The life of someone who grew up in a working-class family in a small town north of Rio and won three World Cups truly illustrates how the capitalist economy and its political leaders enter into symbiosis with top-flight football. In the late 1960s, the leaders of the Brazilian military dictatorship used the image of Pelé and their country’s victory at the 1970 World Cup, which he masterminded, as a diplomatic weapon. In particular, it was a question of silencing criticism, inside and outside the country, especially on the torture of political opponents. Qatar today has not invented anything.
Like many other retired sportsmen, the soccer king then made a diplomatic career at the United Nations and was also appointed Minister of Sports between 1995 and 1998 in the Brazilian government. At the same time, he continued to appear in a multitude of advertising campaigns, like most football stars. Furthermore, he was constantly proposed to promote events organized by the powerful international football federation, FIFA. Thus, he has never ceased to highlight the beauty of the game and the popular celebration that the World Cup should be, unhindered by the outrageous profits of concrete sponsors and retailers. Furthermore, Pelé did not hesitate to punish those who denounced this reality.
But, deep down, Pele was just an indistinguishable voice from the others in the concert of football business promoters. The football economy represents an annual turnover of approximately 400 billion dollars. If FIFA plays the role of chief distributor of contracts, with bribes and close political collusion, its real beneficiaries are the shareholders of Nike, Coca-Cola, Sony, but also Bouygues and Vinci. On another level, football-related ties sometimes go far beyond these sponsors, as we’ve seen with Macron’s business trips to Qatar during this past World Cup. They constitute one of the channels through which diplomatic relations are intertwined which, in this period, sometimes lead to the sale of arms. We are far from the beauty of Pelé’s leg crossings.