Son of the King
The troubled story of Pelé’s son Edinho and how he ended up in jail
It was an ominous Facebook post, but one that came as little surprise to those close to Edson Cholbi do Nascimento.
“Good night friends. The cowardice continues, but I'm strong and firm with faith!” he wrote just after midnight on 24 February 2017. “I'm going away for a long time. Sooner or later, I’ll be back. Stay well…”
Later that day, Edinho, as the 46-year-old Brazilian football manager is commonly known, began what was to be a sentence of 12 years and 10 months for money-laundering stemming from his connection with a notorious drug dealer back in 2004. News of his imprisonment went global overnight, as Edinho isn’t just another Brazilian embroiled in legal problems. He’s also the son of a man famous across the world: Pelé.
Edinho’s release just six days later drew far less attention and as of the time of writing he will remain free pending another appeal in a bizarre court battle that has been dragging on for over 12 years. “You have no idea how many ridiculous and never seen before situations happened in my particular case,” he told The Blizzard.
He could almost be referring to his entire life.
Behind Edinho’s story lies a remarkable tale of kid with an absentee father whose life was shaped by the moral code of a rough patch of New York City. And a tale of a young adult who dared to step outside his father’s overwhelming shadow and into the top level of Brazilian football without true professional training. And finally, the tale of a stable family man climbing the coaching ranks in the most football-obsessed nation in the world, whose future now hangs in balance.
In some ways it’s ironic that the son of one of the most idolised sporting stars on the planet is fighting to save his own reputation.
In other ways, it’s entirely understandable.
“I feel at home here”
Diadema, São Paulo, 22 August 2016
It's a beautiful day in what can only be described as an ugly part of town. In a south-eastern enclave in this city of 21 million, surrounded by houses on the verge of collapse, sits a 7,000-seater stadium with impeccably manicured grass. Young players from the second-tier Brazilian team Esporte Clube Água Santa arrive in compact cars in groups of four or five to gear up for the daily two-and-half hour training session. Last among them, their coach Edinho exits his black bulletproof Volkswagen and strides in.
It’s been 35 years since we’ve last seen each other and I’m not entirely sure what Edinho – or Edson as I knew him back at grade school in New York – will sound like. Will he have a Brazilian accent?
“Yo, man, it’s so great to see you,” he said, with the booming bass of an American soul singer.
Even at 46, Edinho has the unmistakable build and stride of a professional athlete, though more of the NBA variety. He could be a slightly older and much shorter (at 5 foot 11 inches) version of Kobe Bryant or Vince Carter.
Though no one else speaks much English, I get introduced to the club staff and a number of players (all extremely polite), before watching Edinho conduct practice from the stands. His players appear to be enthusiastic, though for Brazilian standards modestly talented.
Afterward we convene in the middle of the pitch. “It’s not perfect, but this is where I have to be to get to where I want to,” Edinho said, surveying the surroundings.
The coach knows greatness. Aside from watching countless clips of his father, he was an assistant coach to Vanderlei Luxemburgo at Santos, mentoring the likes of Neymar, Robinho and Alex. But there is no greatness on display here.
“We’re in the middle of a favela,” he said, pointing to the flop houses visible between the stands. “It’s a tough place; it’s like the South Bronx. But I feel at home. It’s how I grew up.”
A Bronx Tale
In 1975, Pele was lured out of retirement to provide goals and star power for the New York Cosmos, a job that brought his wife and two children with him to the US.
Young Edson arrived as a kindergartener at the United Nations International School speaking no English, but adapted quickly. Soon, he’d be running circles around his classmates in the playground.
In 1982, Edson’s parents ended their 14-year marriage. His mother Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi moved into a modest one-bedroom apartment with four-year-old Jennifer, while Edson and his older sister Kelly were sent to boarding schools.
Excelling in ice hockey, baseball and basketball at the prestigious Harvey School, an hour’s drive north of New York City, Edinho acquired the skills to play in goal for Santos – where he would make 147 appearances in the top flight of Brazilian football. “Because my father was the world-renowned goal scorer, it was very ironic that his son became a goalkeeper,” Edinho said, “but it was very cool and it was very logical.”
