Brazil divided on renaming Maracanã stadium after Pelé


SAO PAULO — Brazilians would agree that Pelé is the greatest soccer player ever, but they differ on renaming the historic Maracanã stadium in his honor.

The stadium’s name could soon change if Rio de Janeiro’s governor agrees to pay a tribute to the three-time World Cup winner.

Rio’s state legislature voted 65-5 last week to give Gov. Cláudio Castro the authority to rename it after 80-year-old Pelé, officially “Edson Arantes do Nascimento – Rei Pelé.”

Castro would be removing the late journalist Mário Filho’s name from the stadium, which has hosted two World Cup finals and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Castro has until next week to decide. His spokeswoman, Denise Ribeiro, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the governor isn’t ready to make a decision yet, as his priorities are in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, but that he could decide this week.

Pelé’s spokesman, Joe Fraga, said only that they are monitoring the stadium situation.

The Brazilian star scored his 1,000th goal at the Rio stadium on Nov. 19, 1969, and played many memorable matches there. It was also at the Maracanã that Pelé at age 16 debuted for Brazil, on July 7, 1957. That 2-1 defeat against Argentina also featured his first goal in the yellow shirt.

But most of Pelé astonishing performances in Brazil were seen at Santos’ tiny Vila Belmiro, outside Sao Paulo, more than 300 miles from Rio.

The Rio stadium’s official name is currently “Jornalista Mario Filho,” after a Brazilian sportswriter credited with the idea to build such a colossus for the 1950 World Cup. If Castro agrees with the legislature, Filho’s name will stay on only at a sports complex around the arena.

The iconic ground was originally named “Municipal Stadium,” which stayed on the arena’s entrance from 1950 until 1966, when Filho died.

Filho used his sports newspaper “Jornal dos Sports” to coordinate a successful campaign to convince Rio’s citizens that the stadium had to be constructed nearer to the city center instead of an original plan for it to be built in a neighborhood far away.

Filho’s grandson, Mario Neto, told The Associated Press that he recognizes the importance of Pelé in Brazilian soccer culture but said the proposed change is “irrational.”

“There’s no sense in removing my grandfather’s name,” Neto said Monday. “If it weren’t for Mario Filho, there would be no Maracanã, there would be a 70,000-seater in a distant region.

“If it weren’t for Mario,” he continued, “Pelé would not have wanted so much to play at the stadium that was once the biggest in the world. This bill skipped the line in front of a lot of important things. As if Rio had no other problems.”

State lawmaker André Ceciliano, of the Workers’ Party, said he proposed the bill because it is “a fair tribute to a person that is recognized globally and must receive that honor during his life.”

“His legacy in Brazilian soccer and his relevant service for this country justify this,” Ceciliano said about a tribute that Pelé had never requested.

Another sponsor was 1994 World Cup winner Bebeto, who is also a Rio state lawmaker.

“Pelé was the best footballer ever and the Maracanã is the biggest stadium in the world. Nothing can be fairer than this,” Bebeto said after the vote.

Gerson, a teammate of Pelé on Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning team, said on his YouTube channel that the possible change in the Maracanã’s name is “absurd.”

“Doesn’t Pelé already have a stadium named after him in Maceió (in Brazil’s Northeast)? Why don’t people give his name to the Santos stadium? All they need to do is to call the Vila Belmiro stadium King Pelé and the problem is over,” Gerson said.

Pelé himself has not made any comments about the issue since the bill passed Rio’s state legislature. He is not expected to show up for any ceremony, in case the Maracanã is indeed renamed after him, because of hip problems that have limited his mobility.

AP videoreporter Lucas Dumphreys contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.

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