DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Apologies, Brazil. Count me among those who presumed your love of soccer almost boundless and damned-near unanimous. Peg me among those who blithely thought it could overrun other matters such as, you know, food.
I never thought we'd see a poll showing only 52 percent of Brazilians favoring hosting the 2014 World Cup they're already committed to hosting, with 38 percent dead-set against. I never thought there'd be any Wednesday like last, with a protest in Rio de Janeiro that included a banner labeling Pele "the traitor of the century" because of his support of the World Cup. It just never occurred to me that Brazil might become the first giant stage for the debate about the largesse shoveled to sporting events.
And I certainly never thought I'd sit in an auditorium at Emirates Airlines headquarters some 88 days before a World Cup in Brazil, listening to Pele describe a strange, extra pressure with which the Brazilian team might play: the pressure to quell public protests and save the World Cup.
Pele walked into the auditorium on Sunday -- and the atmosphere changed. I did expect that. As the retired Brazilian made a scheduled appearance for the airline as a "global ambassador," people swooned, photographers massed, the host gushed. That figured, too. It seemed momentous, even for a sportswriter accustomed to famous faces, to look across the room at this face almost unparalleled in fame. That also figured. Sheikh Majid Al Mualla, the Emirates Airlines vice president, expressed surprise that "young guys" had chased Pele for an autograph at the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, and that figured, too, as did the 22-year-old Emirates employee from Mumbai, in the room yearning for a photo with a 73-year-old super-duper-star he had seen play only on low-definition video.
The only player to win three World Cups has an ominous hunch. There were humongous protests at the 2013 Confederations Cup last year -- Brazilians angered that the splurging for the World Cup preparation didn't go to more pressing matters such as health care or public transport. But then: "Fortunately, Brazil won," Pele said. "Then everything was calm."
If the same could happen in the World Cup, he thinks that peak might stanch the other pique. "We're going to have the same problem, I think, for the World Cup," he said of the protests, "because if everything goes normal into the World Cup, OK, but if Brazil in some game they don't go well ..."
Imagine that added dollop of pressure.
Imagine semifinals at home with no Brazilian team presence to offset the rage.
Remember that Brazil, among Pele's three favorites (with Spain and Germany), hasn't reached a World Cup semifinal since 2002.
"I agree if the people, they needed hospitals, I agree, if they needed a better life," Pele said. "But I cannot agree they boo the players." Players promote Brazil, he said. Players bring income. "This is with the political, you know, the bad politics, the people who rob. That's why I try to tell the people."
Surely Brazil teems with people who adore Pele. Surely they would love to watch video, as did about 200 people in Dubai on Sunday, of his dazzling 1958 World Cup as a 17-year-old in Sweden when he wound up fainting and crying and winning, plus his commanding World Cup in 1970 in Mexico. They would agree with Pele that the 1970 Brazil team may have been the best World Cup squad ever. They might agree this 2014 side will be, in a Brazilian oddity, better on defense than on attack.
They might love to hear Pele speak of 1958, the World Cup that ease Brazil's heartbreak over the loss to Uruguay in the 1950 final in Rio, and say, "To me it was like a dream." They might like to hear him say of his 1,000th goal, a penalty in Rio for Santos against Vasco, "For the first time, I trembled in a game." He reveled in having met Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Michael Schumacher. He claimed the New York nightlife wasn't all that wild in the 1970s when he starred for the Cosmos the first time, decades before his current and honorary presidency for the 4-year-old New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. A video showed him saying farewell to a New York crowd in 1977 at Giant's Stadium by exclaiming, "Love. Love. Love." He told of disliking the name "Pele" as a youth after his father named him "Edson" after Thomas Edison, beacon of energy.
Millions of Brazilians would have loved to be with him in that Dubai auditorium on Sunday. They might have liked it even when a 10-year-old boy took to the aisles, received the microphone, mentioned Liverpool's checkered phenomenon Luis Suarez and said to Pele, "Have you ever bitten anyone in your football career?"
Pele: "I was always very, very tough in the game but I've never bitten anyone."
They -- the Brazilians -- just aren't nearly as worshipful as the broad brushes have painted them. They're 201 million and counting, and some of the millions seem ready to spend the big event flashing a healthy diversity of viewpoints. They probably need more subtlety than words like "traitor," and they definitely need to curb any violence lest they lose more popularity themselves. But make no mistake -- they're about to conduct some robust democracy that stretches all the way to their most beloved sports icon.