Fielding a ground ball as a baseball infielder taught him how to handle low shots in goal, he said, while basketball developed his vertical leap and hockey strengthened his upper body. “So I had a whole set of tools that, without ever playing soccer, prepared me to be a really good goalkeeper,” he said. “Destiny laid out the cards in a very curious and very precise way.”
At the time, soccer was not a sport that cool American kids played. Although Edinho dabbled on the pitch at Harvey, it was hardly a passion. “I was embarrassed to tell my friends that my dad was a soccer player,” he recalls, astonishingly. “My heroes were Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and [the New York Yankees great] Reggie Jackson.”
Perhaps that’s why Edinho’s seventh-grade soccer coach and counsellor at Harvey, Richard Beck, remembers him as “a pretty good soccer player”, but a “lazy” one who wouldn’t track back.
“But there’s one thing: he could see the field,” he quickly added. “Oh Lord could he see the field. And he would put a pass into the most perfect spots; spots that I sometimes wouldn’t see as a coach. That was the one thing that impressed me.”
Edinho’s pitch awareness may have been inherited. His toughness, however, was a trait honed on the streets, starting with pickup basketball games on the rugged courts of Harlem and the Bronx.
There, he would meet up with his best friend from Harvey – and one of the only other black students at the school – Eddie Mason.
Rather than go home to the ritzy Upper East Side of Manhattan for weekends and sleep on his mother’s sofa, Edinho would retreat to Mason’s apartment where he lived with his grandmother in the Forest Houses community in South Bronx.
The son of the Brazilian idol was given the nickname ‘Garfield’, after the cartoon cat with the droopy eyes, and established himself as one of the guys in the hood. “We taught him how to survive in the street,” Mason said of his group of friends at Forest Houses. “Not necessarily do anything wrong, but just how to not let people take advantage of you, how to stand up for yourself.
“You know, he was book smart and really athletic, but we taught him to be outside without getting beat up on,” he laughed, recalling Edinho being challenged to several street fights in the area. “He was a tough kid. He proved himself handily many times, to the point where other kids just accepted him. Like, he don’t have no silver spoon in his mouth, and if he does it really doesn’t matter because he’s still Garfield.”
But Edinho’s adolescence was far from easy. “I never really had any contact with my father,” Edinho recalls, estimating he saw him about three to four times a year at best. Pelé would miss birthdays, calling last minute to say he couldn’t make it. "Now I’m a father [of two teenage daughters] and an adult, and I understand. I realise who my father is, and that I had to share him with the entire world. That’s not a normal situation, but obviously at the time I didn’t realise".
“I had my father as the enemy, kind of, the one who made my mother cry. So I was really rebellious towards him, and I didn’t really have any interest,” he said, adding that his mother “was very loving, but very innocent or naive in a sense.
“So I was just kind of raised on my own.”
Pelé wasn’t entirely out of the picture. He did visit the Harvey School more than once to check on Edinho’s progress, though students hounding him for autographs initially got in the way of getting an update from Beck.
Instead, the three-time World Cup winner would pick up Edinho’s academic advisor in a stretch limousine and have lunch at a nearby park.
“We had a picnic,” said Beck, now retired, more than 30 years later. “We sat and talked and ate, and that’s how we used to meet because he couldn’t go anywhere without someone interrupting us.”
According to Beck, Edinho was a “good kid” who didn’t require disciplining and never missed a day of school: “He would always come on time Monday morning and be ready to go.”
This despite Edinho, Mason and their crew of 15 and 16 year olds clubbing around New York City during the genesis of the hip-hop era.
“Fat Joe lived on the corner,” Mason recalls, of the rap mogul from South Bronx. “Showbiz and AG lived there, Lord Finesse, Big L – all of those people were right there in the neighbourhood. We were in the heart of it.”
As he reminisces in the dimly lit manager’s dressing-room at Água Santa, Edinho’s fondness for his New York days is palpable.
