Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 1 December 2020

Pele at 80: Remembering the Brazil legend's White House visits

Pele’s birthday is stirring memories around the world

US President Richard Nixon met with Pele in 1973 as rumblings of the Watergate scandal were beginning to surface.  Courtesy US National Archives 
US President Richard Nixon met with Pele in 1973 as rumblings of the Watergate scandal were beginning to surface.  Courtesy US National Archives 

As Pele turns 80, we’re taking a look back at his efforts to popularise football in the United States.

Without a doubt, he’s widely known as the man who helped take the sport from a minor curiosity to the mainstream in the US, where baseball, basketball and American football dominated for so long.

His popularity in 1960s and early 70s helped propel global news reports of his football prowess all the way to the US, thus making Pele a household name there.

That recognition prompted him to accept several invitations to the White House to meet with Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan through the years.

Pele also paid President Jimmy Carter a White House visit in 1977, and presented Carter with a kit. Photo: Jimmy Carter Library / US National Archives
Pele also paid President Jimmy Carter a White House visit in 1977, and presented Carter with a kit. Photo: Jimmy Carter Library / US National Archives

His star-power remained well into the 1990s and beyond, prompting both President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to meet with him during their respective visits to Brazil.

Many of the photos and videos from those meetings are forever enshrined in the US National Archives, and therefore etched in the minds of millions of Americans as well.

Although US President Gerald Ford was known for his American football prowess, on this day during his 1975 visit to the White House, Pele stole the spotlight. Courtesy US National Archives 
Although US President Gerald Ford was known for his American football prowess, on this day during his 1975 visit to the White House, Pele stole the spotlight. Courtesy US National Archives

Perhaps one of the more memorable visits in hindsight, given the historical significance, was Pele’s first visit to the White House in 1973 to meet Richard Nixon, who would be forced to resign just one year later.

Because of the now infamous tape recording system Nixon had installed in the White House, there’s plenty of audio shedding light on Pele’s visit.

At first, Nixon showered the Brazilian football star with praise at the beginning of their meeting, but soon stumbled when he asked if Pele spoke Spanish.

Pele responded politely, and corrected Nixon.

“No, Portuguese. It is all the same,” he can be heard saying.

Transcripts show an initially awkward encounter between US President Richard Nixon and Pele during the football star's 1973 White House visit. Courtesy US National Archives 
Transcripts show an initially awkward encounter between US President Richard Nixon and Pele during the football star's 1973 White House visit. Courtesy US National Archives

Pele then pivoted the conversation.

“Soccer is very different from American football,” he said.

Nixon quickly responded loudly with what seemed to be an attempt at a joke.

“Do I know that! The main thing is to use your head.”

Just before their meeting ends, Pele shares his hopes to bring “soccer technicians” to the US to expand the sport’s popularity, while also wanting “basketball technicians” come to Latin America from the US.

“That is a great enterprise and I wish you well,” Nixon can be heard responding, quickly ending the conversation.

Pele also signed a football for Nixon before departing.

Forebodingly, shortly after Pele’s interaction with the President concludes, Nixon can be heard speaking with Pepsi President Don Kendall, one of Pele’s corporate sponsors, about the intensity and scrutiny growing around Nixon’s presidency due to the Watergate scandal.

Pele played the beautiful game with President Ronald Reagan and Steve Moyers in the Rose Garden during another visit to the White House in 1982
Pele played the beautiful game with President Ronald Reagan and Steve Moyers in the Rose Garden during another visit to the White House in 1982

Ironically, as Nixon abruptly left office 1974, Pele actually came out of retirement in 1975 and played several years in the US for the New York Cosmos, solidifying his place in the US consciousness for sports and pop culture.

Updated: October 23, 2020 11:41 AM

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