THE BLOG

The Pele Interview: 'I Hope Football in the U.S. Will Keep Going Until the United States' Team Is in the Final of the World Cup'

03/25/2015 09:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

There's no way to talk about the most humbling experience of my journalistic life without sounding a little un-humble.

Last week, I interviewed O Rei as he is called in Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento as he is known on his birth certificate, or Pele as he is known to the last 60 years of football fans across the planet.

Pele was in London to do some promotional work for Subway in a central London restaurant, where he was accompanied by Liverpool FC legends Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman. The three then attended Liverpool's home game with Manchester United.

Pele has campaigned against child hunger in the past so this promotional work is not too big a deviation for him but he stressed that he is careful about who or what he promotes.

He was glad to be in London and supporting the cause of healthy eating:

It's nice to talk to you and be one more time here in England and in London. I've been here many times for the football. The reason (I am here) is important, when I pick some promotion, or connect with any company will be something health related for the people. Subway is one of my partners. We work together on that. This is the main reason I am here. We came together almost two years ago. At that time, we came together to do some work in Europe before we headed to Australia.

The itinerary is the same this time round for the man who carries an enormous burden of responsibility. Pele is simply the greatest footballer who ever lived, a claim no-one has ever seriously disputed.

With Brazil, he won the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970, the only player to have three World Cup winners medals. He was named Player of the Century by both France Football and the International Federation of Football History & Statistics and was elected Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee.

Any writer could fill an article with such accolades but U.S. President Ronald Reagan found the right form of words to express the concept when he said:

My name is Ronald Reagan, I'm the President of the United States of America. But you don't need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pele is.

This from a man, who forgot who Princess Diana was, is high praise indeed.

Being the 'greatest player who ever lived' for such a length of time sounds like quite a burden but Pele has been just that for 56 years now, ever since he burst on to the global stage in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden at just 17.

A teenage World Cup winner, he went on to score over 1,000 goals in his career. In total he is calculated to have scored 1281 goals in 1363 games, including unofficial friendlies and tour games, of which Santos had many, precisely because of his global popularity.

Has he ever wished for a day off and hoped someone else would carry that burden for a day or does he enjoy it? He is in no doubt:

Oh yes, I enjoy it. Of course, it's a big responsibility because I am a normal human being like everyone. Everyone at some time has to be careful because we cannot make mistakes. But I have to thank God because since I start to play football at 17 or 18 years old at my first World Cup, I've met a lot of movie stars and a lot of athletes, and to answer that question; just God decides why he chose me to have this opportunity; to have friends all over the world where people respect me.

I try to do my best to not disappoint people. I have luck that God wanted me. I just do good work and carry a good message, and now with Subway, I try to do the same; to carry a good message to people.

Born in 1940, Pelé began playing for Santos at 15 in the Sao Paulo state championship. It was to be one of only two clubs he represented in his entire career. By the age of 17, he was playing for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup -- and winning it. Their win in Sweden remains the only time an outside team has won a World Cup in Europe.

However, when I ask him which was the greatest side ever, he opts as many do for that legendary Brazil side of 1970:

Brazil had an excellent team in 1958 with Didi, Vava and Garrincha. It was fantastic but we had, at that time, more good individual players. Also at that time we had in midfield Zito who played for Santos. Along with Vava, we had at that time Nilton Santos.

In 58 until 1962, Brazil had excellent individual players and we won but, as a team together and also good players, there is no doubt that 1970 was the best team in my opinion. The best team. No doubt.

Pele did not play in the 1974 World Cup after playing his last Brazil game in 1971 and a Cruyff and Neeskens inspired Dutch side eliminated them 2-0 in Dortmund. They also had the ignominy of being unable to score against Scotland!

In 1975, he joined the New York Cosmos in the NASL, part of an attempt to launch a professional league in the USA. That lasted three years. His last ever competitive match as a professional player was the 1977 Soccerbowl where he played in the Cosmos side that beat Seattle Sounders 2-1 in Portland.

He has fond memories of his time in the U.S. and his love for U.S. soccer has not diminished. He is proud of his part in it:

Soccer in the United States has improved a lot. Today that's a reality. I feel proud to have been part of that because we went there with Cosmos in this tournament. Cosmos would become the best team with excellent players to move the level of football in the United States a lot. For me it was fantastic because I came to play in the United States to promote soccer in the United States and then I had a lot; as I played with Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlo Alberto, Neeskens. It was an excellent team.

Pele has high hopes for American soccer. Like many of the rest of us, he forecast African success in the World Cup last century. Perhaps wary of that, he expresses his hopes rather than his predictions for U.S. soccer.

Now I hope football in the United States will keep going until we wait for, maybe one day, the United States team in the final of the World Cup.

At that point, my time was up and he headed off to a Subway restaurant in Central London to fulfill his promotional obligations with McManaman and Fowler.

He was then off to Anfield with the two ex Liverpool men but the result did not turn out as the latter would have hoped.

For all the questions Liverpool head coach Brendan Rodgers may have had to answer, there are ten more I still would have loved to ask.

You can read the full transcript of the Pele interview on Prost Amerika where he spoke about which players he'd wished were Brazilian, who his hardest opponents were and reveal the colleague with whom he never lost a game.

And I dared to ask him what he thought of Brazil's exit in 2014, a 7-1 hammering from the Germans, and how he had himself a little Pele fun at my expense.