This was one of the reasons he was suporting a new venture by the Gulf state’s sports academy, Aspire, to identify and develop some of the best young talent on the continent.
In the first phase of the project entitled Football Dreams over 6,000 staff will aim to scout and trial over half a million 13-year-old boys in seven different countries in the hope that a new Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o might be unearthed.
Aspire’s directors have described the venture as the biggest football talent search project in history and hope to repeat it annually with different age groups increasing the number of scholarships awarded, from three initially.
Explaining his association with the project in the Qatari capital the three-time World Cup winner said: “I am going to give back to football what football gave to me.”
Pele himself was only 15 when former Brazilian international Waldemar de Brito took him to Santos and told the club he would become the greatest footballer in the world.
A year later he was the Brazilian league’s top scorer and by 17 he was famously lifting the world cup in Sweden in 1958.
He later told Al Jazeera’s Andy Richardson that the experience at least three African boys will get by joining Aspire’s current 165 students will be invaluable.
“I didn’t have this facility or opportunity. I didn’t have a school,” he said. Referring to the high school education the new recruits will receive he said: “I think it is not only to make the athlete, but also to prepare the man.”
Process of elimination
Scouring Africa for raw football talent is hardly a new idea with many European clubs already having effective scouting systems and feeder clubs on the continent.
Bue Aspire’s directors claim the sheer scale of their project is unprecedented.
In the initial phase the top 50 boys born in 1994 from Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sebegal and South Africa will be taken for a further week’s trial in the respective capital city before the top three from each country are brought to Doha for a month’s trial and then scholarships are handed out to the most promising talents.
While this could all smack slightly like an African “football idol” contest eliminating boys stage by stage, Andreas Bleicher, Aspire’s sports director, was keen to stress that all 50 boys from each country would be monitored following the initial phase and in many cases deals with local clubs would be sought.
Pele denied suggestions the project could be seen as robbing local clubs of crucial future talent.
“This happens on every continent, they take all the best players from Brazil and Argentina,” he said.
“This is almost impossible to settle because they play better and you cannot keep the player in Africa and they need to live and make a better salary.”
Pele, a former player with the now defunct side New York Cosmos at the end of his career, also praised David Beckham’s move to American side LA Galaxy but said more big names would be needed if the professional game was to attract more support in the country.
“LA is not the centre of the league, it is normally a little quiet…he [Beckham] is gonna need a bit of support.”