Pelé, who has died aged 82 after suffering from cancer, is widely regarded as the greatest footballer the game has ever seen. He was the only player to have won the World Cup three times, and perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his long career was that he reached his apotheosis so early, and on the world’s biggest stage. He was 17 when he played for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, scoring six goals in their last three games – the winner in the quarter-final, a hat-trick in the semi-final and two in the final – his confidence and stature growing palpably with every game.
Almost two decades later he came out of retirement and made the almost unthinkable decision of signing for New York Cosmos. For all its wealth, the US was then a pauper of the football world, and it was Pelé who helped introduce Americans to “soccer”. His first game was televised in 22 countries, and the pitch, more dirt than grass, had to be spray-painted green for the watching world.
Pelé’s fame began to grow almost from the moment he made his dramatic entrance in the World Cup as the youngest footballer to play in the tournament (and still the youngest to have scored a hat-trick, or to have appeared and scored in a final). Although he missed the first two games of the 1958 tournament through injury, senior members of the Brazil squad urged the manager to play both Pelé and the right-winger Garrincha in the final group match against the Soviet Union. Unleashing these two players against the Soviets kickstarted the Brazilian campaign. Both hit the post in the first intoxicating three minutes of the match and Brazil played with a virtuosity that heralded their arrival as the dominant, irresistible force in world football.
When Brazil reached the final and beat Sweden, the hosts, 5-2, Pelé stole the show, his two goals an illustration of the ability that set him apart from all other footballers. The first was a breathtaking piece of skill; he controlled the ball on his chest, chipped it back over his head and then ran around the flummoxed defender and volleyed it into the net. For the second, he soared above his marker before making a perfectly placed header.
Pelé was blessed with a blend of supreme athleticism, skill and tactical vision. He could run 100m in 11 seconds, shoot with either foot and outjump the tallest defenders. His sheer physicality and turn of speed were electrifying as he homed in on goal, outsprinting or simply charging through defences while managing to keep the ball under close control. But, unusually for such a prolific goalscorer, he could also be a team player. While he was still a teenager, wealthy Italian clubs attempted to lure him away from Brazil, offering a then unheard-of $1m to his club, Santos FC, for his signature. But in 1961, the Brazilian president Jânio Quadros declared Pelé a “non-exportable national treasure”, ensuring that he remained at the club for almost two decades.
He was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in the village of Três Corações in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the son of Celeste and João Ramos. The boy was named after the inventor Thomas Edison, though his parents misspelt the name. The origin of Pelé, the nickname he picked up as a young boy, is something of a mystery, but its novelty and simplicity – easy to pronounce in any language (he complained it sounded like babytalk in Portuguese) – would add to his aura as his career advanced.
His father, known as Dondinho, was a gifted footballer and in the hope of a final shot at glory took the family to Bauru, a railway town in São Paulo state. A knee injury put an end to his sports career and the family slipped into poverty. From the age of seven, Pelé worked part-time as a shoeshine boy. Celeste was adamant her son would not follow in João’s footsteps, but by the time he was a teenager, scouts from the big clubs in Rio and São Paulo were knocking at the door.
Waldemar de Brito, a scout and former footballer who appeared in the 1934 World Cup, finally persuaded his mother to let him have a trial for Santos. De Brito took Pelé under his wing, and when they arrived in Santos, the port city for the booming industrial and coffee-producing state of São Paulo, he declared the 15-year-old was going to be “the greatest football player in the world”.
Santos was a small but ambitious provincial club when Pelé made his debut in 1956, and he was instrumental in transforming it into a national and then international force. In 1957, his first full season as a professional, in which he also won his first international cap, he was the top scorer in the São Paulo state championship. The following year the team scored 143 goals in 38 games to win the title, Pelé scoring 58 times – a record that still stands – and a remarkable 75 goals in all competitions in the calendar year, a world record that stood until 1972. By the 1960s the team was one of the most successful in the world, earning the nickname the Santásticos as they won eight more state championships, six Brazilian championships, two Copas Libertadores (South American championships) and two Intercontinental Cups.
Keen to cash in on Pelé’s box office appeal – and pay his astronomical salary – Santos embarked on a relentless schedule of exhibition matches in dozens of countries across four continents. Their star attraction was contractually obliged to play everywhere they went, so by the time Pelé appeared in his second World Cup, in Chile in 1962, he had played an exhausting 426 games and scored 488 goals in matches for club and country. He arrived with a groin injury, which flared up in Brazil’s second game and ruled him out of the rest of the tournament, though Brazil, led by an inspirational Garrincha, went on to win their second successive World Cup.
