Pele Was So Good At Soccer That He Stopped A War

“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 Pelé is.” —Ronald Reagan greeting Pele at the White House

In A Nutshell

During the 1960s, Nigeria was racked by a devastating civil war. But when soccer legend Pele and his team of Brazilian greats visited the country to play a match, both sides immediately agreed to a truce so they could watch the legend in action. The military even opened heavily guarded checkpoints so that people could make their way to the big game.

The Whole Bushel

Association football doesn’t generally have a great reputation as a force for peace. Famously, the 1970 World Cup qualifying rounds played a key role in triggering the so-called “Football War” between El Salvador and Honduras. Similarly, a 1990 game between Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb and the Serbs of Red Star Belgrade provided an ugly preview of the looming breakup of Yugoslavia and the bloody wars that would follow. When opposing fans ripped down protective fences to attack each other, the police openly sided with the Serb hooligans. As the brawl spread onto the pitch and the stadium announcer calmly continued to read out advertisements, Zagreb’s captain, Zvonimir Boban, instantly became a Croatian national hero by delivering a kung fu kick to the head of a policeman attacking a local fan. The Red Star fans were led by future war criminal Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, who would later form his fellow hooligans into the notorious “Tigers” militia. War broke out within the year.

But football does have an undeniable ability to bring people together. In fact, a football match briefly managed to halt one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century—the Biafran War. A tragic internecine struggle between the federal government of Nigeria and the breakaway republic of Biafra, the war attracted international condemnation and actually played a key role in developing the modern humanitarian aid system. Despite this, the international community was unsuccessful in persuading either side to agree to a truce. Then again, the international community wasn’t Pele.

In 1969, the soccer star was scheduled to visit Nigeria to play a couple of exhibition matches with his Brazilian team, Santos. The games had been arranged well in advance, and for financial reasons the Brazilians decided not to cancel. In those days, Santos was basically the Harlem Globetrotters of soccer—they were so good they’d actually stopped playing in the South American championships in favor of traveling the world getting paid huge sums to thrash the best local teams. And World Cup winner Pele was unquestionably the world’s best player. So it’s understandable that nobody wanted to miss seeing them over a little thing like a quasi-genocidal ethnic war. The two sides quickly agreed to a 48-hour truce and soldiers from both sides reportedly attended the matches, some carrying chairs on their heads to cram extra seating into the stadium. Then 48 hours later they got right back to killing each other.

Thankfully, there is a less depressing version of a football truce. In 2005, Ivory Coast star Didier Drogba used the wave of euphoria caused by the national team qualifying for the 2006 World Cup to make a passionate call for an end to the bitter civil war destroying his country. A cease-fire was agreed within the week.

Show Me The Proof

The Global Art Of Soccer, by Richard Witzig
The Guardian: Has Football Ever Started A War?
Goal.com: The Story Of Pele’s Santasticos
The Score: Dinamo Vs Red Star — The Match That Heralded War
The Telegraph: Didier Drogba Brings Peace To Ivory Coast

  • Hillyard

    The beautiful game (which I personally find boring ) even managed to interrupt WWI although Christmas might have had something to do with that too. Good article.