In 2010, Tomas, a young Brazilian student, was visiting Kolkata. The FIFA World Cup was taking place in South Africa, and football-crazy Kolkata was in the grip of a sporting fever. While in an autorickshaw in the city’s College Street area, Tomas and the driver struck up a conversation. Finding out that Tomas was from Brazil, the driver could barely contain his excitement, “You are from the land of Pele!” he cried. He called out to other drivers in the autorickshaw stand to “come and see the man from the land of Pele”. Tomas felt as overwhelmed as the auto drivers. The incident took place 33 years after Pele had hung up his boots, 40 years after he had played a World Cup final, and nearly 16,000 km away from Brazil.
Stars abound in the world of sports. Most shine brilliantly for a while and then fade into a corner of fandom memory. A few, by dint of their genius, attain a level of immortality; and fewer still transcend the sport itself and practically achieve the status of ‘god’. Pele was such a figure. He was synonymous with not only football but also Brazil. There is hardly a place in the world where football is not played, and where it is played, Pele’s name shines. On December 29, after a prolonged illness, the star dimmed forever. He was 82 and is survived by his wife Marcia Aoki and seven children.
In a professional career that spanned 21 years (he turned pro when he was still 15), Pele created football history that is practically impossible to emulate. He won three World Cups (1958, 1962, 1970), two Copa Libertadores de América championships (1962, 1963), two Intercontinental Championships (1962, 1963), and six Brasileiros. He was the first person to score over 1,000 goals (including friendly games) and reportedly scored the most number of hat-tricks of all time (92, including friendly and exhibition matches).
At 17 years, he was not only the youngest player to play in a World Cup final but was also the youngest to score a hat-trick in the World Cup. Prior to Lionel Messi’s performance in the recently concluded 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Pele also held the record for the highest number of assists in a single World Cup match (6). He scored 757 goals in 812 official matches for Brazil and Santos—a record which stood for decades—and was hailed as Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999, and elected FIFA Player of the Century (along with Diego Maradona) in 2000.
But these are just football records, and to bracket Pele as a football player is like labeling Muhammad Ali a boxer or Bob Dylan just a singer or Leonardo da Vinci a painter alone. The “Pele phenomenon” touched and inspired every tier of human society from slums to palaces. In 1969, the brutal and bloody Nigerian-Biafran Civil War (1967-1970) suspended hostilities for two days when the Santos team led by Pele came to play a friendly match in Nigeria.
On another occasion, the metronomic Red Army soldiers of China broke character by leaving their border posts and entering Hong Kong just to see the visiting king of football. In 1977, Jimmy Carter, the newly elected President of the US introduced himself to Pele saying, “Hello, I’m Jimmy Carter. You don’t have to introduce yourself”. Pele was not just the most famous sportsperson in the world, he was, like Muhammad Ali, one of the biggest socio-cultural icons of his time.
The great Hungarian football player Ferenc Puskas once said, “The greatest player in history was Di Stefano (Argentine legend Alfredo Di Stefano). I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that.” The massive football field (105 m length and 68 m width) was the canvas, and Pele was its supreme artist, not only creating masterpieces with his movements, but also opening up windows to allow spectators a glimpse of an alternative universe where magic really exists. Pele is in fact credited with associating football with the title “The Beautiful Game”.
Standing at just 5’8”, Pele moved on the pitch as though to the rhythm of a Samba beat in his head. He had the grace and finesse of a ballet dancer and the ruthless precision of an executioner. In the words of Bobby Moore, he had “perfect balance and impossible vision”; he could anticipate moves as though he had choreographed the entire game in his head. He was a sublime dribbler, whose deceptive quickness made his game look ridiculously easy and he was very powerful physically. He was as good with his left foot as he was with his right, and in spite of his relatively short stature, he could head the ball with devastating effectiveness. The towering Italian defender Giacinto Facchetti, considered one of the greatest full-backs of all time, remembered an occasion when both he and Pele rose up to intercept a ball with their heads — “I was taller, had a better impulse. When I came back down, I looked up in astonishment. Pelé was still there, in the air, heading that ball. It was like he could stay suspended for as long as he wanted to.”
Even his misses were a work of art. Arguably the most legendary miss of all time that also saw the birth of the “Pele Runaround”, one of the most tantalising moves on the football pitch, was during Brazil’s semi-final match against Uruguay in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Pele, instead of dribbling the ball past Uruguayan goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, allowed the ball to gently go past the left of the keeper while he sprinted around him from the right side. A thoroughly confused Mazurkiewicz could only run behind the ball as Pele’s shot narrowly missed the net.
