Four decades have passed since Pele mesmerized the world with his magical feet, and yet, the 73-year-old Brazilian soccer legend remains a go-to brand ambassador, especially this year, with the World Cup being held in his home country beginning June 12.
The iconic one-named star is as sought-after as he was in his prime, with an endorsement portfolio that includes Coca-Cola, Subway, Volkswagen, Emirates Air and Procter and Gamble.
Pele made a stop Monday at Romero Britto’s Wynwood art studio to promote Swiss watch maker Hublot, the “Official Timekeeper of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”
Pele is the spokesman, and Britto, the Miami-based Brazilian pop artist, designed the covers for the limited-edition World Cup watch, which features yellow and green dials (Brazil’s national colors) and 45-minute timers to coincide with soccer-match halves.
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Pele met with local media and touched on topics ranging from his World Cup favorites (Brazil, Germany, Spain), to Beckham’s Miami Major League Soccer plans and to memories of his father weeping when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup.
He later spoke with the Miami Herald and was asked whether he faced racism during his playing days, in light of the Donald Sterling NBA racism scandal and Monday’s news from Spain that a fan threw a banana at Barcelona’s Brazilian defender Dani Alves while he attempted a corner kick. Alves responded by picking up the banana and eating it, drawing praise from fans all over the world.
“I never had any problems,” Pele said. “On the contrary, I have open doors all over the world, and I am received marvelously wherever I go. There are always crazy people who say things, but those things have never bothered me. I never paid attention.”
As for David Beckham’s plan to bring pro soccer back to Miami, Pele is delighted.
“To have a name like Beckham is very important [to the success of a Miami MLS team],” he said. “Everybody knows I came here with the Cosmos [in the late 1970s] to promote soccer and now you have a player like Beckham doing the same, and it is fantastic.
“I think it will do well not only in Miami, but the whole United States. People don’t remember, when I arrived, soccer in this country was good, but mostly with children. Today, the U.S. is the same level as Europe, they almost made semifinals in the 2002 World Cup, and the base is more organized than in Brazil and maybe all of South America. I am happy because I feel I was part of it.”
His main allegiance, though, is to Brazil. He tried to explain how much hosting a World Cup means to his country. He remembers as a 9-year-old boy going outside to kick the ball around with neighbors while his father and friends listened to the 1950 World Cup final on the radio.
Brazil hosted the Cup that year, and Uruguay won the championship game 2-1 over the host Brazilians at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
“All of a sudden I heard silence, so we ran inside to see what happened, and my father said, ‘We lost the World Cup.’ It was the first time I saw my father cry.”
He hopes to have a happier ending this summer. Pele, who scored 1,283 goals and won three World Cup titles, said he is confident the Brazilian team can handle the intense pressure and win a sixth World Cup title.
“It is a very big responsibility for Brazil to host the World Cup, and everyone in Brazil wants our team to win,” he said. “The Brazil of today is different from what we saw before. Almost all Brazilian players play in Europe, and we used to be known mainly for great forwards, but this team is better from the midfield back. The defense is fantastic.”
He sees Germany and Spain as the two biggest threats. He also believes the United States could make some noise.
“Klinsmann is a great trainer and has a lot of experience,” Pele said about U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “We have to respect American soccer today. The U.S. group if very difficult with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, but soccer is a box of surprises, so nobody knows what will happen. I think American fans should be hopeful, and I have no doubt they are good enough to advance.”