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Pelé (1940-2022): ‘The King’ who personified Brazil’s elegance on the football field

Published : Dec 30, 2022 17:43 IST

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Pelé (1940-2022): ‘The King’ who personified Brazil’s elegance on the football field

Pele holds up the Jules Rimet Trophy after Brazil win the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

Pele holds up the Jules Rimet Trophy after Brazil win the 1962 World Cup in Chile. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

He orchestrated a fast, fluid style that revolutionised the sport with a samba-like flair.

Pelé, the Brazilian king of football who won a record three World Cups and became one of the most commanding sports figures of the last century, died on December 29. He was 82.

The standard-bearer of “the beautiful game” had undergone treatment for colon cancer since 2021. The medical centre where he had been hospitalised for the last month said he died of multiple organ failure as a result of the cancer.

“Pele: immortal—forever with us,” FIFA said on its website about the legend who was named by world football’s governing body as the greatest player of the 20th century.

“They called him ‘The King’, and his face is one of the most recognisable in world football,” FIFA said. “The man in question is, of course, Pele, who was once named by FIFA as the greatest player of the 20th century.

“Pelé changed everything. He transformed football into art, entertainment,” Neymar, a fellow Brazilian football star, said on Instagram. “Football and Brazil elevated their standing thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will endure. Pelé is eternal!”

A funeral was planned for January 2 and 3, with his casket to be carried through the streets of Santos, the coastal city where his storied career began, before burial.

‘The King’

Widely regarded as one of football’s greatest players, Pelé spent nearly two decades enchanting fans and dazzling opponents as the game’s most prolific scorer with Brazilian club Santos and the Brazil national team. His grace, athleticism, and mesmerising moves transfixed players and fans. He orchestrated a fast, fluid style that revolutionised the sport—a samba-like flair that personified his country’s elegance on the field.

He carried Brazil to football’s heights and became a global ambassador for his sport in a journey that began on the streets of Sao Paulo state, where he would kick a sock stuffed with newspapers or rags.

In the conversation about football’s greatest players, only the late Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned alongside Pelé. Different sources, counting different sets of games, list Pelé’s goal totals anywhere between 650 (league matches) and 1,281 (all senior matches, some against low-level competition.)

Pele during Brazil’s semi-final victory over France at the 1958 World Cup. The youngster, just 17, scored three goals in the match.
Pele during Brazil’s semi-final victory over France at the 1958 World Cup. The youngster, just 17, scored three goals in the match. | Photo Credit: DPA

The player who would be dubbed “The King” was introduced to the world at 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the youngest player ever at the tournament. He was carried off the field on teammates’ shoulders after scoring two goals in Brazil’s 5-2 victory over the host country in the final.

Injury limited him to just two games when Brazil retained the world title in 1962, but Pelé was the emblem of his country’s World Cup triumph of 1970 in Mexico. He scored in the final and set up Carlos Alberto with a nonchalant pass for the last goal in a 4-1 victory over Italy.

The image of Pelé in a bright, yellow Brazil jersey, with the No. 10 stamped on the back, remains alive with football fans everywhere. As does his trademark goal celebration—a leap with a right fist thrust high above his head.

Pelé’s fame was such that in 1967 factions of a civil war in Nigeria agreed to a brief cease-fire so he could play an exhibition match in the country. He was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. When he visited Washington to help popularise the game in North America, it was the US president who stuck out his hand first. “My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the President of the United States of America,” the host said to his visitor. “But you don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pelé is.”

Pelé was Brazil’s first modern Black national hero but rarely spoke about racism in a country where the rich and powerful tend to hail from the white minority.

Opposing fans taunted Pelé with monkey chants at home and all over the world. “He said that he would never play if he had to stop every time he heard those chants,” said Angelica Basthi, one of Pelé’s biographers. “He is key for Black people’s pride in Brazil, but never wanted to be a flagbearer.”

Life after football

Pelé’s life after football took many forms. He was a politician—Brazil’s Extraordinary Minister for Sport—a wealthy businessman, and an ambassador for UNESCO and the United Nations. He had roles in movies, soap operas, and even composed songs and recorded CDs of popular Brazilian music.

Pele leaves a hospital after a news conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in December 2014. He was often seen in a wheelchair during his final years as his health deteriorated.
Pele leaves a hospital after a news conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in December 2014. He was often seen in a wheelchair during his final years as his health deteriorated. | Photo Credit: REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker/File Photo

As his health deteriorated, his travels and appearances became less frequent. He was often seen in a wheelchair during his final years and did not attend a ceremony to unveil a statue of him representing Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team. Pelé spent his 80th birthday isolated with a few family members at a beach home.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, in the small city of Tres Coracoes in the interior of Minas Gerais state on Oct. 23, 1940, Pelé grew up shining shoes to buy his modest football gear.

Pelé’s talent drew attention when he was 11, and a local professional player brought him to Santos’ youth squads. It didn’t take long for him to make it to the senior squad. Despite his youth and 5-foot-8 frame, he scored against grown men with the same ease he displayed against friends back home. He debuted with the Brazilian club at 16 in 1956, and the club quickly gained worldwide recognition.

