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The Observer view on Brazil should be remade in the image of its hero Pelé | Observer editorial

Bolsonaro has gone, now Lula and his new government have the huge task of putting the country back together

The death of Pelé, one of Brazil’s most famous sons, coincides with the departure from office of the defeated president, Jair Bolsonaro, one of its most internationally reviled. The death of the footballer aged 82 has prompted a global outpouring of love and respect. In contrast, Bolsonaro slipped out of the country last week with a self-justificatory snarl, muttering about a political comeback.

It is difficult to express what Pelé, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento to a provincial working-class family, meant to Brazil as a nation. His skill was breathtaking, his goalscoring ability unsurpassed. Yet his joy in playing and his dazzling artistry appealed to non-football fans, too. He turned the pitch into a stage and the “beautiful game” into a global phenomenon.

Fame brought him many roles. He was a model for black youngsters, like Muhammad Ali. Some even ranked him alongside Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela as an inspirational force. He was the poor boy made good, an always smiling ambassador for good causes and, briefly, Brazil’s apolitical minister of sport. Pelé became the 20th century’s everyman.

The contrast with Bolsonaro could not be more striking. A radical rightwing populist, his surprise election victory in 2018 initiated four years of damaging social divisions and policy disasters. His hate-filled rhetoric, endlessly rehearsing the politics of grievance, appealed to people’s worst instincts. His nickname, Trump of the Tropics, was well deserved.
Bolsonaro’s term will be remembered not for achievements but for the destruction he wreaked, most infamously in the Amazon rainforest. Deforestation increased by 60% as he defied the environmentalist and climate consensus. The pandemic was met by similar bungling and denialism. Up to 700,000 Brazilians died.

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