The story of Pele and Copa America was more about his unfortunate campaigns instead of the successful ones.
The tale of Pele and Copa America was never a happy one. In fact, it was more of a thing that people forgot about. This was quite surprising given that, unlike the World Cup, the Brazilian legend, who just passed away before end of 2022, never won South America’s biggest competition.
There were several reasons why the fates of Pele and Copa America were never linked. One of them was the former Santos and New York Cosmos star’s limited appearances in the competition. It was certainly unusual for a legendary player to win three World Cup trophies, given that there were four editions of the tournament during his 14-year international career with Seleção.
The Unexpected Story of Pele and Copa America
His debut and sole appearance
The unfortunate event for Pele and Copa America began in 1959 with the South American Championship, the old name for the CONMEBOL competition. Surprisingly, it was the first of two editions held in the same year. The first one took place in Argentina in March, while the second one was held in Ecuador at the end of the year.
At that time, the tournament used the round robin format for only eight members of CONMEBOL: the host Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Meanwhile, Colombia and Ecuador decided to withdraw.
The Seleção did not start their campaign well in the championship. They had to share spoils with Peru in a 2-2 draw. Pele made his tournament debut and scored one goal after the interval. The Brazilian star, who was still 19 years old back then, managed to shine in the championship.
He helped his remain unbeaten in six games with four wins and two draws. He was also awarded the best player and top scorer with eight goals. Unfortunately, such was not enough for Vicente Feola’s men to lift the trophy. They only finished second in the final standings with just one point adrift of the host Argentina. La Albiceleste did not lose a single match either, but with better records, five victories and only one draw.
Unfortunately, the first edition of 1959 South America Championship turned out to be Pele’s sole appearance in Copa America. He did not feature in the three following editions: the second edition of 1959 in Ecuador, as well as in 1963 and 1967.
The hope to see the former Brazilian Minister of Sport in 1990s again in the regional flagship competition eventually never came to reality. In the second edition of 1959 South American Championship, Brazil opted to deploy the B team, which did not include Pele in the squad. The Brazilian Football governing body chose to name the squad consisting of players from the state of Pernambuco only.
In the 1963 edition, the relationship between Pele and Copa America turned sour. He decided not to join Aymore Fereira’s squad. The former Brazilian forward preferred to help his team to generate revenue for his club, Santos, by taking a global tour from Europe to Africa and Asia. It was the when they were in demand around the world after winning Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup (the predecessor of the FIFA Club World Cup) in the same year with Pele as the main attraction. It was believed that the forward who netted more than 1200 goals in his career did not appear to put a priority on South American Championship.
Last but not least, Pele could not feature in the 1967 edition. The Seleção opted to pull out of the tournament completely alongside Peru. It was the Brazilian talisman’s final chance to win the regional silverware since there were no more Copas until 1975. CONMEBOL apparently did not hold the tournaments for almost a decade due to the political disorder across the continent.
In the end, Pele never crossed his path with lady luck when it comes to winning Copa America. Yet, he was not the only one. The Argentina legend, Diego Maradona, eventually followed his footsteps by failing to lift the trophy in CONMEBOL’s main tournament.