Another legendary miss was against Czechoslovakia earlier in the tournament when Pele missed the goal by a whisker after taking an audacious shot from Brazil’s half of the field. “I sometimes dream about both hitting the net,” Pele later wrote. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff put it most aptly when had said, “Pele was the only football player who surpassed the boundaries of logic.”
Opposing teams had no defence against him. He not only knew all the old tricks, he also kept inventing new ones as he went along. He danced, teased, tricked, and baffled his way to glory, leaving his opponents with no other strategy but one—kick Pele out of the game. Few players have been as brutally marked as Pele was in his career. His fleet-footed manoeuvres and his almost perfect body balance would often allow him to skim out of harm’s way, but it would only be a matter of time before he was brought down by a merciless illegal tackle.
Yet, he always appeared relaxed and smiling; always enjoying the game. In the words of former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, to watch Pele play was “to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full”.
Certainly, there were times when Pele lost his cool, when he struck back in frustration or anger, and when he was shown the red card and thrown out of the game, times when he betrayed his mortal existence on the football field, but it was something he avoided very consciously. “I lose my temper very often but I try my best not to show it, especially not to an opponent.... It gives him an advantage to know you’re angry,” he had said. Yet, in spite of all the attacks, Pele scored 1,279 goals in 1,363 games. As the great Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987) said, “The difficulty, the extraordinary, is not to score 1,000 goals like Pele—it’s to score one goal like Pele.”
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940, in the town of Tres Coracoes in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, Pele may have passed his early childhood in considerable poverty, but football was in his life right from the start. His father Joao Ramos do Nascimento was a professional football player, known in the circuit as Dondinho. Ill luck and injury prevented Dondinho from ever hitting the big time in the bigger clubs of Brazil, and young Dico (as Pele was nicknamed in childhood) had to often shine shoes on the streets to supplement the family income.
But he adored his father and wanted to become a footballer like him. “And I, who didn’t listen to many people, listened to him (Dondinho) because I thought— and still think — that Dondinho was one of the best players in Brazil, even if an injury kept him from reaching the top,” Pele wrote in his autobiography Pele: My Life and the Beautiful Game (published in 1977).
Around the age of nine, little Dico got the name Pele in the neighbourhood. How that nickname came about, Pele himself did not know. “I have no idea where the name came from, or who started it, because it has no meaning in Portuguese—or any other language, as far as I know.... All I know is that from the time I was nine or so, I was Pele to everyone I know, except to my family who continue to call me Dico to this day,” Pele wrote in his autobiography. Initially he hated the name and got into many fights because of it. It was only when he started playing football for the local Bauru Athletic club, the very first club he played for as a child, and heard the spectators chant “Pele, Pele” from the stands, that he accepted the name.
What his father tried and failed to achieve in his lifetime, Pele managed to accomplish at the age of 15, when he tried out for Brazilian giant Santos and was immediately selected. The late Dorval Rodriguez, his teammate in Santos from 1956 to 1967, recalled what the club said: “We first saw him when he was only 15 and we knew straight away that he would be a genius.” In fact, Santos signed him up after just one training session.
Crowning of the new king
If getting selected to play for Santos at such a tender age was a surprise to many, 1958 threw up an even bigger surprise when the 17-year-old Pele was included in the national team bound for Sweden to play the World Cup. He had had quite a good year in Santos, alternating with Emanuele Del Vechhio, who was the regular centre forward. Despite playing alternate games, Pele was still the team’s lead scorer.
Later, however, he admitted that he himself was surprised to be selected for the national team which then had stalwarts like Garrincha, Vava, Didi, Zagallo, Zito, and Gilmar. It turned out to be the year that football got its first undisputed king, all of 17. In the third match at the Group stage against the formidable Soviet Union with the iconic Lev Yashin at the goal, Pele assisted in the second Brazilian goal hammered in by Vava. Brazil won 2-0 against the overwhelmingly favourites. In the hard-fought battle against Wales, Pele won the day for Brazil with the lone goal in the match. This was the turning point.
The media, which had focussed on the bigger stars in the team, began to pay attention to the teenager. In the semifinal against France, Pele became the youngest player ever to score a hat-trick in the World Cup, and in the final against Sweden he became the youngest player ever to both appear and score in a World Cup final. Pele’s skills and the six goals he scored stunned the world, particularly Europe. They had never witnessed such sublime trickery on the field.
