Soccer Icon Pelé Was One of the First Erectile Dysfunction Spokesmen
After three days of national mourning, three-time World Cup champion Pelé was laid to rest on Jan. 3 in Santos, Brazil, where he played most of his professional football career.
The Brazilian soccer legend died on Dec. 29, 2022, at age 82 from complications of colon cancer. He had been fighting the disease since 2021 and succumbed to multiple organ failure after a steady monthlong decline.
Pelé was affectionately labeled the "King of Soccer," but what many people may not remember is that he was one of the first faces of erectile dysfunction (ED) awareness.
Born Edson Avantes do Nascimento in 1940, Pelé began playing professional soccer as a teenager. In Sweden in 1958, playing for Brazil's national team at age 17, Pelé became the youngest-ever World Cup winner, a title he still holds.
He went on to win two more World Cup championships, in 1962 and 1970, before retiring from the sport in 1977. In 1999, just before Pelé's 60th birthday, the International Olympic Committee bestowed him with the title "Athlete of the Century."
The face of ED
Similar to other star athletes, during his period of worldwide fame, Pelé made his riches in advertising. He endorsed American Express, Mastercard, Visa, Tesco, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and other companies.
One endorsement deal that earned the athlete some flak was his erectile dysfunction partnership with prescription drug manufacturing giant Pfizer.
For years, the retired football icon traveled the world educating people about men's health after he accepted the title of Japan's ambassador of erectile dysfunction, in partnership with Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, in 2002.
Pelé shared his feelings about the company and his new ED ambassador role in a 2003 interview with the Irish Independent.
"At the beginning, I was surprised [to be approached by Pfizer], and in Brazil, a lot of friends of mine told me to be careful and to find out what is the real message, what is the real campaign. But when I was in New York, I got all the information on the situation all over the world and I thought that it is good to be part of this," Pelé told the Independent.
Breaking down ED stigma
Pfizer's main message, Pelé said, was aimed at addressing the stigma associated with erectile dysfunction—something that was rarely talked about publicly 20 years ago.
"In the campaign, we talk about taboo," Pelé told the Independent. "As men, we don't talk too much about our problems. I thought this was cultural, but it is not. This problem of ED is universal. It doesn't matter about the culture."
Erectile dysfunction, the causes of which can include age, diet, smoking, diabetes, depression and stress, affects at least 30 million men in the United States, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Research presented in 2017 at the 23rd Congress for the World Association of Sexual Health put the number of U.S. men experiencing any sort of ED at 47.5 million—40 percent of men ages 18 or older. That same research found one-third of men in Pelé's home country, Brazil, experience ED.
An early 2000s Pfizer commercial, which can be found on YouTube, depicted Pelé walking onto a soccer field as fans cheer in the background.
"If men suffered, they suffered in silence," Pelé says in the advertisement. "Not anymore…Talk to your doctor. I would."
Video visits with a physician have become a viable option for most people, and more healthcare providers have added them as a service. Giddy telehealth makes it easy to get connected with a qualified professional who can help with a variety of conditions, including ED.