Eternal Darkness of the Warrior Prince: The Troubled Life of Pele's Son Edinho

Ewan MacKennaSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 16, 2017


On the afternoon of New Year's Day, a riot broke out in the Anisio Jobim Penitentiary in Manaus, Brazil. Beheaded bodies began to be thrown over the boundary wall, and by the time police restored control at 7 the following morning, 56 lay butchered.

Last October, in the Boa Vista prison in the next-door northern state of Roraima, a video shot on a mobile phone captured inmates playing football with a dead man's head. By the end of January, 26 more killings occurred at Alcacuz Prison in Natal with many of the victims decapitated while one man was barbecued over a courtyard fire having been impaled on a stick.

The reason for these atrocities? The two most powerful drugs gang in Brazil—Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) and Comando Vermelho—are currently at war. Their tit-for-tat massacres show no sign of abetting.

Far south of the flashpoints, in the sleepy city of Tres Coracoes, reports of the jail violence evoked familiar fears for 46-year-old Edson Cholbi Nascimento. You may know him as Edinho. The world knows him as Pele's son.

"There was an order for my head to be handed over on a platter when I was in prison, and it's very common on the inside," Edinho tells Bleacher Report. "All this brings me back to how fortunate I was. Really, I'm very grateful. It's why I'm sure the Lord was always by my side, protecting me. Those things that have been happening recently were happening when I was inside too."

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In February, just a couple of weeks after we spoke, Edinho was sent back to jail to serve a sentence of 12 years and 10 months on drug-trafficking and money laundering charges. Six days later, however, a higher court in the capital of Brasilia decided he should be free until what will be his final attempt at an appeal. This will be one last chance, as he continues to strongly maintain his innocence.

The son of a football king has travelled a most difficult path and not always on the straightest course. So where does he find the strength to overcome the darkness that envelopes him at every turn?

On June 21, 1970, Pele won his third World Cup final at the Azteca in Mexico City, cementing his legacy as arguably the greatest footballer of all time. Sixty-seven days later, his wife, Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi, gave birth to their first son, Edinho.

In 1975, Pele moved his family to New York, where he'd make the Cosmos famous and become the best-paid athlete in the world. It was a chance for a new start in the brightest, most exciting city on the planet. And it was badly needed.

Pele in action for the Cosmos
Pele in action for the CosmosFocus On Sport/Getty Images

Pele's past was catching up to him. Rumours of his infidelity were frequent and some were proved to be true. In 1993, Sandra Arantes do Nascimento was recognised by the courts as his daughter after DNA evidence confirmed Pele's affair with Anizia Machado, a housemaid, 30 years prior. She released a book, The Daughter the King Didn't Want, before dying of cancer in 2006. But long before such facts and fights emerged, the home Edinho grew up in was broken.

"As soon as we got to New York, my parents separated, so I was just raised by a single mother with my sister in a small apartment," Edinho says. "Very typical. I think in retrospect it's the only place I could have been brought up as just another person, without the association to my father."

Edinho had little contact with his famous father as child. There was barely a relationship at all. "Maybe birthdays, or some special occasion, just once or twice a year. He'd get the date and not show then, though, so there was a lot of letting us down as kids. I kind of created an aversion; I didn't like my father. And then he made my mother cry, so he was the villain, the bad guy."

Fitting in was an issue. A nice apartment in uptown Manhattan felt off for Edinho. As a boy, he'd go to Harlem, never telling people who he was or who his father was. Later, as a teenager, he'd make it as far as the South Bronx, the place he considers his other home. "This was 1980s New York, a tough place, so I made my bones there, and I'm proud to say that. I conquered the respect of the street, and to this day, that's my very essence."

The lessons of the street would prove vital in his years to come.

Seven-year-old Edinho pictured at Giants Stadium in New York, in 1978
Seven-year-old Edinho pictured at Giants Stadium in New York, in 1978Getty Images

As a boy, Edinho played basketball, baseball and football. By the time he went away to boarding school upstate, he could skate and was playing ice hockey. But genes are genes. Football was his destiny, and aged 19, he arrived at the Vila Belmiro—the same Santos stadium his father used to star in—as a highly rated young goalkeeper.