Worse followed four years later at the 1966 World Cup in England, when Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders repeatedly hacked Pelé down at the knees. He limped out of the tournament and, angered at the lack of protection from referees, vowed that he had played his last World Cup. Four years later, acutely aware of his place in history and with a point to prove, he had changed his mind. Chastened, the Brazil squad trained for the tournament for three months to deal with an increasingly physical European game and the altitude and intense heat of Mexico. Pelé was the only survivor of the victorious 1958 squad but he was joined by a new generation of gifted players, including Tostão, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gerson and his Santos teammate Carlos Alberto.
The 1970 World Cup was the first to be watched live by a global television audience. It was also the first to be broadcast in colour, and in the brilliant Mexican sunshine the gold shirts and cobalt blue shorts of Brazil dazzled the watching world. They won the tournament for the third time – beating Italy 4-1 in the final – by playing football of such imagination and thrilling execution that it is regarded as one of the high-water marks in the history of sport. Their swaggering, distinctly Brazilian futebol arte proved that it was possible to win by playing with joyful exuberance, and Pelé was the most potent symbol of this sporting celebration. After 1970 he was probably the most famous man in world sport, with only Muhammad Ali as instantly recognisable and universally idolised.
He played five more games for Brazil and continued with Santos for another four years, but declined to come out of international retirement for the 1974 World Cup. Brazil’s manager, Mario Zagallo, had lost the nucleus of his glorious 1970 team and implored Pelé to change his mind, but the player realised that, as well as being past his peak, he was a far more lucrative asset off the field.
At this point in his life, money had become more pressing than football. As the result of bad judgment and dubious advice, he twice lost his fortune and was almost made bankrupt. One reason Santos were able to keep him for so long was their willingness to bail him out, on very favourable terms, after his business collapsed.
He played his last game for the club in October 1974 but, with financial clouds still hanging over him, he came out of retirement a few months later after receiving an offer he simply could not refuse. To the astonishment of football fans, particularly in Brazil, he went to play for New York Cosmos in the fledgling North American Soccer League (NASL). They would pay him $7m for three years as a player, plus another three as a “goodwill ambassador”.
As well as a salary that would make him the highest-paid sportsman in the world, he was also tempted by the offer of a new challenge laid down by the Cosmos manager, Clive Toye, perhaps one that suited a footballer past his peak: “I told him don’t go to Italy, don’t go to Spain, all you can do is win a championship. Come to the US and you can win a country.”
And so it proved: Pelé and the Cosmos were a perfect fit. The astonishing skill that had beguiled football fans in almost every country in the world was a revelation to a new American audience, and he loved the razzmatazz of the NASL – his easy charm was a gift to sports marketing men who were selling, in effect, a brand new product.
Over three seasons he scored 65 goals in 111 games for the Cosmos, and led them to the 1977 American championship. The team became a huge commercial presence and regularly sold out their 60,000-seater stadium – unthinkable before his arrival. His last game came in October 1977, an exhibition match in New York between his two clubs, Santos and Cosmos, broadcast to dozens of countries, in which he played one half for each side, and scored his last goal, his 1,283rd in 1,367 games. Those figures are remarkable in themselves, but the fact that more than 500 of those games were friendlies played all over the world is testament to his popularity and box office appeal.
When he retired for a second time, the winning smile and goodwill that had won over American sports fans became his stock in trade, and he went on to act as a highly paid roving ambassador for a number of organisations, from Fifa and the United Nations to Mastercard and Pepsi. He even headed a health campaign for erectile dysfunction awareness. Wherever he went, he was received like royalty.
Though never a member of a political party, he was appointed Brazil’s minister of sport in 1995, serving until 1998, the year the lei Pelé (Pele’s law) was passed by congress. Its noble aim was to clean up the country’s notoriously chaotic and corrupt football bodies and give greater freedom of movement to players, though the bill was watered down before and after its promulgation.
In 1999 he was named athlete of the century by the International Olympic Committee (even though he had never appeared at an Olympic Games) and a year later (jointly with Diego Maradona) Fifa player of the century. He was vice-president of Santos and made honorary president of the revamped New York Cosmos in 2010. His honorary titles in many different countries included an honorary knighthood in the UK (1997).
Pelé’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 2016 he married his third wife, Marcia Cibele Aoki. She survives him, along with two daughters, Kelly Cristina and Jennifer, and a son, Édson, from his first marriage, to Rosemeri Cholbi; twins, Joshua and Celeste, from his second marriage, to Assíria Lemos; and a daughter, Flávia Kurtz, from an earlier relationship. He did not acknowledge his daughter Sandra, from a relationship with Anizia Machado, even after she won a paternity case. They never met and she died in 2006.
Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento), footballer, born 23 October 1940; died 29 December 2022
Culled from The Guardian of London