FORTALEZA, Brazil (AP) – Football great Pele insists he supports the Brazilian popular protests sweeping the country, as long as they're peaceful.
Pele was criticized online for telling Brazilians to forget about the nationwide demonstrations and focus on cheering on the national team, but he said he was never against the movement.
He said in a television interview that the country should only ''think about the national team,'' prompting Brazilians to flood social media sites to mock his comments. Pele had expressed support for the protests in the same interview, but only the part in which he told Brazilians to ''forget about this mess that is happening in Brazil'' went viral.
Brazil has been swept by massive demonstrations that have sent hundreds of thousands of people into the streets denouncing poor public services, government corruption and even the billions spent in the country to host the Confederations Cup, the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Former Brazil star Ronaldo was also criticized recently after a 2011 video in which he said that ''you can't host a World Cup by building hospitals'' resurfaced on social media websites after the protests began. A member of the local World Cup organizing committee, Ronaldo has also had to defend himself.
''It was a different context,'' he said. ''It's not fair to use that as if it was said this week.''
Pele's comments were made just before Brazil beat Mexico 2-0 in its second match at the Confederations Cup, a World Cup warm-up tournament among continental champions.
''Let's forget about this mess that is happening in Brazil and let's think about the national team, which is our country, our blood,'' Pele told Globo TV. ''Let's not jeer the Selecao, let's support it until the end.''
His other comments in the same interview didn't make it to social media protests.
''There are a lot of bad characters taking advantage of this opportunity and they are hurting these peaceful protests which have been calling for what is best for the Brazilian people,'' he said. ''I think we can't allow these bandits and bad characters to get in the way of this opportunity to make demands for our country.''
A World Cup ambassador, Pele was forced to release a statement saying that he was only against the jeering of the national team and violent protests. Brazilian fans had been loudly criticizing Brazil and jeering the squad after disappointing results in recent matches.
There were clashes between police and protesters before some Confederations Cup matches, but inside the stadiums Brazil has received the full support of the local fans.
Players said they were moved when the crowd kept singing the national anthem even after the music was cut short before the match on Wednesday at the Arena Castelao in Fortaleza, saying that it made them more motivated.
''It was moving to see the attitude of the fans,'' Brazil assistant coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said. ''Very few times we've seen that. They supported us from the start. It was impressive to see how the players were moved by what happened during the national anthem.''