Pelé – the only soccer player to have won three World Cups – died Thursday, December 29, at the age of 82. His daughter, Kely Nascimento, confirmed that her father passed away in the Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo, where he was being treated for colon cancer. She wrote on her Instagram account: “Everything we are is thanks to you – we love you infinitely. Rest in peace.”
With the passing of Pelé, an era in the history of soccer – and the history of Brazil as a whole – comes to an end. Those who have had the privilege of watching him play live or have seen old footage remember how he and his teammates thrashed Italy 4-1 in the 1970 World Cup final in Mexico. This was the pinnacle of a career marked by legendary plays and goals – one that will forever be alive in the collective memory of the beautiful game.
To get a sense of the universality of Pelé, one must only recall his visit to the White House in 1982, when the president introduced himself: “Delighted to meet you. I’m Ronald Reagan, president of the United States. You don’t need to introduce yourself – everyone knows who Pelé is!”
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born on October 23, 1940, in Tres Corações, a small town in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. The son of professional soccer player João Ramos Dondinho and homemaker Celeste, he was named Edson in honor of the father of the light bulb (Thomas Edison). By the age of 10 – thanks to his prowess on the soccer field – he was already a local celebrity. And, by the age of 15, his first trip to the coastal city of Santos marked two milestones in his life: he fulfilled his dream of seeing the ocean and was signed by the local club. Thus began a brilliant professional career that saw him recognized as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Edson – popularly known as Pelé – first wore the green-and-yellow Brazilian jersey at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. He was only 17 years old. And yet he stunned the world: Brazil won the tournament, thanks to his masterful performance. He cried like a child when he became the youngest player in history to lift the trophy.
No other soccer player has won three World Cups, to the pride of Brazilians. Pelé brought the trophy home from Sweden in 1958, from Chile in 1962 and from Mexico in 1970. He and his key teammates – Rivelino, Jairzinho, Tostão and Gerson – delighted fans across the world. But only Pelé was known as O Rei – Portuguese for “The King.”
There are as many definitions of Pelé as there are admirers. His fans hailed from all walks of life.
“The greatest footballer in history was Di Stéfano. I refuse to classify Pelé as a player – he was above that,” said Ferenc Puskás, a Hungarian soccer player and manager, widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.
“When the ball reaches Pelé's feet, football becomes poetry,” concurred the Italian filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The Brazilian achieved excellence in a gentleman’s sport created by the rich. Poor people like him (he shined shoes part-time as a boy) embraced it, turning it into a mass phenomenon. As a Black man who always seemed cheerful, who enjoyed dancing with the ball, his time in the limelight coincided with the Civil Rights movement, as well as with the diffusion of television. He was thus catapulted to fame in black-and-white – then, later, in full color.
Despite his international prestige he remained faithful to the black-and-white jersey of Santos for two decades (1956-74). Then, to everyone’s surprise, he went to the United States after months of negotiations. In 1975, he began playing with the New York Cosmos, becoming one of the highest-paid athletes in the world.
His mission was to popularize soccer in the United States.
When he retired for good in 1977, at the age of 36, he had scored 1,281 goals – almost one per game – including 77 with Brazil’s national team. But Pelé would still be in demand across the world – he met with Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra, Queen Elizabeth II, Andy Warhol and various American presidents.
In 2000, when Nelson Mandela – who had just left the presidency of South Africa – presented him with the first Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award, he praised Pelé's joy and perseverance, as well as his courage. In addition to his football fame, the Brazilian had a reputation as a peacemaker. In 1969, he helped achieve a brief ceasefire in the Biafra War, agreeing with the Nigerian government and the Biafran separatists to fly over and play a friendly match.
Even after retirement, O Rei had a reserved box in the stadium in the port city of Santos. In the stadium’s museum, a stretcher is proudly displaced – Pelé used to lie down on it, to concentrate before a match. He lived out his final years in an apartment overlooking the sea in nearby Guarujá.
The Covid-19 lockdowns and his health conditions prevented him from publicly celebrating his 80th birthday on October 23, 2020. In September of 2021, a tumor was removed from his colon. His last public statements were heard that same year, in a documentary that was made about his life, titled Pelé. Seated in a wheelchair, he appeared frail – but of course, he was still smiling, joking with his former teammates.
Pelé helped put his country on the map. Diana Mendes – a historian who coordinates the Football Museum in São Paulo – explains that his successes “coincided with Brazil’s desire to tell the world ‘we are a new country, with a future.’” She stresses that, for those of African descent in Brazil and around the world, his victories had a more significant meaning beyond the sport.
“People started to believe: ‘If he can make it to Olympus, so can we.’” In a country that has long presented itself as being a race-indifferent democracy – more a myth than a truth – this was crucial for self-esteem.
Pelé knew how to reinvent his career off the field. He studied, was a sports commentator, dabbled in business – he was even the Minister of Sport for a time. But, above all, he was simply a living legend.
“I’m not looking for people to speak well of me when I die,” he told EL PAÍS in 2014, shortly before starring in the kick-off at the World Cup in Brazil.
Pelé rarely spoke about politics. He was accused of being indifferent to the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-85). He even embraced dictator Emílio Garrastazu Médici in 1970, ignoring questions about the regime’s repression. In the 2021 documentary about his life, when asked about his apolitical attitude, he replied: “Football always stayed the same. I didn’t notice any difference.”
Despite always being recognized, he did manage to draw a line between his sporting career and his personal life. The father of four daughters and three sons, he had many girlfriends, including the television star Xuxa. He married his third wife in 2016.
“No one is interested in knowing much about Edson,” Pelé used to say. Since the player never let the fans down, he didn’t want the man to fail them either.
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