Originally created 05/05/02

Pele's popularity remains



PURCHASE, N.Y. - A quarter-century after he last played, Pele remains a soccer icon. And as worldwide ambassador for "the beautiful game," Pele is a combination of Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali.

He marvels at his status, calling it a "gift from God," and claims he doesn't work at the job because, well, he is just being himself.

So when children flock to see him at the Great Wall of China, or fans pay for his dinner in a Singapore restaurant, or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies give him a standing ovation after a pep talk, Pele still smiles in wonder.

"I see others who become stars in their sport and two or three years after they quit, they disappear and people don't care about them," the Brazilian legend said. "For me, the kids 10 years old and 8 years old, they follow Pele and want me to sign footballs."

When he was in China, he went to the Great Wall with Bora Milutinovic, the itinerant coach now working with the communist nation's first-time World Cup qualifier

"There are so many children yelling my name that Bora says, 'Pele, 25 years ago you stopped playing. How do these kids know you and follow you here?'

"I don't know," Pele said, shrugging his shoulders as his grin grows wider. "But I am very grateful."

As the first World Cup staged in Asia rapidly approaches, the man who led Brazil to three championships remains in demand. Rarely is there a call for Maradona or Paolo Rossi or other Cup stars of the past.

Pele, 61, is one of many influential former players with a consulting role for FIFA, the sport's world governing body. While he's been involved in some controversies since he retired, including power struggles over control of soccer in his homeland and within FIFA, he's trying to remain far away from the latest infighting. Asked about the race for FIFA president between incumbent Sepp Blatter and African federation leader Issa Hayatou, Pele scrunches his face as if a penalty shot was headed directly for it.

"Every election, in clubs and confederations, is the same," he said. "And when it gets close to the election, they start to create a lot of things. I am part of the club of FIFA that discusses football ... the rules of football, and I do not mix it with the politics of FIFA."

His main role is as a spokesman for MasterCard International. A card with his likeness is, by far, the most popular of its kind, with more than 1.5 million in circulation. When he was in Singapore, fans saluted him by holding high their cards and shouting his name.

Pele spends much of his time conducting youth clinics and seminars. While he is thrilled to see no decline in children's fervor for soccer, particularly in the United States, he's discouraged by how the youngsters are being coached.

Long an opponent of the stifling defensive tactics that sometimes plague the game at its highest level - several World Cups since his last appearance in 1970 have suffered from such strategies - Pele believes the wrong approach is being used with young players. He's campaigning for cleaner, more wide-open soccer for teen-agers, believing it will help the sport overall.

"My point is not with the professionals," he said. "FIFA should make adjustments with the youth tournaments. Now, the coach wants to win, and he doesn't care if they are young players or not. We need to work on those coaches. They are killing the skilled player.

"I saw it when I was in South Africa for the under-16s. They act like a young boy is a professional. This is what FIFA should decide against in the future."

Pele does not see a bright immediate future for Brazil. Although he refuses to predict a champion - "I will still trust Brazil, but I don't know" - he pegs defending champion France and two-time winner Argentina as favorites.

As for his countrymen, Pele wants to know: Where is the teamwork, the camaraderie, the nationalistic pride for the only nation to win four Cups?

"Brazil is the best individually, no doubt. Their players all are stars on their teams somewhere in the world.

"Unfortunately, this year Brazil does not have teamwork. It is one month before the World Cup, and they are not even sure of who the players will be or if they will play a 4-4-2 or a 5-2-3 or what. And they have changed national coach three times. I feel very worried for them in the tournament."

That won't make the smile fade.

"It is the World Cup," he says. "It is a beautiful time for the beautiful game."