The mid- to late-50s were really interesting times in Africa.
Colonial powers had almost the entirety of the continent in a chokehold, but the promise of a long-awaited release felt imminent. Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to crack the code of independence, doing so in 1957 in freeing themselves from the British. In next to no time, all of Africa was breathing that sweet, empowering air of freedom.
Long shackled and subdued by oppression, Africa was now emerging, buoyed by the belief that the Black man was fully capable of excellence in any field — and that movement was about to find an unlikely poster boy, from the country with the largest Black population outside Africa.
A year after Ghana declared its coming-of-age with that reverberating statement of liberation, a 17-year-old fresh-faced teenager announced himself to a global audience. Pele was what everyone called him; by the end of the 1958 Fifa World Cup, where he made his bow in stunning fashion, that nickname (which he admits to not being particularly fond of, initially) was being whispered all around the world.
He’d been christened, at birth, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, his first name being a Lusophonic translation of the last name of Thomas Edison, the famous American who Pele’s father had every reason to adore, credited with the invention of, among others, the electric light bulb, the motion picture camera, and the phonograph.
Pele, quite fittingly, flicked on the switch that produced the first flash of footballing superstardom, hogging the limelight at that tournament — which he won with Brazil, his country, setting several records along the way, some of them still unbroken — and basking in it for the rest of his life, capturing the imagination of many to whose ears his name was music.
And that won’t change even now he’s no more, following news of his death at age 82 after a long battle with cancer Thursday evening. His place as the face of football remains secure, never to be usurped. This was the man whose lofty standards, on and off the pitch, established the sport’s enduring metric for what greatness is.
But, of course, this piece isn’t about why Pele remains arguably the greatest ever to kick a football; much has been written on the subject and, following his demise, expect even more to flood the Internet. This, instead, is about how he, a descendant of African slaves, proved the torchbearer — even from a distance — for the people to whom he traced his ancestry.
Some 12 years would pass before Pele’s Brazil — blessed with the talents of other great players of African extraction, like Mane Garrincha, Djalma Santos, Vava, Didi, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto — established themselves, with a hat-trick of world titles, as football’s gold standard.
But even after that maiden triumph, at least one nascent African nation was already unto the Selecao, eager to adopt and adapt their winning formula.
Ghana, mentioned earlier, sent retired international Charles Kumi Gyamfi to refine his coaching methods in Brazil — just around the time Pele and Co. had successfully completed the South Americans’ title defence at the 1962 finals in Chile — before being appointed the very first indigenous coach of his homeland’s national team, the Black Stars.
Gyamfi implemented what he learned so well that Ghana would become known, by the end of that decade, as ‘the Brazil of Africa’; if Brazil, in other words, were the team to beat on the world stage, Ghana laid legitimate claim to similar pre-eminence in Africa. That status was cemented by a collection of four Nations Cup titles — a record haul at the time, the new mark set in 1982.
That fourth generation of African champions birthed Ghana’s own Pele, Abedi Ayew, who burst onto the scene as a teen at that tournament in Libya almost as startlingly as Pele did all those years ago at Sweden ’58. Abedi wasn’t the first to earn that hallowed moniker with his elegance on the ball, but few have stuck with it for as long as he — widely acknowledged as Ghana’s greatest-ever footballer — has; official or not, ‘Pele’ has all but replaced ‘Ayew’ as his last name.
Fittingly, Abedi became the first Black African to win the grandest prize of European club football, the Uefa Champions League, doing so as the star of the show when his Olympique Marseille side beat AC Milan in the 1993 final. In 2004, he was the only Ghanaian named by Pele among the ‘Fifa 100’, a list of the 125 “greatest living footballers”.
A little more than a decade prior, though, Pele had personally conferred an arguably greater honour, that which came with bearing his hallowed name, on another Ghanaian, Nii Odartey Lamptey, anointing him his “natural successor… the next Pele”, after the kid lighted up a Fifa youth tournament.
But that attempt at prognostication, one of a great many Pele became comically infamous for, ultimately failed. Lamptey, after a blistering start to his career didn’t even prove a worthy successor to the Ghanaian Pele, never mind the Brazilian version, his path to the top obstructed by a multitude of challenges that rendered him one of the earliest victims of the notorious ‘Pele curse’.
It wasn’t just Ghana — which Pele visited by himself in May 1971 — that, for better or for worse, got a feel of O Rei’s sceptre, though.
A continent-wide tour by Santos, the club he gave all of his best years, during one of the many globetrotting adventures the Brazilian side embarked on while they had a talent gem of such luminescence on their books, gave African football fans a chance to take in Pele’s glorious ability and persona in the flesh.
That trip to Africa, in early 1969, saw Santos — among the very best teams in the world at the time — play nine games against select sides in a number of countries, winning four and losing one.
Mind, this was at a time when only one African team — Egypt, in 1934 — had ever been to the World Cup, and when the export of African players to Europe wasn’t in vogue, so visits like these by the mighty Santos (and other celebrated outfits, like Real Madrid) presented as good a chance as any for the continent’s footballers to test themselves against the game’s brightest and best.
There was already enough confidence among African nations that they were deserving of more than just the one World Cup ticket they had to contend with their peers in Asia for, which is why they collectively boycotted the 1966 tournament. Fifa eventually gave in and handed Africa a slot of its own, a decision unofficially justified by performances as those against Santos (who won only two of those nine games by a margin of two goals or more).
Those keenly-contested encounters with African opposition must have left an indelible impression on Pele, or perhaps it was the consequence of increased African representation at the World Cup from 1970; whatever the case, just eight years after his ‘homecoming’ as part of the travelling Santos contingent, Pele was moved to make a very bold claim.
“An African nation will win the World Cup before the year 2000,” he said, in another of his ill-advised proclamations.
The very year after Pele’s utterance, Tunisia became the first African side to win a World Cup game. At the next edition, Algeria won two group games. Then Morocco, in 1986, secured the distinction of reaching the Round of 16, before Cameroon, four years later, broke new ground by advancing to the quarter-finals.
With two more World Cups to go before the end of the 20th Century, and per Africa’s rate of progress, Pele’s words seemed well on course to being fulfilled.
Africa, however, stagnated — regressed, even — for the remainder of that period and never quite made it to the finish line.
Senegal also made it as far as the last eight, but only after Pele’s due date had passed, a feat Ghana emulated in 2010. The quarters had become the new glass ceiling, which African sides only touched infrequently and failed — albeit narrowly — in their attempts to shatter.
That was until Morocco showed up at the 2022 World Cup, had a crack at it and slammed their way right through after overcoming some of the more fancied sides, rightly proud to finish an unprecedented fourth in the final reckoning of all 32 participating teams.
It’s uncertain just how much of Morocco’s historic run Pele — admitted at the hospital ten days after the World Cup kicked off, before being moved to end-of-life care by the time the knockout rounds kicked in — personally saw, but he did reserve special mention for the Moroccans on his Instagram page in congratulating Qatar 2022’s top performers.
“It’s great to see Africa shine,” he beamed.
Morocco’s eventual placement is still some way off Pele’s prediction, but it’s even farther from 60-odd years ago when he and Mozambique-born Portugal star Eusebio, a contemporary and as close to a rival as Pele had in his day, were the most recognisable players with African roots to have ever graced the World Cup.
Pele was an inspiration then as he is now. His specific projections of what Africa’s teams and players could achieve may have proven wide of the mark — not unlike some of the tales told of the impact of his 60s’ presence here which, at best, could be described as apocryphal — but even such lofty visions and, more than those, his sterling example remain a constant reminder of just what is possible for the continent that was, well and truly, his home.