SAO PAULO: Football legend Pele, who died on Thursday aged 82, was as much a hero among Arabs as he was among Brazilians.
It is “very common” for Arabs to root for the Brazilian team during World Cups — “the main reason for that was the 1970s squad led by Pele,” Mustafa Dahla, a Brazilian-born lawyer who lives in the Palestinian city of Beitunia, told Arab News.
That squad won the World Cup in Mexico, and is considered by analysts as one of the best of all time.
Dahla said many Palestinians joined the Brazilian community in Beitunia and cheered for the Latin American country during the recent World Cup in Qatar.
Born in Sao Paulo in 1971, Dahla never saw Pele in action, only in videos, but his Palestinian father and grandfather always told him that he was unparalleled.
On many levels — not only as a footballer — he was indeed incomparable. The king, as he was called by Brazilians, scored 1,281 goals, and won two Intercontinental Cups with the club Santos and three World Cups with the Brazilian team.
He left Santos to retire but ended up joining the New York Cosmos in 1975, a club owned by Warner Communications, and acted as the face of US soccer for a couple of years.
After his retirement, he continued to be a celebrity involved in multiple causes. He attended humanitarian events, promoted social campaigns in several countries, and remained connected to the football world. In the 1990s, he was even Brazil’s sports minister for a few years.
His ties with Arab nations were established since his younger days as a footballer. In his autobiography, Pele describes one of Santos’ tours in Europe that ended up being extended to Egypt.
“On our way there (…) on a stopover in Beirut, an enormous crowd stormed the airport and threatened to kidnap me unless we agreed to play a match against a Lebanese team,” he recalled years later. The police intervened so that the athletes could take the plane to Cairo.
With Santos, he played in the UAE, Qatar and North African countries. After leaving the club, Pele kept visiting Arab nations every now and then in order to attend football events.
In April 1975, for instance, he toured with Cosmos and joined Lebanese club Nejmeh in a match against a team formed by players from French-language universities.
The game drew more than 30,000 people to the stadium in Beirut. Only a few days later the Lebanese civil war broke out.
“He was not only superbly talented, but he also had a beautiful, creative way of playing football. It was joyful to see it,” Jihad Hammadeh, a Syrian-born sheikh in Brazil, told Arab News.
Hammadeh spent the first part of his childhood in the Lebanese village of Sultan Yaaqoub in the Beqaa Valley — a region where thousands of Arab Brazilians live — before moving to Brazil aged 7.
“We learn to love Brazil from the beginning of our lives there. Everybody roots for the Brazilian team and wears Brazilian jerseys. Pele has always been the major figure for us in that context,” he said.
“I met Brazilians who had to flee war zones in very complex situations during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When they told the soldiers that they were Brazilians, a friendly attitude emerged and they even played football together.”
Hammadeh studied in Madinah in the 1980s, and said his colleagues from Saudi Arabia and the Arab world as a whole had great expectations of playing football with him and the other Brazilian students due to Pele’s fame.
Mamede Jarouche, a professor of Arab literature at the University of Sao Paulo, was one of Hammadeh’s colleagues in Madinah and recalled the “aura of sympathy” that the name Pele created among his Arab friends.
“I was there during the 1982 World Cup and saw how they were rooting for Brazil, and how they got sad when Italy eliminated us,” Jarouche told Arab News.
National teams of students were formed for a tournament, and a Togolese colleague of Hammadeh’s and Jarouche’s loved Pele so much that he asked to join the Brazilian squad.
“We could notice that Arabs and Africans had a huge identification with Pele,” Jarouche said. Part of this empathy came from the fact that Pele was a black player of poor origin who had gigantic talent and success but never forgot his humble childhood in the Brazilian city of Bauru.
On more than one occasion, Pele told reporters that he was so poor as a child that he never had money to buy a football — he used to play with one made up of a sock stuffed with paper or rags and tied with a string.
“That created a kind of third-worldist sense of identification with him and the Brazilian team among some Arab peoples,” Jarouche said.
Hammadeh met with Pele on three occasions and saw how well he treated the poor. Pele once invited him for lunch as he wished to get to know him. On other occasion, Pele — a Catholic — asked the sheikh to bless his knee when he underwent surgery.
“He was an open-minded person with no religious prejudices. And he was friendly with the Islamic community in Sao Paulo,” Hammadeh said.
During their talks, Pele told him about his trips to Gulf nations and how he was always warmly welcomed.
“He said he always received so many gifts from Arab people that he usually didn’t know how he’d bring them all back to Brazil with him,” Hammadeh said.
Pele was also very generous, and gave him a signed Brazilian jersey and his autobiography. “Life is about memories. He was a great promoter of football and of Brazil, and will be remembered as such by many,” Hammadeh concluded.