By criticising the 2014 World Cup and the spending priorities of the Brazilian government, Brazilian football legend Pele has accomplished the rarest of feats in 21st century sports media: he has shown the capacity to shock and surprise.
“It’s clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been,” Pele said during a lecture at Anahuac University in Mexico City.
“Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals … Brazil needs it. That’s clear. On that point, I agree [with the protests].
“But I lament what protesters are doing, which is breaking and burning everything. It’s money that we will have to spend again.”
These comments are without question tepid given the scale of the assault taking place on Brazil’s poor in the lead-up to the World Cup. It also ignores that much of the violence has been perpetrated by the Brazilian military police, who merit nary a dollop of criticism from the 73-year-old legend.
What is remarkable is that Pele said anything at all.
There is a reason why Brazilian football star turned politician Romario once said of the football legend: “He is a poet when he does not speak.” Romario said this because Pele has never failed to plant himself on the wrong side of history.
Pele was there arm-in-arm with Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva when Brazil secured this year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. To hear him raising actual criticisms of how the money has been spent is akin to Michael Jordan taking a stand against labour abuses perpetrated by Nike.
After all, this is Pele: the first athlete to ever trademark his own name. This is Pele, who as a brand and a blank-slate superstar athlete, was both ahead of his time and out of touch.
This is Pele, the person who said last year, as rubber bullets were flying and tear gas was being shot directly into the eyes of demonstrators and bystanders, that people should stop protesting and “think about the national team”.
This is Pele, who advised that demonstrations should be postponed until after the Cup and was roundly jeered.
This is who Pele is and has always been. In the 1960s, Pele criticised Muhammad Ali for resisting the draft and refusing to fight in Vietnam.
In an era where the rulers and rules of the world were being challenged, Pele met and entertained European royalty. He allowed Brazil’s dictatorship to use his image on postage stamps and went on “goodwill tours” to newly independent African republics on behalf of whichever of the rotating dictators happened to be in charge.
It is not that Pele was a hardline right-winger, as much as he was someone who chose to risk very little. The Brazilian government was, ultimately, his most important patron.
Pele sided with the ruling power in his country, right or wrong, time and again, on the question of the widespread poverty that has plagued Brazil for decades. His stock answer was that God made people poor and his function was to use his God-given athletic greatness to bring joy into their difficult lives.
When asked in 1972 about Brazil's ruling military regime, Pele said: “There is no dictatorship in Brazil. Brazil is a liberal country, a land of happiness. We are a free people. Our leaders know what is best.”
When Pele was saying this, 25-year-old Dilma Rousseff, now the country’s president, was being tortured in a military prison.
Pele wanted to use this World Cup as his swan song on the international stage. He has released a book and is trying to cash in while people are still paying attention.
The fact that he feels compelled to actually speak out about the carnival of injustice that FIFA and the governing Workers' Party are creating with the 2014 World Cup only underscores just how deep the crisis remains throughout the country.
[Abridged from Edge of Sports. Dave Zirin is the author of the just-released