“O Jogo Bonito”

The name Pelé came from him mispronouncing the name of a player called Bilé.

He went to the 1958 World Cup as a reserve but became a key player for his country’s championship team. His first goal, in which he flicked the ball over the head of a defender and raced around him to volley it home, was voted as one of the best in World Cup history.

The 1966 World Cup in England—won by the hosts—was a bitter one for Pelé, by then already considered the world’s top player. Brazil was knocked out in the group stage and Pelé, angry at the rough treatment, swore it was his last World Cup.

Pele turns to celebrate after scoring the opening goal in the 18th minute of the 1970 World Cup final against Italy in Mexico. Brazil went on to win the match 4-1.
Pele turns to celebrate after scoring the opening goal in the 18th minute of the 1970 World Cup final against Italy in Mexico. Brazil went on to win the match 4-1. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

He changed his mind and was rejuvenated in the 1970 World Cup. In a game against England, he struck a header for a certain score, but the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks flipped the ball over the bar in an astonishing move. Pelé likened the save—one of the best in World Cup history—to a “salmon climbing up a waterfall”. Later, he scored the opening goal in the final against Italy, his last World Cup match.

In all, Pelé played 114 matches with Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals, including 77 in official matches. He remains the only footballer to have won three FIFA World Cups.

His run with Santos stretched over three decades until he went into semi-retirement after the 1972 season. Wealthy European clubs tried to sign him, but the Brazilian government intervened to keep him from being sold, declaring him a national treasure.

On the field, Pelé’s energy, vision, and imagination drove a gifted Brazilian national team with a fast, fluid style of play that exemplified “O Jogo Bonito”—Portuguese for “The Beautiful Game”. His 1977 autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game, made the phrase part of football’s lexicon.

Pelé playing for New York Cosmos at New York’s Yankee Stadium in 1976.
Pelé playing for New York Cosmos at New York’s Yankee Stadium in 1976. | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Richard Drew/File

In 1975, he joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Although 34 and past his prime, Pelé gave football a higher profile in North America. He led the Cosmos to the 1977 league title and scored 64 goals in three seasons.

Pelé ended his career on Oct. 1, 1977, in an exhibition between the Cosmos and Santos before a crowd in New Jersey of some 77,000. He played half the game with each club. Among the dignitaries on hand was perhaps the only other athlete whose renown spanned the globe—Muhammad Ali.

Pelé would endure difficult times in his personal life, especially when his son Edinho was arrested on drug-related charges. Pelé had two daughters out of wedlock and five children from his first two marriages, to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He later married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki.

Tributes pour in

Pelé’s death was especially impactful for generations of Brazilian players who idolised him.

“Today Brazil waves goodbye to one of its most illustrious children,” wrote Romario, a 1994 World Cup champion who used Pelé’s full name in his post. “Edson Arantes do Nascimento made the world bow to his talent and took Brazilian soccer to the altar of gods. Throughout his life, Pelé inspired generations of athletes and deserves every tribute.”

Ronaldo, who led Brazil to a fifth World Cup title in 2002, described Pelé as “Unique. Genius. Skilled. Creative. Perfect. Unmatched.”

“What a privilege to come after you, my friend,” Ronaldo wrote. “Your talent is a school through which every player should go. Your legacy transcends generations. And that is the way you will continue to live.”

Pelé was a revered sports figure to a level probably not comparable to any athlete other than Muhammad Ali. As comfortable mingling with heads of states and celebrities as he was evading defenders, Pelé made an impact in capitals across continents.

“As one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, he understood the power of sports to bring people together,” former US President Barack Obama wrote.

Pelé’s greatest impact was in Brazil, a unifying figure celebrated during the 2014 World Cup.

“I saw Pelé play, live, at Pacaembu and Morumbi (stadiums),” former Brazil President and current President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wrote. “Play, no. I saw Pelé give a show. Because when he got the ball he always did something special, which often ended in a goal. ... Few Brazilians took the name of our country as far as he did. As different from Portuguese as one’s language was, foreigners from the four corners of the planet soon found a way to pronounce the magic word: ‘Pelé.’”

For a half-century, people who knew the name of only one football player knew Pelé.

“He made people dream and continued to do that with generations and generations of lovers of our sport,” France coach Didier Deschamps said in a statement. “Who, as a child, didn’t dream of being Pelé? ... Pelé was the alliance of beauty and efficiency. His talent and his list of achievements will stay engraved in our minds forever.”

French football star Kylian Mbappé tied Pelé for sixth in career World Cup goals with a hat-trick in this month’s loss to Argentina in the final. Four years ago, Mbappé became only the second teenager—after Pelé—to score a goal in a World Cup final. “The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten,” Mbappé wrote.

When Pelé’s condition worsened last month during the World Cup in Qatar, “get well” messages were flashed on the sides of buildings in Doha. The English Football Association lit Wembley Stadium’s arch in Brazil’s colours on the night of December 28. FIFA changed its website’s homepage to photos of Pelé with a black background.

(with inputs from AP and AFP)

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