was very difficult. But a friend of mine, he say, "Listen, God stopped the game because everyone has to see your 1,000th goal. That's the reason there was a penalty kick".

COREN: Well, was it terrifying, at that moment?

PELE: Oh, yes. Yes. Because everybody stopped everything, you know? The pressure was very, very, very big and very tough, but I scored.

COREN: I wanted to talk about the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. You were 29-years-old. You were the veteran of the team, but you were also in peak condition. You'd made the finals, you were playing against Italy, and the man marking you, Burgnich, he said, "I told myself he was made of skin and bones like the rest of us, but I was wrong".

PELE: You know, to me, it was a special world cup. It was my last world cup. My last opportunity to show my best and to retire a champion. I prepared myself. I tried to be in shape. All the moments I was focused on this world cup. Then we came in the final against Italy. I think it was bad for Italy, because we were in best our moments. And for me, it was fantastic, because I retired in my best with the champion. This was fantastic.

COREN: It's the way to go out, isn't it? On top.

PELE: Good to the last.

COREN: Coming up, we find out about the man who inspired the king of football.




COREN: I now want to talk about you growing up. You were born in Brazil into a poor family. Your father was a professional football player. And your mother did not want you to follow in his footsteps. She wanted you to be a doctor or a teacher. Lucky your mother didn't have too much say in your future.

PELE: Yes. I don't know, I think she was a little bit wrong.


COREN: Just a little bit.

PELE: My mother -- no, you know what happened. Of course, my father was a soccer player. He used to play very good. Then, when I was young, eight or nine years old, ten years old, I just want to be like my father. I don't want to be famous. I don't want to be a great player; I just want to be like my father.

Then my mother used to say, "You must be a doctor, you have to study to be a teacher". I said, OK, I'm going to start, but let me try. Then I went to Santos when I was 14-years old. I tried. And they signed me. With 15, I was on the team, with 16 the national team, with 17 in the World Cup in Sweden.

Then my mother said -- then she said "OK".

COREN: You can follow your path. But getting back to your beginnings and your humble beginnings. I mean, you love the game so much that you would play with a sock filled with newspaper because you couldn't afford a football.

PELE: We used to play in the streets, of course. And that was, I think, the gift where I got from God. Because, when I start to play with the kids around nine, 10 years old, my name is Edison for the youngest. My name is Edison Arantes do Nascimento -- the family name. But, I was so proud because my father -- he gave me Edison because of Thomas Edison. I was so proud because Edison was a very important engineer -- the light.

Then, somebody in the street, when I was kick the ball there, somebody say "Pele". I don't know why he did it -- some mistake. I fighted everyone. I went to school --

COREN: Because you didn't like the nickname, did you?

PELE: I didn't like. I like Edison. I was so mad because they call me "Pele". I say, I don't know that, my name is Edison. Then, I went to school, I got two days suspended because I fight with a boy in the school. Then, the college starts to call me "Pele". Then, you see, this was another gift of God, because nobody knows why, and today I love, because everybody knows Pele. It is easy to understand and to express.

COREN: So now, you accept being called "Pele"?

PELE: No, now I love.

COREN: Fantastic. Pele, was there ever a time that you doubted yourself and your ability?

PELE: No, you know, I mentioned before -- always in my life I want to be like my father. But, after I start to play, my father used to tell me, "Listen, God give a gift to you to play football. Everyone have a gift. One was a doctor, another musician, another one is political people, but God give a gift to you to play football. If you be prepared, if you be, you know, focused. If you have good health, nobody going to stop you". And that's what I did all my life.

COREN: You mentioned that you were discovered when you were 15. That's when you went to play for Santos. 10 months later, you were chosen for the national team. At the age of 17, you were playing in your first world cup in Sweden. After that -- that world cup win -- clubs around the world, they all wanted you.

But the President of Brazil at the time made you a national treasure so you weren't allowed to leave the country. Did you resent that decision, ever?


PELE: You know why I smile? Because -- I'm sorry I smile the minute you mention -- because they call me national treasure, but I -- until now, I say income tax.


PELE: I have to pay so much, it was good. But it was a big responsibility because I am a human being and everybody can make a mistake, you know. But the responsibility, you know, to be follow for the young, I have to be careful and to ask God to help me to not make a mistake.

COREN: This is all happening at a time when civil rights and racial integration was making, you know, major in-roads around the world and you contributed to that. You were part of that.

PELE: Yes, that's -- I feel proud of that. Because, you know, with my team, Santos -- this you have in the film, my biography -- we stop war. Because the people were so crazy for football -- they love football, they stop the war to see Santos play in Africa.

COREN: Yes, you are referring to 1967, when the cease-fire --

PELE: Exactly.

COREN: -- was announced in Nigeria for 48 hours so that both warring factions could watch you play in Lagos. I mean, that is just phenomenal.

PELE: All the Africans play -- It is different -- because we didn't expect that. The same what I used to say, when we travel, where we stay, we try to give always good message. You know? This is a big responsibility, but I trust God.

COREN: Who do you think is the best football player at the moment?

PELE: Pele.


