When Pele Interrupted A Civil War

The year was 1967, and a brutal civil war had erupted in Nigeria

The year was 1967, and a brutal civil war had erupted in Nigeria between the federal government and the state of the Republic of Biafra, located along the country’s south eastern coast. The Igbo people of Biafra felt that the Northern-dominated federal government was no longer representing their aspirations, and so sought to secede.

What followed were three years of violence and famine throughout Nigeria along ethnic and cultural lines. A country of more than 60 million people consisting of over 300 differing ethnic and cultural groups, finding common ground as a means of ending such atrocities was no easy task. That is, until, Pele came into town.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, more often known as Pele, needs no introduction, as was noted by former US President Ronald Reagan when he introduced himself by saying, “I am Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America. But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pele is.” That was in 1982, years after Pele hat been first noted as the “best footballer in history,” and about 15 years after his appearance in Nigeria with his club team, Santos, silenced Nigeria’s battle fields for 48 hours.

In 1967, the Brazilian was the face of the “beautiful sport,” a phrase he has been crediting with coining. He had already won two world championships for Brazil and was well on his way to the third. As a result of his global popularity, Santos decided to embark on a world tour, taking full advantage of the fact that there wasn’t a football fan in the world that wouldn’t marvel at the opportunity to see him play. In January of 1967, their tour had come to Africa, with games scheduled in The Congo, Mozambique, Ghana, Algeria, and Nigeria.

On January 26 of 1967, when Santos landed in Nigeria for their game against the Nigerian National Team, known as the Green Eagles, Nigeria’s two warring factions agreed that a 48 hour ceasefire was in order. What’s more, the people responsible for the safety of attendees were the military officers from both sides, lining up around the Lagos City Stadium, weapons in hand, side by side, with the aim of protecting all members of the crowd regardless of ethnic or political division. In other words, everyone who attended this match had only one goal in mind; to enjoy 90 minutes of beautiful football with friends and strangers alike. There was no violence in the stadium, no arrests, only football fans that had been brought together by a shared passion.

And so it went. Crowds celebrated as the game ended in a draw with Pele scoring two goals for Santos, both of which were met with applause from the stadium. Santos took off for their next match and, within days, the fighting between the Nigerian government and the Biafran soldiers had resumed. Yet it was Pele and his mastery of the beautiful game that had, albeit temporarily, united people of different backgrounds and mind-sets, giving them a taste of peace and companionships in an otherwise dark and dreary period of history.

 Football has the power to establish friendships, enable one to build confidence, and contribute to a healthy lifestyle. But it also has the persuasive ability to convince soldiers to put down their guns and gather with perceived enemies in celebration of an athletic artist, one who reminds us that, even in times of difficulty, beauty persists.