Pelé had bad teeth. Pelé had good feet.

Brazil squad

I’m sure that social housing could learn a thing or two from the way Brazil crashed out of the 2014 World Cup but I’d like to go back to 1958 to consider a very different Brazil team.

In the lead up to the 1958 World Cup Brazil had a new man in charge. As the new president of the Brazilian Football Federation João Havelange was determined that there wouldn’t be a repeat of 1954 when Brazil crashed out to Hungary after the group stages.

Havelange started by putting all his squad through a series of thorough medical checks. The results were shocking and revealed a catalogue of disease and long-term malnutrition. Almost the entire squad had intestinal parasites, some had syphilis, others were anaemic. More than 300 teeth were extracted from the players’ mouths.

Havelange’s team of wannabes was a team of physical wrecks; a team for the people, sure, but also very much of the people. Judged purely in terms of their physical health this team looked like no-hopers.

But there was of course another way of judging this group of 22 young men from the favelas of Rio and São Paulo……how good were they at playing football?

The answer of course was…..well……not bad at all. In fact they were unbeaten on their way to lifting the trophy with a 5 – 2 victory over hosts Sweden. Pelé, who scored the best, and final, goal in the dying minutes of the final, passed out, was revived and broke down in tears. The Swedes, who had cheered Brazil’s performance as they played, now cheered their lap of honour.

Trying to get a home from a housing association must feel a lot like undergoing one of those Brazilian medicals. The process seems designed to weigh, measure and label every problem, weakness or failing that an individual has. Debt. Overcrowding. Domestic violence. ASBO. Disability. Mental health problems. Arrears.

But every person who moves into a new social home has another story to tell. They have skills, experience, resilience, tenacity, hopes, dreams.

Imagine if we started our relationship with every new customer not by focussing on what they can’t do but by celebrating what they can do. Imagine if we started not by focusing on where someone has come from but by asking where they want to get to.

How cool would that be?

Photo from

Thanks to Thom Bartley for the much better title


One response to “Pelé had bad teeth. Pelé had good feet.

  1. Pingback: An ABC of ABCD | John Wade·

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