"Being Pele's son helped," Santos journalist Ted Sartori tells Bleacher Report. "I doubt if he wasn't Pele's son he'd have gotten an opportunity just like that. He was short for a goalkeeper. Sometimes he could be great, unbeatable; other times it was the opposite. Naturally, he suffered the pressure of being Pele's son too."

For the first time in his life, Edinho was forced to walk in the shadows of the man who made him.

"Up until that moment I never had to deal with who he was and who I was as a result, and then immediately, I had to deal with it," he says. "From one day to the next I became Pele's child. As soon as I got here to Brazil, I realised how much pressure I was going to face and was up against. So I focused very much on that and dedicated myself, and it all became motivation. ... People always would say, 'He's just at Santos because of his father; he's never going to make it.' It becomes inspiration and part of the challenge."

At least Edinho had the relative quiet for comfort. He'd swapped the heady capital of the world for life in a small port city and would spend his evenings watching rented VHS tapes—in English—to keep him amused. "I got in tune with the rhythm of the street and slowed down. There were no distractions."

His peace would soon be broken.

It was the early hours of October 24, 1992. Edinho tells me he was behind the wheel when, a couple of cars in front of him, a retired man, Pedro Simoes Neto, was knocked off his bike and would subsequently die. Edinho pulled over, telling his friend to get to a pay phone and call an ambulance while he checked on the victim.

As a crowd gathered, Edinho decided to move on. He had done his part. But the scene in his rearview window as he drove away would haunt him for 13 more years.

"About two months later I was notified that I was being accused of being in a street race, and that's what became the case against me," he says. "There was a lot of unscrupulous people involved that created a situation where there was none. Obviously, because of my father and who I am, I became that target.

A poster of Edinho (left), Pele and Pele's father Dondinho, with each portrayed in their playing days
A poster of Edinho (left), Pele and Pele's father Dondinho, with each portrayed in their playing daysSourced by author

"That wasn't something I was prepared for; I didn't do anything wrong, so there was no reason to be worried. But in Brazil the justice system is very fragile and easy to manipulate..."

The 1990s for Edinho should have been about his time playing at Santos.

"That year, 1995, when they got to the final (of the Campeonato Brasileiro, the culmination of the Brazilian season, played as a two-legged final, which they lost 3-2 to Botafogo on aggregate), the referee robbed them, which stopped an extraordinary thing happening with the son of Pele winning with his old club," Juca Kfouri, one of the most prominent football writers in Brazil, says.

"But Edinho came a long way. The name helped at the start, but you can't say that he didn't make his own effort, because to get from the reserves to the first team and get his place, that took huge dedication from him."

For all that hard work, however, more in Brazil remember that decade for Edinho's legal issues than his exploits on the pitch. In a courtroom in February 1999, after seven years of legal ramblings, a judge pronounced him guilty of manslaughter by reckless driving. 

"The cowardice, the injustice," he says. "It's funny how all my life, even in the context of the South Bronx, I never did anything wrong. I come here [Santos], I'm famous, I'm an athlete living quietly, and this all happens. But in New York, my friends were tough people; they dealt with situations infinitely more difficult than I had to. I figured if they never gave up, I can take on this."

Edinho's instant appeal in 1999 meant his six-year prison sentence was put on hold, but with the threat of jail time hanging over him, the lessons of his early life in New York served him well.

"It's very clear now that the way I grew up, that was for a reason. Everyone expected me to flip out, but the fact I took it in stride was surprising to many, but it makes all the sense in the world to me and people who knew me and how I grew up. But still people thought 'he'll break; he's just Pele's son.'"

In July 2005, 13 years after the fateful night in question, Edinho was cleared at the long-awaited retrial. There would be no homecoming, however. Upon the retraction of the original verdict, he was returned to jail in handcuffs and would spend six months there. Now there was a bigger issue—a fresh charge of trafficking and money laundering.

