The name Pelé needs no introduction. Edson Arantes do Nascimento — that’s his full, birth name — is widely regarded to be the greatest soccer player of all time. In 92 games for the Brazil national team, he scored 77 goals — that’s as many as the team’s top two active members (Neymar and Ronaldhino) combined. He has three World Cup titles to his credit, too — he was part of the Brazil teams which won the Cup in 1958, 1962, and 1970. He scored a goal in the 18th minute of the 1970 World Cup final, leading Brazil to a 4-1 victory over Italy.
But what he did earlier in the tournament may have had a greater impact than that goal. Here’s a video:
In case you can’t view it, that’s a 42-second long clip of what people around the world saw just before kickoff of Brazil’s quarterfinal match against Peru. Pelé is at midfield, awaiting the start. And you’ll note — just like the cameraman did — that Pelé needed to tie his shoes. The camera zooms in on the best player in history as he kneels down at midfield, getting ready for one of the most important games of his career.But Pelé didn’t just forget to tie his shoes before taking the field, nor did he want to simply double-check before the action began. He knew the cameras would be on him — and so did Puma, the makers of his cleats. And they wanted the cameras to focus on his sneakers.Sneaker endorsement deals are the norm in today’s sports world, but they were just getting started in the 1960s. Both Puma and Adidas, the two main sneaker companies at the time, began throwing money at athletes. The arms race for getting famous athletes to associate with one’s product was an ongoing game of one-upsmanship for the brands, with few rules. As the Wall Street Journal reported
, before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Adidas “paid star U.S. sprinter Bob Hayes to defect from Puma — and to keep the switch secret until he was in the starting blocks so that Puma couldn’t raise the ante. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Adidas greased levers to have Puma’s gear impounded by customs officials.” And those are just two examples. One didn’t need to be a Don Draper-level marketer to know that Pelé’s choice of sneakers at the 1970 World Cup would be similarly fought over, and it only made sense that Puma and Adidas would both want him in their shoes. To avoid further insanity, the two sides agreed to what was later called the “Pelé Pact,” an informal, mutual agreement to not approach the soccer star. The pact didn’t last, as shortly before the Cup, Puma quietly reneged on the agreement. The LA Times explains
Pelé did not know about the “Pelé Pact,” but things became interesting when Puma sent a representative to the Brazil team named Hans Henningsen. Henningsen was a reporter who had become quite friendly with the Brazilian team. Pelé and Henningsen spent some time together and Pelé was irked that Henningsen, who spent time trying to sign all the other Brazilian team members, never tried to sign him. Finally, Henningsen decided that enough was enough and he made a bold decision. He worked out a deal with Pelé without approval from Puma!
Puma ended up approving the deal and paying Pelé $120,000 — about $735,000 in today’s dollars. But of course, Puma didn’t announce the deal — they didn’t want Adidas to find out — so they had to find a creative way to alert the world about the superstar’s decision to don their sneaks. As part of the deal, Pelé had to ask the referee for time to tie his shoes right before kickoff, in hopes that the cameras would focus on him. (Per some reports, they paid the camera team, too.) It worked, and Puma found fans around the world — and an on-going enemy in a very upset Adidas.
Bonus Fact: From 1967 until the beginning of 1970, Nigeria was engaged in a bloody civil war which took the lives of as many as 3 million of its citizens. But for two days in 1967, the fighting stopped. The two sides agreed to a 48-hour cease fire because Pelé was in town to play an exhibition game, and everyone wanted to be free to watch it without having to worry about the war.
From the Archives: The U.S. World Cup Upset No One in America Knew About.
Take the Quiz: Name the winners of the FIFA World Cup.
Related: Pelé’s autobiography, “Why Soccer Matters.” 4.6 stars on 54 reviews.