“It’s funny how life is about context,” he said. “There was a whole world out there, but that’s what I thought life was. My life was that. And whatever dreams they had, those were my dreams.”
The Return of the Gringo
By the time he was graduating from high school, Edinho’s athletic dreams began to take shape.
He thought about pursuing college soccer in the US, but four years playing amateur athletics part-time wasn’t ideal. Instead, Edinho latched on to a semi-pro club in New York led by two former Brazilian teammates of Pelé.
After 18 months in goal for a team that practised just twice a week, his coaches Jorge Siege and Nelsi Morais reported back to Pelé that the kid was ready to turn pro. Without the option of the MLS – which would launch six years later – Edinho moved to Santos in 1990 to try out for the club for whom Pelé scored more than 600 goals in 18 seasons. “I never really had any fatherly reference in terms of what I was going to be professionally,” Edinho explained. Although as it turned out, the lack of pressure from Pelé eased the teenager’s decision to pursue football, and breathed new life into their relationship.
“When I decided to come to Brazil, it was almost his dream come true,” he said.
Professional sport is littered with stars who are second or even third generation athletes – everyone from Stephen Curry to Nico Rosberg to Kasper Schmeichel – but converting that experience and those genes is not easy, said Edinho. “It’s in my blood,” he said. “I can’t deny that my DNA is favourable for me to be an athlete, that’s very clear. Because in whatever sport I played, I did really well. So that’s the hereditary aspect of it, but the psychological aspect is very peculiar and very individual.”
Edinho suggests that most athletes who succeed their fathers benefit from their guidance, tagging along to pro practices and having them around at youth games. Even Pelé was mentored by his own father, the prolific goalscorer Dondinho. “They had that kind of influence on them; I never had that,” he said. “I did it all on my own pretty much, but I always had that kind of reference to greatness. I knew that he came from nothing and he became everything. And if Pelé could do it, then anybody could – or anybody could try, at least.”
The transition to life in Brazil wasn’t easy though. Santos, the port area of São Paulo, was a far cry from the bustle of New York.
Edinho spoke “very limited” Portuguese and showed up to training wearing the latest baggy hip-hop gear, earning the nickname ‘Gringo’ from his teammates. Feeling lonely in his cramped apartment, he would rent stacks of films on VHS and leave the TV on “just to hear people speaking English.”
Looking back, the lack of distraction helped earn him a spot in the squad, initially as the fourth keeper. “I would just train and sleep, so it was very convenient,” he said.
Less ideal, however, was that for the first time in his life Edinho would have to deal with fame of his own. “I came from New York, I was just another kid,” he recalls. “And then all of a sudden I come to Brazil and I’m the most famous guy in the world’s son.
“You know, I wasn’t that three days ago, and now [I have] all that responsibility and all the dynamics that come with that. And then I decided to play professional soccer as well…”
The first sign that a life of unwelcome notoriety could be troublesome came just two years into Edinho’s football career, when he witnessed a motorcyclist get hit by a car. “I stopped to help the guy, I could have kept going,” he said, still agitated by the aftermath of the incident. “There was nobody in the street, and all of a sudden a witness came out. There was this whole circus.”
The biker wound up dead, and Edinho – who waited for the police before leaving – was accused of street racing with the driver who hit the man. “Just a bunch of BS,” is how he describes the case. After an initial six-year sentence for reckless driving, Edinho was found not guilty by a jury in 2005. (Only cases which result in death face a jury in Brazil.)
“That was the first horrible experience I had with the justice system here.”
There would be more to come.
After a few loan spells, Edinho started in goal for Santos and enjoyed a four-year run of form which peaked with them just missing out on the title in 1995. Injuries began piling up, however, including a torn anterior cruciate ligament that led to his retirement at the age of 29.
Edinho, who had married two years earlier, suddenly found himself out of a job and lacking direction. He tried being a football agent for a year, but the shark-infested waters of that world did not suit him. “I need rules,” he said. “There were no rules. It was whoever got there first and told the right story. I can’t play a game with no rules, so I was like, ‘I’m out of here.’”
