Was Pele Paid to Tie His Shoelaces at the 1970 World Cup?

SOCCER/FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: Pele was paid to tie his shoelaces in the 1970 World Cup Final.

Nowadays, the idea of athletes endorsing sneakers is well ingrained in the public consciousness. Seemingly every draft class in the NBA has at least one player sign an endorsement deal with one of the major sneaker companies in the United States. Heck, Al Harrington of the Washington Wizards even had a shoe deal a few years ago when he was on the New York Knicks! However, in the early days of the so-called “sneaker wars” between rival shoe companies Adidas and Puma, athlete endorsements were seen as a much bigger risk. As sneakers became a bigger part of the world of athletics in the years following World War II, which athletes wore Adidas and which wore Puma became a major part of the advertising arm of each of the two companies (which were formed by estranged brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, respectively. I wrote about the origins of Adidas awhile back here) but as time went by, athletes were beginning to play the two companies against each other and the results were financially damaging. In addition, the companies began to spend too much time trying to one up each other. This was especially evident during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City where Adidas actually had Puma sneakers confiscated by custom officials! Things had gotten so crazy that in the lead up to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, the two companies (now run by the sons of the original founders) actually decided to come to a sort of “peace treaty” and to avoid the dealings that had marked their relationship for most of the 1960s. The most notable result of their interactions was the so-called “Pele Pact,” where both companies agreed NOT to sign a deal with Pele, the greatest football player in the world at the time. Their feeling was that they would both end up spending so much money on a bidding war that it would not be worth it in the end.

Led by Pele, Brazil’s 1970 national team was one of the greatest World Cup teams in the history of the tournament. They played Italy in the final match of the tournament. It was one of the most highly anticipated football matches in years. Right before the opening whistle, Pele asked the referee for a moment to tie his sneakers. All eyes were on Pele as he bent over to tie his sneakers….Puma sneakers.

What happened to the “Pele Pact”? Read on to find out…

Pele (born Edison Arantes do Nascimento) made his World Cup debut in 1958 when he was just seventeen years old. 1970 was the last of the four World Cups that Pele played in and the third title that Brazil won in those four tournaments (Pele was injured during both the 1962 and 1966 tournaments. Luckily for Brazil, Pele’s teammate Garrincha led the team to a title in Pele’s absence). Pele was clearly the most famous football player in the world headed into the 1970 World Cup, so he was mystified by something…why didn’t he have an endorsement deal with either Adidas or Puma (Pele had to make due with a deal with the small English shoe company Stylo)?

Obviously, Pele did not know about the “Pele Pact,” but things became interesting when Puma sent a representative to the Brazil team named Hans Henningsen. Henningsen was a reporter who had become quite friendly with the Brazilian team. Pele and Henningsen spent some time together and Pele was irked that Henningsen, who spent time trying to sign all the other Brazilian team members, never tried to sign him. Finally, Henningsen decided that enough was enough and he made a bold decision. He worked out a deal with Pele without approval from Puma! He offered Pele $25,000 for the 1970 World Cup and $100,000 for the next four years (plus a cut of the sales of Pele brand sneakers). Henningsen brought the offer to Armin Dassler, the head of Puma (son of the company’s founder, Rudolf Dassler) and Dassler decided that the deal was just too good to pass up. So he agreed to the offer and he and Henningsen delivered the money to Pele.

Part of their deal involved Pele intentionally asking for time before the opening of the final match, so that the cameras would all pan down to him tying his Puma brand sneakers. As you might imagine, Adidas (and their head, Horst Dassler) was furious and the sneaker wars began again in earnest.

Nowadays, in the United States, companies such as Nike and Reebok have taken the lead in the sneaker wars, but Puma and Adidas continue to be dominant forces in the international shoe market.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Barbara Smit’s wonderful book, Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sports, for the story of how the “Pele Pact” was destroyed. Her book is really a phenomenal read.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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