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HEART OF FOOTBALL

Pele auction: Dollars and sense for game's greatest ambassador

What would you pay for an old passport belonging to Edson Arantes do Nascimento?

Let me make this a little easier. That is the birth name of a man you might know by the simplified four-letter word: Pele.

He is simply the best (certainly the most successful) footballer of all time.

Pele, together with the late Muhammad Ali, must be the most recognised athletes of their time. And while Ali succumbed to a respiratory problem in a Phoenix hospital on Friday, Pele was in London where next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, his unique collection of trophies, medals and mementos will be auctioned.

The expired passport is listed at around US$800 (S$1,085).


Pele holding a replica of the Jules Rimet Trophy during a preview last week of the US auction of his belongings. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Pele is selling his past, but not his soul. He said in an endless round of interviews this weekend that he is putting up his memorabilia because he is 75 and, well, they take an awful lot of looking after.

Rather more expensive items among more than 1,500 of his life's collection are:

• Pele's personal Jules Rimet World Cup replica trophy (all estimates in US currency): $400,000-$600,000;

• His 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cup medals: $100,000-$200,000 each;

• His 1,000th goal ball: $40,000-$60,000;

• 1977 New York Cosmos NASL Championship ring: $30,000-$40,000

• L'Equipe Athlete of the Century award: $20,000-$30,000;

• Santos FC game-worn jersey: $8,000-$10,000;

• Game-worn New York Cosmos jersey: $8,000-$10,000

The auctioneers are Juliens of California, hence the US valuations and the American terminology. A "game-worn jersey" means the item for sale is the actual shirt he wore with inspiration and perspiration in those great milestone games.

The Jules Rimet replica is unique. Fifa gave it to him when Fifa was less disgraced than it is now, in recognition of a feat achieved by no other player, and probably unlikely to be repeated in the future - the winning of three World Cups.

Pele was a 17-year-old sensation when he scored twice in the 1958 final in Sweden. The goals are easy to find on the Internet. The first showed his extraordinary feeling for the ball when he flicked it gently, artfully over the head of a defender and while that opponent was still looking for the ball, Pele nipped behind his back and volleyed it into the net.

The second was a looping header, glanced off Pele's temple.

As the list suggests, he scored more than 1,200 goals, 77 of them in 91 appearances for Brazil's national team. Over and above the statistics are the memories of this man, this phenomenal athlete, in performance.

No wonder he is revered.

Juliens anticipate that the collection will raise a total between US$3 million and US$5 million. Included among the items are personal and sometimes esoteric gifts from heads of state. They include ceremonial daggers, a real gold crown, and the plain black boots with white laces that Pele wore in the film Escape To Victory.

The movie, about British prisoners in a Nazi PoW camp during World War II, co-starred Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine, and a couple of real football players you (or your dad) might remember, Bobby Moore and Osvaldo Ardiles.

Pele is selling his past, but not his soul. He said in an endless round of TV and newspaper interviews this weekend that he is selling his memorabilia because he is 75 and, well, they take an awful lot of looking after.

Pele, like Ali, has been hospitalised of late. He needed surgery for a back complaint, a hip, and most recently for prostate cancer.

Part of his motivation in auctioning the hoard of gold and silver and his plain old cotton shirts, leather boots or paper documents is that as a man beyond three-score and 10 years of age, he doesn't need all these items to remind him of who he is or was.

One man's baggage is another man's coveted possession.

Whether he has a need for the money is mere conjecture. But Pele is still a huge name in the world, and he is still in demand in an era that puts celebrities on a pedestal long after their prime.

Pele is concerned about the state of his country, where corruption has ruled from the government to the Brazilian football federation.

He's worried about the Olympics. And he has a personal involvement in Brazil's biggest children's hospital in Curitiba, in the state of Parana.

The research institute at the Pequeno Principe (the name means Little Prince) pediatric hospital, is named after Pele, and some of the money from the sale is destined to go there.

He is an uncomplicated man who has been at the heart of The Beautiful Game, and hasn't lost his enthusiasm for it.

The team of Pele and Gerson and Tostao and Carlos Alberto spoilt a generation because, though the game is faster and defensively at least has become ever more rehearsed and organised, it will never be better.

Memorabilia will never replace the poetry in motion of the Brazilians who won the World Cup in 1970.

They were simply the best I have seen, or can ever expect to see.

And how would you put a price on the dynamism, the joy, the elevation of a sport into a way of life that these 11 men displayed in the prime of their lives?

Goalkeeper Felix; defenders Carlos Alberto, Brito, Piazza, and Everaldo; midfielders Clodoaldo, Gerson, Tostao and three attackers - Jairzinho, Pele and Rivelino.

The case rests. The coming three-day auction will be streamed live around the world, from London to Asia to the Americas.

No doubt there will be bidders who simply want to have a little piece of Pele to call their own.

Pele has lived all of those memories. He has in a way traded off them throughout his retirement from playing and travelling the globe as an ambassador, a salesman if you like. Selling his former self.

In my study, I have a keepsake of my own. It is a football that has never been kicked (except maybe by my kids when I was not looking). It has been with me since 1996 when Pele and I shared a television interview and then, after a meal, he signed that ball with a personal message.

It is not for sale, at any price.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Pele auction: Dollars and sense for game's greatest ambassador'. Print Edition | Subscribe