Perhaps even more worrying was the public vendetta against him from the PCC drug lords, many of whom would be waiting inside the prison walls.  

Tres Coracoes is a small agricultural city of around 80,000 people. But while the surroundings may be coffee country, the town itself is all about football. After all, this is where Pele was born. There's a statue of him; the museum across the street from it documents his time and his many visits here. The main square is named after him; on Rua Edson Arantes do Nascimento, his restored family house sits.

There, Pele was raised in a small room shared with his brother—his parents in another small room, his grandparents in yet another. During the day, his grandmother would cook, while his grandfather gathered sticks to take to the street and sell for a few coins. Humble is still home.

"It's just part of my family's heritage," Edinho says. "But I got to know my grandfather, Dondinho, here in his later years. Very sweet, very serene. I know he liked his little whiskey at the end of the day when older, and I can associate that to his serenity. He's the oldest reference to my family."

The house where Pele grew up
The house where Pele grew upEwan MacKenna

From the front door of that house, down the hill, you can see the small stadium where Dondinho once played and where Edinho last year took over coaching duties at local club Tricordiano.

It seemed a fitting end to a story of many teachings and much turmoil. After that 1999 verdict and the castigation of his character, Edinho decided to push on with his coaching education. Eventually, he was invited back to his family's spiritual home of Santos by former Real Madrid manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo. "My introduction onto a top-level staff, and it was an eight-year trajectory, from (early) 2007 to (late) 2014," Edinho says. "It was a learning experience and my college and post-graduate career all in one and qualified me to feel confident on my own."

After just two games in charge at Tricordiano, Edinho's association with the club abruptly ended—the result of financial problems. This followed his brief spells coaching at Mogi Mirim and Agua Santa, making a body of work hard to measure.

The bedroom Pele shared with his brother
The bedroom Pele shared with his brotherEwan MacKenna

"That's part of the problem here; we can't judge him in terms of coaching because he hasn't been at anywhere long enough," Sartori, a local journalist, tells Bleacher Report. "On the outside it doesn't look good, but we never know what's going on behind the scenes in Brazil; all is not always clear or obvious."

Edinho still feels he has a lot to offer as a coach. "Brazil is very far back as far as the evolution of the game tactically and technically. Of course, as individuals, we've always been at the top, but collectively, it has stopped in time; and that's where I feel I can contribute, with my sports culture from America. I've a lot of experience with coaches in different sports. I'm composed of all those philosophies."

Tricordiano clearly saw his value, as their marketing manager, Ze Roberto, told Bleacher Report before things imploded, but perhaps as much in his name as his tactical acumen: "Edinho is a big marketing tool for us. It could make us more well known because of that name. And we've Pele now as honorary chairman too. Three generations, three great lives in the city that translates as three hearts."

There remains one very happy memory for Edinho from his fleeting spell at Tricordiano. When he signed his contract, a photograph was taken of him with the club staff and his father. Looking at his son, Pele has pride in his eyes. Finally, everything became clear for the boy whose father once deserted him.

"As I became an adult and an athlete, I realised he [Pele] was never really mine; he was the king of soccer," Edinho says. "I realised I had to share my father with the world. So from the frustration of not having a father in my mind growing up, I became thankful of the privilege of being the son of that great man.

Edinho and Pele at the opening of Pele's restored family home
Edinho and Pele at the opening of Pele's restored family homeSourced by the author

"Even though being his son entailed me sacrificing him as my father, as I grew up, I realised how important that was, and it let me take my guard down and approach him again and try to cultivate our relationship again. Suddenly, I got to know him as a person—to realise how simple of a human being he actually is. He was just a simple boy who was a genius at his art, that became what he was, what he is, and that was difficult for him.

Edinho says he now understands the sacrifices his father made in "the name of his greatness." Suddenly the anger was gone, and a new openness came in their relationship. "Immediately we were healed, and sometimes now the roles are reversed, and he's the son and I'm the dad," he says.

Maybe the guy who defends the poor in court
Or the one who chases new life but who's out on parole
Someone in their wooden bedroom, reading under candlelight
Listening to an old radio, at the end of a cell
Or the one from a black royal family like me
A warrior prince who defends the goal.

