There are few players who have the privilege of being remembered for a lifetime, whose names endure over the years: Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stefano, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo. But perhaps the most memorable will be Pelé. Some of us were not lucky to witness firsthand the man who revolutionized soccer in Brazil, one of the countries with the strongest soccer tradition in the world. Even so, his name is etched in gold as one of best players in history. He was a player who earned the respect and admiration of everybody through his talent and love of the game.
A inspiração e o amor marcaram a jornada de Rei Pelé, que faleceu no dia de hoje.
Amor, amor e amor, para sempre.
Inspiration and love marked the journey of King Pelé, who peacefully passed away today.
Love, love and love, forever. pic.twitter.com/CP9syIdL3i
— Pelé (@Pele) December 29, 2022
Pelé passed away at the age of 82 at the Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo after battling colon cancer, which he was diagnosed with in September 2021. His trademark smile was a true reflection of the joy he transmitted both on and off the field.
After winning the 1958 and 1962 World Cups, Pelé was crowned as “O Rei” (the king) and cemented his place on soccer's Mount Rushmore. With 1,284 goals in the 1,351 games he played, he is one of the greatest scorers of all time.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born in Três Corações, a city located in the southern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. His father was a soccer player, but his career was cut short by a serious knee injury in his professional debut.
The family eventually moved to Bauru in the state of São Paulo. It was there that Pelé began playing soccer for a modest club while working in a shoe factory. After winning the local trophy, former professional player Waldemar de Brito saw his potential and recommended him to go to the capital to play for Santos Football Club. Despite his parents' reluctance, they finally agreed to let their son fulfill his dream.
Prodigious career at Santos
O Rei was linked to Santos for 19 seasons, practically his entire professional career. Pelé entered the youth ranks and played his first match with the first team in 1956 against Corinthians in a friendly at the age of 16. He scored a goal in the game, a fitting start for his career in which he would become of one of the best footballers in history.
On April 26, 1957, he played his first professional match against São Paulo (one of Brazil's great rivalries known as San-São), and scored one of the 3 goals that gave his team the victory. In his first full season, he scored 41 goals in 38 games and was the top scorer in the Brazilian league at the age of 17. On July 7, 1957, he made his debut with the Brazilian national team in a match against Argentina at the Maracana stadium.
In the following season, Pelé extended his goal tally: in 38 matches, he scored 58 goals. His name was already making its way not only through Brazil, but around the world. After his excellent season, Brazil's coach, Vicente Feola, gave him the opportunity to play in his first World Cup, which Brazil went on to win.
His highest scoring tally was achieved in 1961, when he scored 110 goals in 74 games. This is an unthinkable and likely unattainable figure for any player of the modern era.
”La Perla Negra,” as he was also known, managed to maintain spectacular goalscoring figures for the rest of his career at Santos, scoring no less than 30 goals per season until his final year, when he began his decline and scored just 14 goals. With Santos, he won 6 Serie A (Brazilian league) titles, 2 Intercontinental Cups and 2 Libertadores Cups.
Three World Cup titles
His participation in the Brazilian national team was brilliant. Brazil, a.k.a. the “Canarinha” entered the 1958 World Cup in Sweden after suffering the biggest shock in its history eight years prior. Known as “the Maracanazo,” Brazil suffered a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the final of the 1950 World Cup on its own soil. That event was a turning point in Brazilian soccer history.
A new generation, led by Pelé himself and Garrincha, came to the 1958 tournament with a different spirit from the rest of the teams. Brazil ended up beating the host team Sweden 5-2 in the final, with two goals from O Rei, placing its first World Cup star on its shield.
The following World Cup, held in Chile in 1962, Pelé was once again the star of the Brazilian national team. Once again, the “Verdeamarela” were crowned world champions. The final ended with a 3-1 victory against Czechoslovakia.
At the 1966 World Cup in England, Brazil disappointed and lost in the group stage. Just when it seemed that Pelé and the Brazilian national team were beginning to decline, the Canarinha resurfaced and won the next edition of the World Cup, held in Mexico in 1970. In that final, Pelé opened the scoring in a 4-1 win over Italy.
In total, he scored 95 goals in 112 games for the Verdeamarela and won three World Cups.
Retirement and return to soccer
In October 1974, Pelé announced his retirement from soccer. However, his career didn't end there. After experiencing financial troubled, O Rei returned once again to the playing field. He received numerous offers from big teams such as Real Madrid and Milan, but opted to move to the U.S. and embark on his next adventure with the New York Cosmos.
During his time in the United States, Pelé won a NASL (North American Soccer League), the precursor to today's MLS (Major League Soccer). In three seasons, he scored 64 goals in 108 games.
In addition to being the top scorer and winning multiple "best player" awards in Brazilian national competitions, Pelé received many prestigious awards throughout his life: World Team of the 20th Century in 1998, Best player of the 20th century according to the IFFHS (International Federation of Football History and Statistics) in 1999, Best South American player of the 20th century according to IFFHS in 1999, FIFA Player of the Century in 2000, the Laureus Award in the year 2000 or Golden Foot Legend in 2012, among others. In addition, he was named to the Olympic Order in 2016, the highest decoration awarded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 2011, he was inducted into the World Soccer Hall of Fame.
During his career, there was one award he did not win: the Ballon d'Or. At the time, non-European or European players playing in leagues outside of Europe were not eligible for soccer's most important individual award. Following FIFA's modification of the rules, Pelé won the honorary Ballon d'Or in 2014 and was one of those chosen for the Ballon d'Or's Historic Eleven in 2020.
In 2000, he finished just behind Muhammad Ali for Sportsman of the Century.
Life after soccer
After his final retirement, the United Nations appointed him ambassador in 1997 and awarded him the title of World Citizen. In addition, that same year, he joined the FIFA Fair Play Committee and served as an ambassador for UNESCO.
After his retirement, Pelé‘s lifelong club Santos appointed him as its executive advisor. In 1994, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso appointed him as Minister of Sports. During his time in frontline politics, he enacted the Pelé Law, which required a club to renew a player or release him if he did not want to extend his contract.
He also made a brief effort in cinema. He appeared, along with other soccer players such as Bobby Moore, in the 1981 film Evasion or Victory, starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine.