AP Interview: Pele prepares as World Cup returns to his native Brazil for 1st time since 1950
NEW YORK – Pele's family doesn't call him by his nickname. They don't even call him by his given name, Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
Sitting for a half-hour interview Wednesday at the headquarters of The Associated Press, Pele said he resisted the nickname given to him by his schoolmates.
"Very few people know," he explained, "My father gave me Edson because of Thomas Edison, the engineer — the lights. I was very proud. They start to call me Pele, I fight with everybody. But in my family, when I was young, they called me Dico. Until now, my family, my sister my brother, my mother call me Dico."
Pele is thinking back to his youth these days.
In a little more than two months, the World Cup will be played in Brazil for the first time since 1950, when 9-year-old Edson's father listened on the radio as Brazil lost the final round-robin game and the title 2-1 to Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. As soccer's showcase returns to the land of "jogo bonito" (the beautiful game), Pele's views are sought. He even has a new book, "Pele: Why Soccer Matters," which was released this week by Celebra.
Of course, Pele hopes Brazil will reach the final. And he would like it to be against Uruguay.
"An opportunity for revenge," he said.
The 73-year-old said he doesn't expect Brazil will have an easy path to a record sixth title — two more than any other nation.
"I think Germany has a very good team, young team, and then Spain. Spain is a team who plays together eight years, 10 years — same team. Very nice organized team," he said. "This will be difficult. But we must respect Italy. We must respect Uruguay, because Uruguay is there. Argentina is there."
Pele was a part of Brazil's first three World Cup champions, in 1958, 1962 and 1970, and he scored 77 goals in 92 games for the Selecao. He starred for Santos from 1956-74 and then kick-started soccer in the United States with the Cosmos from 1975-77. He still keeps an apartment in Manhattan.
When he first arrived in New York, he could walk into Central Park, play some pickup with kids and watch a few people take Polaroid photographs. Four decades later, when the U.S. has purchased the second-most World Cup tickets behind the host nation, that's not possible — and not because of the right hip replacement surgery he had in 2012 that has him walking with a slight limp.
"Now people, they follow more, but not only Central Park, every place where I go — Broadway," he said before quickly adding with a smile: "This is good because people love me."
When he retired, he was considered to have no equal. Then Diego Maradona led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup with amazing darting runs, and to the 1990 final, where La Albiceleste lost to West Germany. And in this era, Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo are scoring at pretty much a goal-a-game rate for their clubs, although they haven't won the ultimate prize with the national teams.
"I think to compare Pele with Messi, with Maradona, is difficult because we have different styles," Pele said.
If Pele were in charge of a club, who would be the first player he'd try to sign?
"I'm going to say Neymar because he belongs to us. He comes for free," said Pele, referring to the young Brazilian forward Santos sold to Barcelona last summer.
"But at the moment," Pele went on, "as I am a forward, as I score a lot of goals, I will decide: Cristiano Ronaldo."
In the years since his retirement, soccer tactics have become far more defensive. Flowing offense has become a rarity. Pele is saddened by that.
"Italy always played defense — in my time, now, always," he said. "But unfortunately today, I think because of the millions, because of the new technology, because of the money from the sponsors, the people, they don't care the way they win."
He says the message from coaches is not win, but rather "don't lose."
"They don't care about the beautiful game. They don't care about the elegance of football. In my time, we used to think and give a little show."
He never wanted to be a coach, never wanted to be teaching what came to him so naturally, from his days growing up in the Sao Paulo state city of Bauru, to his years of acclaim at soccer's highest level.
Teaching is for a technician, not for such a talent.
"If I would be a coach, I think it would be a little difficult because sometime I'm going to make a mistake, a big mistake, because I'm going to ask the forward, the No. 10, do what I used to do," was Pele's reasoning. "But he is different. Then I say it's better to stay out."
With his famous smile and gregarious manner, Pele is a magnet for attention. Some days, it takes nothing at all for him to be in a headline.
Last Friday, Pele's phone started ringing when the Twitter account of the CNN morning show "New Day" tweeted: "#BREAKING: Brazilian former soccer player Pele dies at 74."
"I was not surprised because it was not the first time," he said. "The last time was three years ago. ... One elephant died, and the nickname of the elephant was Pele. People said Pele died. My family started to call me. Was the same last week."
Pele said he called his sister, who lives with his mother.
"Listen, Pele died," he recalled saying, "but Edson is alive."