—Chapter Four, Verse Three by Racionais MC's [translated from Portuguese]

In his playing days with Santos under-20s, Edinho would join his teammates as they went to watch the senior team. It was there he met Edi Rock and Mano Brown of Racionais MC's.

"The equivalent to Run D.M.C. in hip-hop history and culture," he says. "Actually more like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as far as the evolution of the country, but as far as their influence on rap, it would be more like Run D.M.C. See, I'm born from hip-hop culture, I love rap—the South Bronx is where rap was born. There I saw disco fever and funk become rap, I was a witness, I grew up in the culture. That's always part of me, so in Brazil, I adopted hip-hop culture; I was immediately a connoisseur of it. So to get to know those guys..."

The above lyrics are about poverty—a song that starts off talking about a black kid being killed by police. Midway through, Edinho, the warrior prince, gets his shoutout.

When Edinho arrived at Santos, those he played with started calling him "prince," the son of the king. The more it irked him, the more it stuck. "So it's a verse that talks about black history in the country and references various black personalities," he says. "Then there's me, and immediately my nickname was born and stuck. And I'm very proud of it and how it came about."

How did the son of Brazil's most famous man end up back in jail with a drugs gang? How did a football coach come to the attention of the most brutal cartel in the Brazilian penal system? How did a boy whose father used to make him cry come to make his father cry in a sad embrace before being hauled away with accusations to end his life as he knew it, following him like a heavy breath in his ear?

"If I can reflect and analyse as if looking in the mirror and putting sense to it all, I didn't see what was coming. Not playing anymore I relaxed; I didn't filter out some of my friends."

Edinho is talking about Ronaldo Duarte Barsotti de Freitas, better known as Naldinho. Introduced by a player they both knew, the pair became friends, and Edinho's life set a different course. "He is the son of an ex-football player, Pitico, who played with my father. My father helped his father go to Mexico to play after they were together at Santos. He referenced him, and he had success there.

"His entire family grew up with my father like a god. Literally. They'd light candles and pray to him every day because all their success in life came after the experience my father helped give him."

Edinho (left) joins Pele as he sets the cornerstone for the Pele Museum, in Santos, in July 2010
Edinho (left) joins Pele as he sets the cornerstone for the Pele Museum, in Santos, in July 2010Getty Images

In 2005, a police operation saw a lorry load of Naldinho's associates locked away, including Edinho, who police said was the link between the financial and military wings of the cartel.

Eduardo Veloso, who wrote a book about Naldinho in 2014, is nervous when we meet. "It's a delicate subject with Comando Vermelho, PCC, Edinho being the son of the king. Anything written in the wrong way, they'll look for me." He tells me to read his book. Its contents detail Naldinho's front of a car business, his loose links to Comando Vermelho and how they remained separate as Naldinho wanted to be his own boss.

An anonymous source goes further. "Naldinho had his own territory. But he'd [have friendships] and [do] business with people from the Red Command and also [Colombian guerrilla movement] Farc. He began supplying cocaine to most of Rio de Janeiro and became the most powerful drug lord in Santos. PCC started watching this and thought they should have a share. What is happening in the jails now is the same idea. Control of drugs. The police were never investigating Edinho, though; it wasn't until the conversations came up when they bugged the phone that they started looking into him."

Edinho maintains his innocence: "We literally were associated by phone taps; that's the only physical evidence. They are also completely abstract but manipulated and edited to create the context where I could be accused. If you take it and listen, there's nothing that incriminates me. I'm not proud of my relationship with him, but I stand by everything I've done in my entire life. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed of anything because I was completely entrapped. A victim."

The Sao Paulo narcotics unit refuse to comment on accusations in an ongoing case, but there are peculiarities to note here. For instance, when Edinho was brought in on charges that he was laundering money for Naldinho's drug empire, a tape emerged on Record TV (via Rediff Sports). In it he says, "I'm guilty, that's no secret; I'm prepared to face two or three years." Edinho says the reporters were put in the room by the police chief to frame him.

