Dennis Janson: With the World Cup in full swing, recollections of a chance meeting with Pele

Stunned by the normalcy of it all

CINCINNATI -- Brazil as most of the planet knows by now, is hosting soccer’s World Cup and is capativing viewers across the globe. 

Brazil is a haves- and have-nots country. During a visit in 1973, I couldn’t help but notice that the hills above the tony Ipanema, Botafogo and Copacabana beaches were festooned with cardboard and tin shacks, housing an entire population of the latter.

Amidst this squalor and desperate poverty, I witnessed one of the most civilized outpourings of adulation one could imagine.

During the course of my stay, I made the acquaintance of a young lady named Cleo Rebeiro who worked in the gift shop at the Rio Sheraton. Her father was an ophthalmic surgeon and she’d learned English while accompanying him on a teaching sabbatical to Vanderbilt University some years before. She fine tuned it working in a Kentucky Fried Chicken during her two years in Nashville.

A native Cariocan (Rio De Janeiro resident), she served as guide, interpreter and friend for my two buddies, their wives and myself. She told us where to go and where not to go. What to eat and drink.

And eventually what had to be seen to be believed. That came our last night in Rio.

I went to gather her in the lobby for a farewell dinner after she shuttered the shop for the night. It just so happened that the owner was there finishing up some business of her own. Cleo introduced me to her boss (her name escapes me now) and her escort for the evening.

“Dennis, I would like you to meet Pele’," she said as matter-of-factly as if he were the local postman. Cleo explained that I was involved in the TV business in the United States and was vacationing in their fair city.

The soccer legend couldn’t have been more gracious as he asked me if I’d enjoyed myself. I was somewhat stunned by his normalcy.  Though shorter than I had imagined, one of the most recognizable people on the face of the planet clearly had a presence that magnified his persona.

A member of three Brazilian World Cup-champion teams, Pelé is considered by many to be the greatest soccer player of all time. At 17, he became a soccer superstar during his performance in the 1958 World Cup.

Cleo locked the shop and the four of us headed for the front door of the Sheraton and our separate destinations. But first there was a gauntlet to run. During our brief chat the sun streaming through the front windows of the hotel had been blotted out by hundreds of small faces pressed to the glass. The dirt poor street kids from the favelas that overhung the main highway skirting the beaches had seen Pele’ enter the hotel. Long before advent of the internet, word it seemed had spread at Twitter speed.

Having seen the mayhem that surrounded sports stars in the United States when confronted with crowds, I thought to myself: “This is going to be ugly”.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. As the front doors of the hotel swung wide, Pele’, according to Cleo shouted in Portuguese: “Hey kids. How you doing?”

To which his ragged army of acolytes replied: “Great. How are you?”

Then the really unexpected.

As they continued to whistle and shriek,  the sea of urchins parted allowing Pele’, his friend the shop owner and Cleo and myself to go our separate ways. Unencumbered. Unmolested. Unbothered by requests for autographs, pictures, even handshakes.

They just scattered like leaves in a beach breeze, retreating to wherever with word that they’d seen the icon in person. And moreover that he had greeted them in his uniquely joyous and respectful manner.

What I found astounding was the respect they showed for him and his ‘space’. No intrusions, no crush of admirers. Only love and a desire to be acknowledged. 

I’ve told any number of American sports stars about this most civil moment in a potentially non-civil setting and they express skepticism along with a measure of envy. The general sentiment being: “Well that won’t happen in America anytime soon.”

Maybe it’s time it did.

RELATED: U.S. gives up tying goal to Portugal in final seconds

Dennis Janson's "My 2 cents" column is published most  Mondays and Wednesdays on WCPO.com. His video commentary airs every Friday at 6 p.m.

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