“Everyone knows what Pele was like as a soccer star, but I will tell you what he was like as a human being outside the lines,” Dr. Yannis Xethalis told The National Herald. And what Pele was like as a man can indeed be told by the doctor who was at the side of ‘the King’ from 1978 to 2018, a physician who had a very close relationship with the soccer legend – and Pele had blind trust in him when it came to his health.
Dr. Yannis Xethalis – a top orthopaedic surgeon – has operated on Pele “four times, twice on his right knee, once on his left, and once on his hip.” He reveals Pele’s human side to us, because we know well the career of one of the most famous men who ever set foot on a soccer field.
Regarding how important Dr. Xethalis was for Pele and how much trust he had in the hands and knowledge of the Greek-American orthopaedic surgeon, it is enough to quote the doctor’s words: “When it came to his health, Pele was very closed. Neither his daughter nor her husband, who is a doctor, here in Astoria, knew much.” Pele’s daughter, Kelly Nascimento, is married to Dr. Arthur J. DeLuca MD.
Dr. Xethalis has experienced many special and difficult moments with Pele. He has seen him leap, rejoice, get hurt, bent over in pain, and smiling, and he will always be Pele, the ‘King’ to him – but he was much more than a great athlete.
He was a man of kindness, who remained a sensitive soul even when he was involved in politics. He was a strong democrat, after all he had met Nelson Mandela when the latter was in prison. He was always polite – even when a journalist had asked him a hackneyed question, he reacted as if he had heard it for the first time.
“Pele was born to be famous – yet he made you feel very comfortable with him. When we would go out to dinner he would attract people to him. There was tremendous love, adoration,” stressed, among other things, Dr. Xethalis, who summarized him in a few words: “He was a saint among men.”
The top Greek-American surgeon shared with TNH a few of the many stories that he lived with King Pele, so that we too can experience a little of the greatness of the man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
“I remember that for the left knee he had gone to Sweden, and a photographer approached him and said ‘Pele, when you were 17 years old I was also a young photographer. I took a picture of you and I want now – after almost 40 years – a picture of you. Pele agreed and the photographer asked him to sit in a squat. He didn’t want to spoil his fun, but when Pele sat down to have his photo taken, his knee ‘locked’ and he had a problem. He called me and I told him to come to New York so I could see him. He came, I saw him and told him it was the meniscus. He replied ‘I get it,’ and asked me to do the surgery the next day. I replied that ‘it can’t be done like that – we need to do an MRI to see exactly what is wrong. ‘The previous operation’, I said to him, ’20 years ago, we did it without an MRI because there were no MRIs then.’ But Pelé was adamant ‘I have great confidence in you, we’re confirmed for tomorrow’ he told me. In addition to the trust Pele had in me, he had given his word that three days later he would go to South Africa… Pele had a lot of confidence in me and was always there for me. I have operated on many big names and famous people, but they have not kept in touch with me, but Pele was by my side until the end.”
A few hours prior to this interview, Pope Benedict died (12/31/2022) and Dr. Xethalis recalled a story related to Pele: “My children and the private school they were attending took a trip to Bormio, Italy – perhaps Donald Trump’s son, who went to the same school as my children, was also supposed to come. We also went to Milan and I told my mother and my sister to come to Milan too – to stay a week, as long as we did – so I could see them and they could see the kids. We went to the airport to pick them up and we found out that on the next plane from São Paulo to Milan were Pele and his brother because they had a meeting with Pope Benedict [before he had become Pope]. This took place in March, 1987 and my children were young (10, 9 and the little one just before she became 2 years old). Pele comes in, sees my wife, starts talking to her, and takes my little daughter in his arms until Martha goes to pick up the other two children… He was a very nice man. Very kind. He was so human!
The doctor continued: “At some point my sister comes, sees Pele, goes up to him and says: ‘Pele, I’m the doctor’s sister, and Pele says: ‘Hello, Vasso, I remember you.’ My sister was surprised and then she said to me, ‘how can he remember me, he only saw me once, a year ago on the pitch, and Pele knows thousands of people. But Pele remembered her very well. Pele had felt very comfortable with my family and it was always in his mind. A little further away my mother was sitting and she turns around and says ‘is that Pele? And he knows Yannis and his family? After all, for Yannis to have Pele as a patient, he must be a very famous doctor!'”
How the Move to the New York Cosmos Happened
Dr. Xethalis related to TNH how Pele’s transfer from Santos came about: “When I met Pele, he asked me ‘Doctor, does America really run the world? I couldn’t believe they would let me play football outside Brazil.’ And why did he say that? The New York Cosmos team was in the hands of a very good friend of mine, Steve Ross, and he wanted to bring Pele to America. Henry Kissinger [a big sports fan] managed to convince the then-president of Brazil (Ernesto Gaisel, 1974-1979) to let Pele transfer to the Cosmos… Kissinger told the Brazilian president that transferring Pele to America would be the best ‘public relations’ move Brazil could make. But Pele couldn’t understand how Kissinger convinced the Brazilian president.”
Pele: ‘I can’t forget my poor past’
“Pele was a human being,” said Dr. Xethalis over and over again. He recalled something the King told him which had marked him from his childhood: “I remember once seeing Pele in a corner, in the locker room of the stadium, with his head bowed and intensely thoughtful. I go close to him and I said ‘Pele, what’s wrong? This is the first time I’ve seen you like that – you’re always smiling.’ And he said, ‘Medico [Doc], we broke up last night and I’m very sad… I don’t know what’s going to happen with my children. I’m very sad’. For the first time I saw those eyes that were full of life and joy being sad.”
Xethalis then said, “it was time for him to enter the pitch for the match, and when the spectators saw him and started chanting his name – ‘ Pele – Pele’ – he immediately started smiling, jumping up to grab their hands, waving at them. His facial expression and psychological state changed. I couldn’t understand it and asked him directly ‘Hey Pelé, how is it that one moment you are sad and almost crying and then you are happy?’ And then he said ‘Medico, I have a very poor past and I will never forget it.’ He changed his mood to please the people who came to see him. Pele never forgot where he started from and that’s the meaning of life.”