"I'm not a child; I wasn't induced to say anything incriminating, and I didn't. In retrospect, I feel I am responsible for putting myself in this situation with Naldinho, but I'm completely innocent of the charges. But maybe because of the context I placed myself in, maybe I did have some responsibility. That's what I said and felt. But then on the news comes, 'Edinho confessed.' That's ridiculous. I was in isolation, and obviously, that didn't help my case in court. A lot of frustration at the time but I was also waking up each day thinking, 'Hey you're in a jail cell, hey your friends on a street level are in a conflict with another gang, hey your life is in serious risk here.'"

Edinho initially served six months in 2005, and his gang affiliation was a problem. Guilty until appeal, there was a far greater trial awaiting him behind those walls—one that carries a brutal death sentence. Naldinho disappeared and hasn't been seen since 2007, with many speculating he was murdered by PCC, although author Veloso believes he may be still on the run, as no evidence of his death has surfaced.

If there was retribution to be had, Edinho was the ultimate trophy kill.

Edinho pictured during his brief spell as coach of Tricordiano
Edinho pictured during his brief spell as coach of TricordianoGetty Images

"There was this whole dynamic of my friends and their enemies that I had nothing to do with, but ultimately, I had become part of it," he says. "The other side don't care; I was associated, and I was the biggest prize in the criminal context of that underworld. In a very small period of time, thankfully and ironically, I was dealt much more justice from the underworld than I had been from the real world."

Incredibly, Edinho was confronted by those who allegedly wanted him dead and stated his case, calmly and with enough conviction, to ward off the apparent threat to his life.

"They did their investigating, and after two weeks of a little tension and uncertainty, they said, 'You're cool, you deal with the corrupt cops and the justice system, but you're good here'. Obviously, I didn't fall from the moon; I'm known and have always been accessible. I never lost my essence; even as an athlete I was always in the middle of the fans talking—and fans here are like gangs, so I had a lot of street credit. That came into play. And the PCC, it was the first time someone actually looked at me and said we believe you. Fortunately, the underworld cleared me."

Edinho had a lot of thinking time in solitary confinement and began to write a journal, some of which he recalled for Bleacher Report. He remembers his father's reaction—the tears when he hugged him for the first time after he was put away. "Completely supportive but caught off guard," he wrote. "He was always supportive, but at the very first moment, he was definitely a little skeptical. But as soon as he understood the corrupt nature of the situation, he doubled his support and has been nothing but supportive to this day."

Pele has continued to protest his son's innocence, in 2006 being particularly vocal when commenting, "There is not a shred of evidence against my son."

Edinho has two different paths to contemplate—one is freedom, the chance to coach again and to be a present father to his children. The other is incarceration into his mid-50s and the darkness of yet more confined contemplation.

Drug trafficking and money laundering? He still can't believe the charges were brought in the first place.

"It's almost comedic because there is absolutely no trace of evidence. Money laundering is specific—there has to be money, a mechanism to take illicit money and make it licit. Cars, homes, money in the bank. There is none of that. Ironically, I was still condemned. I wish someone would investigate that, some of the crazy things that have happened in my relationship with the justice system.

Edinho pictured at a Santos training session in 2010
Edinho pictured at a Santos training session in 2010Getty Images

"My lawyers, they've all made the same observation. They say things that happened to me have never happened in the history of the Brazilian justice system. We got the first case thrown out, and they came up with a second case based on the exact same accusations. That's just one of the absurdities. I was accused twice of the same crime. The court released me because of a lack of evidence, and then a couple of weeks later, there's a new case, but it was literally exactly the same."

Even if the worst happens, Edinho is better equipped than most to deal with it.

"I'm almost accustomed to living with that black cloud," he says. "I know it's there, but I have a very solid personal doctrine; whatever I can't deal with or influence myself, I try not to worry about. I try to leave it for the universe to take care of."

Edinho's story is far from over. Because the boy bred in the Bronx won't let that happen.

"There's no quitting in me," he says. "Remember, I'm the warrior prince."


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