Instead Edinho turned to other sports, like footvolley and motocross – which led to an accident that required surgery on his inner thigh in 2004. That’s when, he said, he approached his former coach Luxemburgo, who was back at Santos for a second spell in charge, and was given permission to use the team’s physical therapy room to recover.
Soon Edinho began training with the Santos Under-23 team which featured the future Manchester City striker Robinho, who had been rested from the senior team during his mother’s kidnapping, and the future Juventus midfielder Diego.
Mentoring younger players came naturally to the former goalkeeper – “I could have the power and the potential to make a difference,” he said – and so he adapted quickly to a newfound level of anonymity that had been missing since his days in New York.
“Here in Brazil, after I stopped playing, after I got away from the frontline media, I became Garfield again,” he said. The problem was, he wasn’t back in the South Bronx.
It was during his year of recovery at Santos when Edinho was approached by Naldinho, a man who would turn his life upside down. “You don’t know me, but you will know who I am eventually,” Edinho recalls him saying when they first met. Though he was understood to be a senior figure in the world of drug dealing, Naldinho knew most of the Santos players. But Naldinho felt a particular level of gratitude towards Edinho because Pelé had helped his own father, Pitico, carve out a playing career in Mexico.
“So I met this guy who said, ‘Hey, I’m your number one fan, your father represents God to my family,’” Edinho said, adding that the two formed “an intense friendship” for a year. “People were like ‘Oh my God, how can Edinho be friends with these guys?’ But people don’t know where I grew up and how I grew up.
“I have no prejudice, you know? If you’re good to me, we’re good. You do whatever you do. You answer for your actions and I answer for my actions: That’s how I grew up.”
Naldinho, it turned out, was being monitored by the authorities, who wiretapped his calls. They included long conversations with Edinho who was accused of conspiring to launder money for his friend. “The whole investigation was based on phone taps. And they had hours of us talking. Talking shit. A whole bunch of crap. And they used that,” he said, maintaining as he always has that there is not a shred of proof of any transfer of money.
Edinho was jailed in 2005 and served a total of 18 months on charges of money laundering, including 30 days in solitary confinement. His arrest came shortly after he was finally cleared of reckless driving for the 1992 motorcyclist incident. Although 11 other associates of Naldinho were also detained, the kingpin himself went missing in 2007 and has not been heard from since. He may have been killed by a rival gang, though no one is sure – or at least won’t say publicly.
Edinho’s initial 33-year sentence issued in 2005 was reduced last February when, after a 12-year wait, his case reached the second court of appeal.
His current 12 year and 10 month sentence, for one act of money laundering and an “association with drug trafficking” will be reviewed again in the third stage of appeals.
“Justice goes slowly”
Whether or not Edinho will actually serve time in prison in between now and his next appeal – which at this rate will take place sometime in the next decade – is anyone’s guess.
Since his quick release after the verdict in February, Edinho was ordered back to prison during the first week of April, only to be discharged on a habeas corpus ruling. “Here in Brazil, justice goes so slowly,” said Silvana Batini, a Brazilian federal prosecutor and law professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro.
“It can take 10 years more,” she said of his next appeal, explaining that Edinho’s case has only just passed the second of four stages in the courts, and that the accused in Brazil are considered guilty until the verdict issued in the final stage.
But “the final sentence here in Brazil is very hard to get,” she said.
This is partly because it takes so long to get from one stage of appeals to the next that the statute of limitations can expire before a final verdict is reached. Edinho's case can be dropped as early as 2021, unless his conviction is finalised before then, according to Batini's analysis.
In the midst of all this legal talk, it’s impossible not to wonder whether Pelé’s name has actually worked against Edinho since he moved to Brazil in 1990.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely, in different moments, and different particular trajectories of the case that happened, especially in the beginning.”
It’s not beyond reason that Edinho is being held as an example by a government constantly criticised by its people for turning a blind eye to corruption.
Using the football world as a case study, the current head of the Brazilian Football Confederation, Marco Polo Del Nero, along with his two predecessors Ricardo Teixeira and José Maria Marin, have all been indicted by the US Department of Justice for taking millions in bribes relating to marketing rights for the 2014 World Cup, along with other charges that include racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering.
