Excerpt from Pele’s book, fantastic….
July 16, 1950
We laughed. We screamed. We jumped up and down. All of us, my whole family, gathered in our little house. Just like every other family, all across Brazil.
Three hundred miles away, before a raucous crowd in Rio de Janeiro, mighty Brazil was battling tiny Uruguay in the final game of the World Cup. Our team was favored. Our moment had come. And in the second minute of the second half, one of our forwards, Friaca, shook off a defender and sent a low ball bouncing toward goal. Past the goalie, and into the net it went.
Brazil 1, Uruguay 0.
It was beautiful—even if we couldn’t see it with our own eyes. There was no TV in our small city. For most Brazilians, there was just the radio. Our family had a giant set, standing in the corner of our main room, which we were now dancing around madly, whooping and hollering.
I was nine years old, but I will never forget that feeling: the euphoria, the pride. I remember my mother, her easy smile. And my father, my hero, so restless during those years, so frustrated by his own broken soccer dreams—suddenly very young again, embracing his friends, overcome with happiness.
It would last exactly 19 minutes.
We, like millions of other Brazilians, had yet to learn one of life’s hard lessons—in life, as in soccer, nothing is certain until the whistle blows.
Final score: Uruguay 2, Brazil 1.
* * *
Prior to that day—a date that every Brazilian remembers, like the death of a loved one— it was hard to imagine anything capable of bringing our country together.
Brazilians were separated by so many things back then. Our country’s enormous size was one of them. Our little city of Bauru, high on a plateau in the interior of Sao Paulo state, seemed a world away from the glamorous, beachside capital in Rio. If we felt distant from Rio that day, I can only imagine how my fellow Brazilians in the Amazon, or in the vast Pantanal swamp, or on the rocky, arid sertao of the northeast, must have felt.
In truth, though, it wasn’t just geography that kept us apart. Brazil, a bountiful place in many ways, blessed with gold and oil and coffee and a million other gifts, could seem like two different countries. The tycoons and politicians in Rio had their Paris- style mansions, their horse racing tracks, and their beach vacations, while roughly half of Brazilians typically didn’t get enough to eat. Just one in three knew how to read properly. This inequality was rooted in our politics, our culture, and in our history—I was part of only the third generation of my family born free.
Many years later, after my playing days were over, I would meet the great Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. He said to me: “Pele, here in South Africa, we have many different people, speaking many different languages. There in Brazil, you have so much wealth, and only one language. So why is your country not rich? Why is your country not united?”
I had no answer for him then, and I have no perfect answer now. But in my 73 years, I have seen progress. And I know when I believe it began.
Standing around the radio, and suffering together on July 16, 1950, gave Brazilians a shared experience. For the first time, rich and poor alike had something in common, something they could discuss with anybody on the street corner, whether they were in Rio, Bauru, or deep in the Amazon.
We take this sort of thing for granted now; but it was very important back then, in creating a common story of what it meant to be Brazilian. We weren’t strangers anymore. And I don’t think we ever really were again.
Finally: For a generation of aspiring soccer players like me, July 16, 1950, was motivating in ways that I couldn’t possibly exaggerate. As I watched my dad cry, and my mom trying to comfort him, I slipped into my parents’ room. They had a picture of Jesus on the wall. I burst into tears as I addressed Him.
“Why did this happen?” I sobbed. “Why did it happen to us? Why, Jesus, why are we being punished?”
There was no answer, of course. But as my despair subsided, it was replaced by something else—something deeper. I dried my tears, walked into the living room, and put my hand on my dad’s arm.
“It’s ok, dad,” I told him. “One day, I promise, I’ll win the World Cup for you.”