SAO PAULO (AP) — José Fornos Rodrigues has greeted and spoken to many of the world’s most popular and powerful people over the last five decades. Yet, he doesn’t appear in many photos.
With a soft tone, he says he’s met the likes of supermodel Gisele Bundchen, football star Kylian Mbappé and Russian President Vladimir Putin only because he has a famous friend who hired him to be his assistant.
Better known as Pepito Fornos, he retired this month as the right hand of Pelé.
Since the football great’s activities were drastically reduced during his treatment against colon cancer, the veteran assistant has felt it was time to part ways professionally, return to the Sao Paulo countryside, and keep his friendship with Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
The 81-year-old Pelé confirmed the retirement of 79-year-old Fornos a week ago upon leaving a Sao Paulo hospital after his latest treatment.
“My great friend, Pepito. You always told me that your hair was gray because of me, so I hope it now regains its natural color,” Pelé wrote on Instagram, in a post with pictures of them. “I will continue to work normally, as I still have a few more dreams to fulfill and I’ll still play a few more games. Thank you so much for everything and enjoy your retirement!”
Fornos first met Pelé in the early 1960s, but got closer only in 1969 during a trip to Milan after he secured Varig airline’s sponsorship of Pele’s club, Santos. That was no small deal as the Brazilian team globetrotted for months to pay for its star’s wages.
Pelé liked Fornos’ business attire — well-cut suits and nicely combed dark hair — and thought it was a good idea to start bringing him to events with his sponsors. In 1971, the global icon and three-time World Cup winner asked the airline salesman to work for him, with a little pay raise.
At that time, the most famous sportsman on the planet made $1.5 million a year, split almost evenly between soccer and marketing deals. Their partnership took a break for only one year, when Fornos got married and left Santos. But the marriage didn’t last long, and he returned to work for Pelé.
“I and Pelé are the same people of those early days,” Fornos said in a rare interview with The Associated Press on the phone. “I’ve always known what my place was. It was reserved, backstage.”
No matter who Pelé met behind closed doors, Pepito Fornos was almost always there, too, either for comfort or for urgent advice. He often blended in with journalists, and was not far from the boss.
Fornos believes the main foundation of his relationship with Pelé is their frankness. In the beginning of the 2000s, he was one of the few voices openly against his boss becoming Santos chairman. And he told it to Pelé’s face and in front of his mother Celeste.
“I tell him what he needs to hear, not what he likes to hear,” Fornos said. “We were at his mother’s when he gave the news. I told Dona Celeste her son was daydreaming. He should be above it all at that club, chairman was not for him. Pelé daydreams sometimes and I ground him, pull his leg.
“He then looked at me and said, ‘You are my counterweight indeed’.”
Fornos said he will continue telling his former boss when he is not smartly dressed or complaining too much.
“If I can’t tell him these things I can’t be his friend. After that incident at his mom’s our friendship continued. We’ve had arguments, but we never stopped talking.”
Fornos said his best memory with Pelé was from 2014, when the tearful star received a Ballon d’Or from FIFA and France Football magazine. The award created in 1956 did not consider players based in South America for decades, and Pele played for only two clubs; Santos and the New York Cosmos.
Pelé said at the time his trophy collection was finally complete.
“Pelé was just shining that day,” Fornos said. “It is never too late to acknowledge who needs to be acknowledged.”
His worst memory came in 2020, when Pelé’s brother, José Arantes do Nascimento, known as Zoca, died at age 77.
“I never saw Pelé so sad in my entire life. They were really close, we did many things together for a long time. Pelé is shaken to this day. It is very upsetting for me to see is Pelé still suffering with Zoca’s passing. He hasn’t really overcome it.”
Fornos said he never liked to act as a fan of the celebrities Pelé met, but he has a long list of people that treated him well. Among them are singer Boy George, Brazil striker Neymar, Roma coach José Mourinho, and former U.S. President Barack Obama.
The former assistant said no one he met with Pelé ever frustrated him in more then five decades.
“My family always stimulated me, saw this as an important job. They were happy to see I was never criticized in the press.”
Fornos is still scrolling through boxes and boxes of memorabilia, newspapers and magazines featuring the man he worked for for most of his life. The boxes are mostly in an apartment in Santos, which he left this month after he ended employment with Pelé.
“Our friendship is like a brotherhood,” Fornos said. “We were loyal to our origins of humble Catholic families, we never allowed ourselves to be seduced by the glamorous lives of the famous. We never took our feet off the ground, and each of us knew our place.
“When people told me I was getting famous I always denied it. Pelé is famous. I was just seen around.”
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