Pele's criticism of World Cup costs hits a nerve in Brazil

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionPele says he has some sympathy with demonstrators but "laments" what they are doing

Pele, arguably the best footballer the planet has ever seen and the man who played in three World Cup winning teams, is and always will be a national hero in Brazil.

But, nowadays, few people pay much attention to what he says and does.

Now working full time for a management company, the 73-year-old travels the world signing autographs, shaking hands and getting his picture taken for a variety of global multinational companies.

As a journalist, securing an interview with the great man usually means turning up at a fast food restaurant or bank to be met by an ever-smiling Pele dressed in the colours and logos of his sponsors.

Off message

Pele these days is nearly always "on message" and is careful not to upset his hosts, or the apple cart, by saying anything remotely newsworthy or controversial.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pele rarely upsets his sponsors so his criticism of the costs of the World Cup was widely reported

But this week even Pele could not avoid the turmoil and embarrassment that have been Brazil's efforts to be ready for the World Cup which kicks off in Sao Paulo on 12 June.

"It's clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been," Pele said, reflecting wider public disquiet in Brazil.

Speaking at an event in Mexico City, where he was smartly dressed in the scarlet red colours of a multinational bank, Pele continued: "Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals ... Brazil needs it."

Although he then went on to criticise the violent actions of some anti-World Cup protestors, who he said were "breaking and burning everything", the point was made and noted at home in Brazil.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Anti-World Cup protests in Brazil have become less well attended, but are still frequent

Even the mild-mannered, harmless old veteran of the 1970 World Cup felt moved to articulate and speak out about events which have divided this football-mad nation.

Passion for the game

Brazilians are passionate about their "futebol" and revel in the expectation that their team will inevitably win an unparalleled sixth World Cup title on home turf in July.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Brazilians back their team with passion but they are also critical of the costs of the tournament

But many, too, are disgusted with the billions of dollars of public money being lavished on new stadiums for a tournament they had originally been assured would be almost entirely financed by the private sector.

Galling too, has been the long list of promised infrastructure projects, specifically intended to be ready by June's kick-off but which have been delayed, downsized or quietly shelved.

Urban transport systems in Cuiaba, Salvador, Recife and many other cities will not be finished as all efforts go into finishing the stadiums themselves.

There will probably be anti-World Cup protests during the tournament and they will undoubtedly be very well monitored and kept away from the stadiums by the extra layers of security being provided for the duration.

"Copa para quem? A World Cup for whom?", that is the cry from the street in what is still a developing country with huge levels of poverty and social inequality.

Image copyright AP
Image caption "A Cup for whom?" has become a popular anti-World Cup protests slogan
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The protesters demand more money be spent on education and healthcare

Recent protests, while volatile, have been relatively small.

That has been seized upon by World Cup organisers and their allies in government as proof that only a small number of Brazilians are now against the Cup and will get behind the squad as it opens its campaign at Sao Paulo's new Itaquerao stadium (which, as I write, is still not tournament-ready.)

But to dismiss the widespread disquiet felt by many Brazilians over how this World Cup has been organised and financed would be a huge mistake, especially in what is an election year for President Dilma Rousseff.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Itaquerao stadium is still not entirely finished less than a month before the Cup
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Dilma Rousseff is seeking re-election in October

Whilst certainly not the first public figure to do so, Pele spoke for millions of his countrymen and women when he donned his red blazer in Mexico and spoke his mind.

Of course Pele will be cheering loudly for a Brazilian win from his comfortable seat in the VIP section at the Itaquerao.

It is a seat he earned a long time ago, but perhaps for the first time in many years what he had to say resonated with what many other Brazilians were also thinking.

More on this story