Even as the global community was immersed in the World Cup in Qatar, the world was expecting Pele’s death. He had been in and out of the hospital in the last year of his life the possibility of his death loomed large. And in the last few weeks, it felt like full-time was approaching for the football legend as Pele spent Christmas in the hospital battling colon cancer, a battle he was losing by the day.
One of his daughters, Kely Nascimento, kept the world updated as the 82-year-old continued to receive care for cardiac and renal dysfunction and a respiratory infection.
Inevitably, it was game over on Thursday, December 29, 2022.
“Everything we are is thanks to you. We love you infinitely. Rest in peace,” Kely wrote poignantly on social media.
In the hours that followed, there was a global outpour of tributes and there was an interesting Nigerian flavour in the vortex of emotion.
Pele is said to have halted the Civil War during Santos’ tour to Nigeria in January 1969.
The conflict, which started two years earlier when Biafra declared independence, had been a bloody war in which millions of lives before it ended in a Nigerian victory in 1970.
When Pele and Santos, his club side, turned up for a one-off game, a two-day ceasefire was called to allow enthusiastic fans to watch a 2-1 win for Santos against Nigeria’s national side.
Calvin Onwuka, CEO of ACL Sports, remembers the epoch differently.
“He never stopped the war, to be fair. The war was never felt in Lagos and many of the places he visited at the time,” Onwuka said.
So what was Pele’s real impact on Nigerian football?
“[For]Folks from 50 and above from Nigeria, Brazilian soccer on TV and ‘Giants of Brazil’ VHS documentary was what we all knew about football. It was how we got introduced to Pele on video. We might have read and even heard about him, but that was how we first saw him. If you check, many footballers of that generation had Brazil(ian) nicknames,” Onwuka explains.
Pele itself was a nickname. The Brazilian great was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the only three-time World Cup winner.
And for a certain generation, or even three generations, he will always be the greatest.