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Connecting With Pele | Big Questions With Cal Fussman

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Key Takeaways

  • “The head talks to the heart. And the heart talks to the feet.” – Pele
  • Growing up, Pele played soccer in the streets by filling a large man’s sock with crumpled newspapers to create a ball 
  • He was originally nicknamed “Pele” as an insult; his friends mocked him for not being able to pronounce the name of the goalie on his father’s team, “Bile” 
  • At the age of 17, Pele helped Brazil win its first World Cup – a victory that brought the nation together like it had never been before 
  • Pele once halted a civil war for 48 hours because both sides wanted to watch him play
  • Rice and beans remained Pele’s favorite food until the day that he died  
  • Pele brought love and connection to the world like few athletes have ever been able to do 


  • Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known mononymously by his nickname Pele, was a Brazilian professional footballer. He is considered one of the greatest players of all time and was among the most successful and popular sports figures of the 20th century. 
  • In this episode, Cal Fussman reflects on a conversation he had with Pele several years ago for his column in Esquire. They talked about Pele’s childhood, how he got the nickname “Pele”, what his three World Cup victories meant to Brazil, halting civil wars, fame, love, connection, and more.  
  • Check out these Podcast Notes on How Jose Mourinho Uses Mind Games to Motivate His Players  
  • Host: Cal Fussman (@calfussman

Background on Pele

  • Pele is considered to be one of the greatest soccer players of all time 
  • Pele lived until the age of 82, passing away from complications related to colon cancer 
  • He had a magic to his game
  • Pele won three World Cups between 1958 and 1970
  • He averaged almost 1 goal per game over a career that spanned 1300 games
  • “The head talks to the heart. And the heart talks to the feet.” – Pele 

Pele’s Childhood 

  • In 1940, Pele was born in a city in Brazil called Tres Corazones, which means “Three Hearts” 
  • Pele’s home received electricity the same day that he was born 
  • His father said, “The light has arrived the day you were born, so we’re going to name you in honor of Thomas Edison.”
  • He was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento
    • The letter “i” from Edison was lost in translation
  • Growing up, Pele played soccer in the streets by filling a large man’s sock with crumpled newspapers to create a ball 
  • He played without shoes 
  • Pele also worked as a shoe shine boy when he was young 
  • Pele’s mom did not want him to be a soccer player at first 
  • Her husband was a professional soccer player, earned a meager salary, and she wanted a different life for her son Pele 

Where The Nickname “Pele” Came From 

  • People began calling him Pele when he was around the age of nine
  • It was a mystery to him why people started calling him Pele
    • One possible reason: he mispronounced the name of the goalie on his father’s team, pronouncing it “Pele” instead of the actual pronunciation “Bile”   
  • When friends called him “Pele”, it was meant to make fun of him 
  • Growing up, he got into fights over people calling him Pele, but the name ultimately stuck
  • When he was 12 years old, he scored a goal in front of a crowd of 5,000; people began to chant “Pele!” and that’s when he began to like the name 

Winning The World Cup 

  • He made the Brazilian national team at the age of 16
  • In 1958, Pele was chosen to play in the World Cup in Sweden at the age of 17
  • Brazil won the World Cup that year – the first for the country 
  • The first World Cup victory brought Brazil together as a nation with pride that it had never felt before 


  • The style that Pele brought to the team came to be known as “the beautiful game” 
  • Pele became beloved all over the world after Brazil’s first World Cup victory 
  • When asked if he had ever been in a place where people didn’t recognize him, Pele responded, “Uhh.. I don’t think so.” 

When Pele Halted A Civil War 

  • In 1967, Pele’s club Santos was doing a tour across continents
  • The club was invited to play in Nigeria, but the club director did not want to take the team there because there was a civil war going on
  • The game organizer said, “No, the people want to see Pele. We are going to stop the war to see Pele play!” 
  • Nigeria stopped the civil war for 48 hours to see Pele play


  • In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a dictatorship in Brazil 
  • The dictatorship put Pele in a tough situation 
  • Simply having lunch with the dictator made it appear that Pele was siding with the regime that was making people disappear in the night 
  • But he was still able to bring the people together during these tough times 

Pele’s Favorite Food 

  • Rice and beans remained Pele’s favorite food until the day that he died 
  • It was the food that people connected over when he was growing up in Tres Corazones

Love, Love, Love

  • In Pele’s final game with the New York Cosmos, he had the entire crowd chant, “Love! Love! Love!” 
  • Pele brought so many smiles to the world
  • He could connect enemies and halt a war 
  • Could anyone do that today?


  • Host Cal Fussman marveled at the connection that Lionel Messi brought his nation with Argentina’s recent World Cup victory
  • The streets were so packed in Argentina that the players had to be evacuated by helicopter for their safety 
  • Today, great athletes bring people together, but Pele was on another level 
  • Cal says that we are in more need of connection today than ever
  • The pandemic has isolated people in the United States over the last three years
  • As the world mourns Pele, we should think about ways to connect with one another 
  • Cal’s conversation with Pele was supposed to be 45 minutes, but it was cut short by a publicist at the 10 minute mark and the call disconnected 
  • Pele called back after the call dropped and they spoke until Cal said he had enough content to write his Esquire column 
  • Pele’s last words to Cal: “I hope to have your friendship, and that I never disappoint you.”  
Big Questions with Cal Fussman : , ,
Notes By Stan Rizzo

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