Pele: The footballer who seduced Andy Warhol

Story highlights

Brazilian legend Pele blurred lines between football and art

New exhibition featuring a piece by Andy Warhol on display in London

Pele won three World Cups with Brazil and is one of game's best players

CNN  — 

Is football an art form?

To watch Edson Arantes do Nascimento in full flight with the ball at his feet is as compelling an argument as the sport can make.

Universally known as Pele, the Brazilian is one of only a handful of individuals to blur those borders with an aesthetic grace out of reach for most.

Such was his greatness, famed artist Andy Warhol revisited his “15 minutes of fame” quote to predict “15 centuries” of acclaim for Pele, who celebrated his 75th birthday on Friday October 23.

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Pele on life, art and soccer
03:29 - Source: CNN

Warhol’s iconic Pele portrait features as part of a London exhibition to celebrate his recent birthday, in which an underlying theme is clearly visible to the subject.

“I think the forms of presentation are different but the message is always the same,” the Brazilian told CNN, as he reflected on the works featured in “Pele: Art, Life, Football” at the Halcyon Gallery.

“Every artist has a message: that is the poor person who has won in life. That’s what the artists pass on.”

To any fan of the beautiful game, Pele is much more than just a retired footballer: He’s a global icon.

Whether bedecked in the colors of club side Santos, or the yellow of Brazil, Pele’s outrageous skill stands comparison with anything that has gone before or since.

Watching grainy clips of Pele in his pomp would make any modern fan swoon just as much as a show reel of today’s leading players like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Argentine Lionel Messi.

Paternal influence

Allied to Pele’s silk is his story.

Born into poverty in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, his early steps in the game were made with a grapefruit at his feet.

He would sign for Santos at the age of 16 and make his debut for the national side before he turned 17, winning his first World Cup title in Sweden the following year.

But Pele had a far more modest target when he started out.

“The most I ever thought was that my dad was a good football player, he scored a lot of goals. His name was Dondinho. I wanted to be like him,” he explained.

“He was famous in Brazil, in Minas Gerais. He was my role-model. I always wanted to be like him, but what happened, to this day, only God can explain.”

Two-club man

Not only did Pele exude all the attributes required to prosper at the top level, he also exhibited a rare commodity in modern day soccer – loyalty.

And although his talents were coveted around the world, he opted to stay with Santos for 18 years – winning over 20 major titles in the process.

He only ever donned the colors of one more club – New York City Cosmos, during a three-year stint in which he did much for the burgeoning popularity of soccer in North America.

Given the multimillion-dollar transfers of 2016, it’s impossible to put a price on Pele’s head if he were operating in today’s market.

“In the past, it was a profession filled with love, now it’s just a profession,” said the Brazilian, pondering how much football has changed since he hung up his boots.

“There isn’t that love of playing for my club, playing for my country. Clearly, a footballers needs to make a living from the game. It’s different from my time.

“Nowadays, even in Brazil, young players leave their clubs at a very young age. You see young players moving to Europe, China and Japan at a very young age. In my time, you wouldn’t leave, it was difficult to travel abroad.”

European suitors

Not that Pele was ever short of potential suitors.

“I had many offers to play for Real Madrid, in Milan and Manchester United. However Santos was doing well, I was playing well. I didn’t want to leave. Nowadays, players leave very early.

“The player has lost his passion for his country, for his club. But for football itself, no. He’ll continue to play and have an emotion for it. But nobody plays for a club to be loyal to a club.

“Nowadays, they play for the country that pays the most. You don’t have that loyalty.”

Taking up residence in New York to compete in the North American Soccer League – he won a championship in his final season with the Cosmos – also gave Pele the opportunity to meet Warhol.

“It really was a great joy for me to have met Andy Warhol,” said Pele.

“He came and said that he admired me and wanted to work with me. Honestly, when I was introduced to him, it was at a Brazilian club in New York, I didn’t believe it.”

When the chief protagonist of the pop art movement asks you to pose for him you don’t say no.

“I didn’t really know Andy Warhol very well. I didn’t know he was that famous. And then I said of course, let’s do it.

“It was one of the greatest things I did because he gave continuity to my life and my message outside of the football pitch in art as well.

“It’s because of him that today you see many artists who have works of me. It’s good for the next generation.”

Setting an example

Pele plainly takes his responsibility towards the next generation as seriously as he took his football.

He’s adamant those in the spotlight, in whatever field, should provide a good example to follow for those who look up to them.

“What we are showing here is the good side of the athlete, the positive side of the athlete that can serve as an inspiration for youngsters, children,” he said.

“It’s not just about playing sport, being a singer. You need to be a good person, you need to have good role models.

“So I thank God for having this opportunity because there are many artists showcasing their work here.”

And if Pele hadn’t chosen a path in football, what might he have been?

“Well, look it’s a little difficult, because I really love composing music, playing the guitar, playing the violin,” he revealed.

Making a list of career highlights is a pretty simple task for most footballers – but most footballers haven’t accomplished half of what Pele did on the field.