The death of football legend Pelé has saddened millions of football fans. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the Brazilian star has touched hearts and minds all over the world. In Africa, he is not only celebrated for his mastery of football, but also as a symbol of black excellence and representation.

For me, Pelé has been a source of indescribable joy and inspiration.

I was born into a world sorely short of memorable black stories and acclaimed black heroes, a planet decimated by the violent political and economic power of white supremacy.

Whether in politics, science, business, or sports, whiteness had permeated every conceivable aspect of society and had systematically driven black people to the fringes of human existence.

White people – we were told – were the best scientists, the best business leaders, the best athletes. They were the models to emulate and look up to.

But we knew this was wrong. And we admired black superstars like Pelé and Mohammed Ali and black revolutionaries who led the African and black liberation movements that swept across the African continent and North America.

Growing up in what was then known as Salisbury, Rhodesia (present-day Harare), a stronghold of settler colonialism, I was well aware of the “racial segregation” of heroes.

My heroes – freedom fighters – were described as “terrorists”. African nationalists such as Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe were imprisoned by the white settler regime after campaigning for democracy, civil rights and equality for all races.

My own uncle, Moses, had joined the liberation movement as a teenager and received military training in Mozambique and Yugoslavia. After he left for years, we didn’t even know if he was still alive. He only came back after we were finally liberated and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980.

Black people in sports that I looked up to were also discredited and insulted. Pele had a series of derogatory nicknames that he was called, while Muhammad Ali was once called a “disgrace to his country” and a “fool”.

So my heroes were not celebrated in the vast and well-developed areas of Salisbury occupied by largely wealthy and privileged whites, or for that matter, in mostly populous and impoverished black communities.

Fearing deadly reprisals from government soldiers, sympathizers and spies, people spoke only at home about their unsung heroes and usually in hushed tones. Rhodesian security forces regularly killed black people for allegedly collaborating with freedom fighters or violating nighttime curfews.

Elsewhere, the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa and the crackdown on the 1967 uprising in the US The city of Detroit also showed how the white world brutally opposed the black struggle for socio-economic equality and political independence.

In the midst of this violence and fear, black superstars like Pelé gave us a glimmer of hope. They defied the condescending stereotypes and stifling challenges that white supremacists imposed on us — on black people everywhere.

Admittedly, Pelé was not the first black athlete to achieve huge success in a global sport or competition, he was the first black man to reach the pinnacle of football, a sport that was particularly fond of poor people in Africa and the African diaspora to pieces.

My hometown, a sprawling, high-density suburb called Kambuzuma, remained far from the exploits of outstanding black athletes such as American basketball player Bill Russell, the 11-time NBA champion. champion.

When I was young, I didn’t know about baseball legend Jackie Robinson or tennis star Althea Gibson, the first African-American woman to take part in a professional tennis tour and win a Grand Slam singles title.

I loved Pele, in part because, unlike tennis, basketball, and baseball, football was an incredibly accessible sport.

Equipped with a “chikweshe”, a homemade plastic ball, my friends and I often played soccer on bumpy makeshift fields marked out with sticks and stones.

Yet my admiration for Pelé was not only about football.

Long before I was old enough to appreciate his countless achievements and confidently place him at the top of the all-time pantheon of soccer greats, the Brazilian soccer star was firmly entrenched in Africa’s socio-political and cultural awakening. He existed alongside Muhammad Ali as a towering and indelible symbol of black pride.

Pelé’s story helped inspire commitment to black identity at a critical time in the history of Africa and my country. For a people deeply traumatized by oppression and economic dispossession, his unparalleled success freed us to enjoy endless possibilities for our future.

Later on, pundits and fans alike occasionally debated whether he was the best footballer of all time, for the Argentinian maestros Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi – or the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo.

Others would wonder if he really scored more than 1000 goals, breaking the Guinness World Records.

Johan Cruyff, the Dutch star who won the prestigious Ballon d’Or football award three times, would not agree with such superfluous arguments about my hero.

“Pele was the only footballer who crossed the boundaries of logic,” he said.

I believe that one day someone can surpass Pelé’s performance. But no footballer can ever claim to have exemplified the hopes and dreams of Africans in colonial times – the long, difficult and bloody years when we desperately wanted to see and appreciate an ultimate manifestation of Black identity.

Today, Pelé must be remembered first and foremost as an extraordinary human being, a black man who exceeded all expectations in a world shaped and devastated by the legacies of slavery and white supremacy.

He may be gone, but the spirit of black excellence he embodied will live on forever.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.



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