By Suryansh Upmanyu
Over its long history, football has seen many great players. Fans – spanning generations – around the world, have argued over who is the best of them all. At present, they differ over their admiration for Messi and Ronaldo. Personally, I don’t care as long as they keep showing their mindboggling skills regularly.
If greatness had to be quantified, a unanimous decision over the factors to be considered would be impossible. But let me give a suggestion. Did there ever exist a player so great, that he was able to stop a war on his own?
The answer is yes.
It was Pelé.
The Biafran War was in full swing in Nigeria at that time. In 1967, a small proportion of Nigerians had broken away to form their own Republic of Biafra. After a peaceful solution was deemed non-existent, the representatives of both the countries – like mature adults – declared war on each other. (War is always the final solution right?)
The result was a massive loss of lives and property on both sides. But no side was ready to give in.
Enter Edison Arantes do Nascimento, AKA Pelé.
Till 1967, Pelé had already become a household name. He had been a part of the Santos football team for 10 years and had played in 3 World Cups. Come 1967, Santos FC had realized that the domestic league was just not good enough for them (Obviously, they had the world’s best player on their side). So throughout the year, they would travel around the world, playing exhibition matches against the top teams in the world. Some of these matches had to be played in Nigeria too.
Even though the civil war became rampant, Santos decided not to back out due to financial reasons (Yes, everyone values money. But didn’t they value their lives?). Therefore, it was decided that they would play 2 exhibition matches against local teams before leaving.
The Nigerians were ecstatic! As Pelé’s feet touched Nigerian soil, both sides called for a 48-hour truce just to watch him play. On the day of the match, the stadium was jam-packed. Spectators got in extra chairs to make room for themselves to see the magician performing his tricks. And they were not disappointed, of course. As he performed his skills, the crowd roared in joy – as one.
This was the power of Pelé. This is the power of football. To bring people together. No matter how ideologically different you are or how different your family backgrounds are, football brings everyone together. Just imagining over 50,000 people screaming out as one entity would give anyone the chills. The 2 factions watched the matches together as equals with no historical evidence of any tiny feuds breaking out in between. They were united, even though only for a brief period. (One can assume here that Pelé had achieved what even the political leaders couldn’t.)
And then comes the anti-climax. Santos played its matches, got its money, and left. And the Nigerians and Biafrans went back to killing each other (Did I mention how mature they were?).
When I was writing this article, I did wonder what would have happened if Pelé had stayed a bit longer. If the Nigerian leaders, realizing the symbolic importance of those 2 days, had acted accordingly to end the war. But that didn’t happen.
So was it the case that those Nigerians had come together just for their own vested interests? I seriously hope not. Because this event gives me hope. A hope that there always exists a way to bring people together. You just need to look for it.
The Biafran war ended in 1970 after the Nigerians captured the entire territory. Pelé continued to play and win laurels and plaudits everywhere around the world.
Nigeria is in the throes of unrest once again now. And this time, it is because of Boko Haram.