COREN: Playing the game?

PELE: No, but there's -- if you ask to me, I am a very good friend of Pele. My name is Edison. Nice to meet you.

COREN: Nice to meet you, Edison.

PELE: But, of course, we have a lot of good players, you know? But is difficult to say today, you know, who is the best player. Because every year have someone different. You know, before, you can mention a player who used to play 10 years -- for example, Beckenbauer, Platini, you know, Cruyff, you know, Bob Charlton, George Best -- then you came with the Maradona, Zico, you know?

Those players used to play for a long time. Now, players play one year, two years, disappear. It is difficult to say. But one I mention, Pele, because nobody do or did what Pele did. Then, Pele, to me, is the best.

COREN: Your country is hosting the 2014 world cup. Do you think Brazil will be ready?

PELE: Brazil delayed a little bit. You know, I think, is a little embarrassing.




COREN: Your country is hosting the 2014 World Cup. But you do have some serious concerns, don't you? Do you think Brazil will be ready?

PELE: We work very hard to, you know, to get the World Cup. To get to the Olympics. Then, because I travel all over the world to ask vote, you know, for the commission in South America and in Europe. Now we get. I think is very big responsibility for the Brazilians, for the government, you know, for the political people -- to understand. Because it is important to give back what they give to us. And give back well.

And then Brazil delayed a little bit. You know, I think, is a little embarrassing for the reputation of Brazil. For the reputation who work for Brazil like I did. That's my worry.

COREN: Do you think they'll be ready?

PELE: No, of course, they're going to be ready, but you have to be nice, you know? Because it have not only the World Cup -- you have Cup America, you have Olympics Games, you have the World Cup. You must deliver very well.

COREN: Now, FIFA have made some controversial decisions recently --


COREN: -- the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. Do you think this is good for the game? Or do you think it's a mistake?

PELE: Listen, I was not there. I am part of the community of football, of FIFA, but that time I was not there. I could not go because I had another mission in Brazil. I don't know exactly what happened, but what I tell to the people, I say, I don't know what happened unfortunately or not. But, for the World Cup in Brazil was very clean. Then we wait for you there.

COREN: But, do you think that Russia and Qatar being awarded the World Cup -- do you think that's good as far as location, you know, in that part of the world?

PELE: It depends the way they organize the World Cup. Russia is the traditional in soccer and football-soccer, you know? Qatar is not traditional, but they have a lot of money. I don't know if they could avoid to do, you know, the World Cup in June/July -- is very hot there. Maybe they have to make the outdoor stadium with air conditioner. They have money for that.

COREN: They can afford it. What do you make of the game today? The multi-million dollar salaries, the endorsements, the managers, the agents. I mean, has that changed the game?

PELE: Yes, that's of course changed a little bit. But it is not all in the football. I think the life today is different, you know? I used to tease my friends, you know, when I see the youngest player, when I cross with them, then I say, "Listen, what you get now in one year, I have to play 10 years to get."

But it was a different time. The life today is completely different. You have more sponsor, you know? You have the TV, the media today is the most present in the sport. Is not only football. You see the race, the formal one, is the same in baseball. Is the same -- you have a lot of the sponsors today, you know? In our time, we didn't have too many sponsor. The TV was not so present like now.

COREN: You have always been an ambassador of the game. It's also been very lucrative. You are quite a savvy businessman.

PELE: I think I was better football player.


PELE: I was much better football player than businessman. Because I acted too much with my heart, and in the business, you cannot act with the heart. I think this is my fault.

COREN: You have endorsed plenty of products over the years, but they are products that you have believed in. And I want to ask you about this particular product, because it's probably one of the more interesting products, and that being Viagra for erectile dysfunction in men.

Now, you being the face if it certainly brought the conversation out into the public. It broke all taboos. But why did you do it?

PELE: Listen, as you mentioned, I was invite and I did a lot of commercial, lot of promotion, lot of endorsement, you know? But I never did endorsement for drink, alcohol, or tobacco. When I was invite to talk with the people from Pfizer -- Pfizer is the company who has Viagra -- they said to me, "Listen, we have something who going to save the world".

Because what they told me was Viagra was a medicine for hearts, not for erection. That was something people don't know. This was for blood pressure and for the heart. I did the commercial for Pfizer, not for the product.

COREN: I think it's fantastic.

PELE: But that had a lot of people now, young boys -- friends of mine now -- with 19-years-old, 18-years-old, 20-years-old -- they go to the clubs. They use Viagra, I don't know why.

COREN: I do.


PELE: No, is very young boys.

COREN: I think there would be a lot of men in this world saying, "Thank you, Pele". I have no doubt about it.

Pele, what is the future of the beautiful game?

PELE: I think it will be always the beautiful game. No doubt. As we see now. And more and more they put people together. The only sport -- the only thing who put people together -- it doesn't matter if they are black, no nation, no color, no religion, no political decision -- this is the football. Put all together -- the compassion -- it will be always like that.

COREN: Well, Pele, it's an absolute pleasure to have met you. Thank you so much for joining us.

PELE: Obligado. I hope to see you soon.