Yet only Marin – who had the misfortune of being caught in Zurich during the Fifa raid by Swiss and US authorities last May and then swiftly extradited to the US – is facing trial.
Del Nero, meanwhile, fled Zurich, and resumed his post as the head of Brazilian football where he celebrated the country’s gold medal win at last summer’s Rio Olympics.
Brazilian authorities, it seems, simply shrugged off the US allegations.
Then there was the recent case of Bruno Fernandes de Souza, the former Flamengo goalkeeper sentenced to 22 years in jail for ordering the murder of his pregnant girlfriend and feeding her body to dogs. After seven years in prison, De Souza was released on a technicality, pending appeal, and signed for the second-division club Boa Esporte in March.
Still, Batini denies that Edinho has been treated unfairly because of his name.
“No, I wouldn’t say that this sentence comes from the fact that he is the son of Pelé,” she said. “Of course, being the son of a celebrity like Pelé causes him some publicity, but I don’t believe that [the ruling] comes from that.”
Batini explains that there is “a very restricted formula” where the “judge must confirm and must justify each step” in the sentencing.
Money laundering in Brazil can land a sentence of between three and ten years, leaving Edinho potentially to face the maximum imprisonment possible for just one count of the offence.
Ana Maria Molinari, the public prosecutor assigned to Edinho's case, was approached several times to comment for this article, but did not respond.
Whether Pelé’s name has had any impact on Edinho’s fate is arguable, but the two have developed a strong bond in the face of adversity.
“We are in constant contact,” said Edinho. “We see each other as much as possible; we have an incredibly wonderful relationship.
“It’s like father and son, it’s like brothers. Sometimes it’s like reverse roles, so it’s really cool.”
When the unstable becomes normal
The reality is that Edinho has been fighting to stay out of prison for one reason or another for the past 25 years. Facing that would be enough to make most men lose their minds.
Yet Edinho – a husband and father who doesn’t drink, cooks for himself and works out incessantly – has managed to build a coaching career although it remains unclear whether he can cut it as a manager.
He took charge of three small teams in a span of two years, staying for short stints first at Mogi Mirim, whose chairman is Rivaldo, then at Água Santa before being lured to Tricordiano, around 110 miles from where his grandfather had played in the city of Belo Horizonte. He managed just two matches – both losses – before parting ways with the club.
Despite that, Edinho has supreme confidence in his abilities, and even a desire to coach Brazil’s national team someday, calling himself “the Neymar of coaches.”
He should know. During his eight-year run as an assistant at Santos, a young Neymar led the team to a slew of titles, most notably the 2011 Copa Libertadores.
But because of his legal problems, Edinho was unable to travel with Santos to a 2010 exhibition in New York against the Red Bulls or to Japan to play Barcelona in the Club World Cup in 2012.
Getting over that travel hurdle – and clearing his name once and for all – will be a requirement if he ever wants to coach on the big stage.
Does he regret what happened, how his life could have been different if his youth had been a little bit more shielded?
“I was around drug dealers and criminals my whole life; that’s what I was around,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Sports always kept me right around that line – but to the good side.
“I’m very proud of making it through all that and what it turned me into.”
His high school friend Eddie Mason recalls offering Garfield some advice back in the day which could have come in handy. “I used to always tell him that people are like crabs in a pot,” he said. “They will make you think that they are doing you good, but they are pulling you down or throwing dirt on your name and you don’t even realise it. I’m more than sure he has experienced that. Because of guilt by association they just put you in a bad light.”
Before leaving for the airport, I asked my former fifth grade classmate what he misses most about New York.
“There is no other place in the world like it,” he chuckled, and mentioned the famous New York pizza slices, the hot dog stands, the bagels and coffee shops, the subway, the basketball courts and his friends from Forest Houses before his thoughts turn serious. “It’s my freedom of being unknown. That’s what I miss to this day.”
Additional reporting by Valdemar Geo in Brazil.