Pele: Remembering the Brazil legend's White House visits

President Biden honours 'legend' who was a regular White House visitor, with Nixon and Reagan meetings

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Brazilian football great Pele’s death at the age of 82 has prompted an outpouring of emotion from around the world.

Of course, he’s best known for his prowess on the pitch, but he’s also 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.

"Before there was Messi, Ronaldo, Beckham, there was Pelé," US President Joe Biden said in an Instagram post.

"For a sport that brings the world together like no other, Pelé’s rise from humble beginnings to soccer legend is a story of what is possible."

"Today, Jill and I's thoughts are with his family and all those who loved him."

His popularity in 1960s and early 70s helped propel global news reports of his football skills 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 presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan through the years.

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

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

Mr Obama said in an Instagram post on Thursday: "Pelé was one of the greatest to ever play the beautiful game. And as one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, he understood the power of sports to bring people together."

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.

1975, June 28 – Rose Garden – The White House – Washington, DC  – Gerald R. Ford, Edson Arantes "Pele" Nacimento, Amb. Joao Augusto de Araujo Castro, Others – Pele juggling soccer ball on foot and head – Brazilian Soccer Player; Ambassador from Brazil to the U.S.

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 one year later.

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

At first, Nixon showered the Brazilian football star with praise, 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 Richard Nixon and Pele during the football star's 1973 White House visit. Photo: US National Archives 

Pele then pivoted the conversation.

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

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

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

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” to come to Latin America from the US.

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

10/14/1982 President Reagan with soccer demonstration with children and Pele and Steve Moyers in the Rose Garden

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 Don Kendall, president of Pepsi, one of Pele’s corporate sponsors, about the intensity and scrutiny growing around Nixon’s presidency due to the Watergate scandal.

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

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