In his first goal in the final which Brazil won 5-2, Pele looped the ball over the central defender’s head, and volleyed it to the back of the net. Among the Brazilian players the move was known as the “hat trick”, and Pele had just begun to unravel for the world his unending repertoire of sorcery. The boy who until a few years ago was shining shoes returned to Brazil as “O Rei” or king, and Brazil was finally able to shake off the disappointment of the loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final staged at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.
The 1958 World Cup catapulted Pele to a kind of fame seldom seen before; and the teenager took to stardom as though he was born to it. It did not however give him immunity from conscription when he turned 18, and Pele had a new team to play for, the barracks team of the Brazilian Army. Interestingly, it was while playing for the Brazilian Army (against the Argentina Military XI) that Pele was thrown out of the game for the first time for fist-fighting with an opponent. After leaving the army, in 1960, Pele went on a world trip with Santos playing top teams of various countries. People flocked to airports just to catch a glimpse of him, and stadium tickets were sold out in no time. Pele with Santos was the biggest draw across the world.
1962 World Cup
By the time Pele landed in Chile for the 1962 World Cup, Brazil were already the overwhelming favourites. The tournament started strongly for the defending champions and the now 21-year-old Pele seemed all set to stun the world again. After an imperious performance against Mexico in the first match, a niggling groin injury began to worry Pele.
The injury was aggravated in the following match against Czechoslovakia, and Pele had to be taken out of the tournament. It was then up to Garrincha, the “angel with bent legs” to dance and dribble his team to its second consecutive World Cup triumph. Garrincha, which means “little bird” in Portuguese, was the only player in Brazil whose popularity rivalled Pele’s.
But Garrincha did not have Pele’s discipline. “The Joy of the Brazilian People”, as he was known, died in poverty at just 50, with most of the world not even aware he was gone. But after his death a graffiti appeared on a wall in Brazil, saying, “Garrincha, thank you for having lived”.
Upping the ante
Though Pele did not play for most of the 1962 World Cup, he was constantly on the sidelines, encouraging his team. His replacement, Amarildo, who scored in the final said, “Though he was not there on the pitch, he was there in spirit.” Not being able to play, however, and seeing his team winning without his participation planted seeds of self-doubt in him. Ridiculous as it sounds, Pele actually feared he may be sidelined permanently. Upon recovery, he channelled all his powers for the club, and that year Santos won the world Inter-Club championship, winning 27 of the 34 games, tying six, and losing just one.
In the final against European champion Benfica, Pele scored three goals while Coutinho scored two, thrashing the Portuguese giant 5-2. “It was one of the most important matches of my career and certainly one of the most significant games for me,” Pele later admitted.
Benfica goalkeeper Costa Pereira said after the match, “I arrived hoping to stop a great man, but I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us.” The following year Santos won the Intercontinental Cup again, this time beating AC Milan. Santos had emerged as the greatest football club of its time, and Pele was its very heart.
1966 World Cup
Even as Pele’s star continued to rise, shining brighter than ever before, Brazil’s World Cup expedition in 1966 was, in his own words, a “total and unmitigated disaster”. Lack of proper organisational planning, complacency, and injury saw the Brazilian team crash out of the tournament at the Group stage. After beating Bulgaria in the first game, in which Pele scored, Brazil lost successively to Hungary and Portugal.
Pele missed the match against Hungary due to injury, and against Eusebio’s Portugal, the Brazilian star had to be carried off the field after a particularly vicious foul by Portuguese winger Joao Morais. Till date, it is considered one of the worst fouls in World Cup history. Strangely, Morais was neither sent off nor even booked for it.
Bitterly disappointed with the refereeing and the administration of his own team, Pele seriously considered never playing another World Cup. “I was completely disgusted with what had happened in 1966.... After that game I swore I would never play in another World Cup game. I would stay in Santos and play for Santos Club,” he later wrote.
1970 World Cup
Had Pele stuck to his decision, it is more or less certain he would not have attained the kind of mythical stature he did in his own lifetime. The Mexico World Cup in 1970 was Pele’s finest. If 1958 saw his coronation, 1970 was the year of his deification. At 29, Pele was at the peak of his power. Just the year before, on November 19, Pele had become the first person in the history of the game to score 1,000 goals when he converted a penalty against rival club Vasco.
After the ignominy of 1966, Brazilian football desperately needed to reestablish its position as the undisputed leader of the game, and Pele needed a shot at immortality. “If I sit here and say I came back for the 1970 World Cup for the Brazilian people, I would be lying. I came back for me,” he admitted.
With players like Rivellino, Jairzinho, Tostao, Brito, and Carlos Alberto playing alongside Pele, the Brazilian team of 1970 was one of the greatest sides in the history of the game. In their golden yellow jerseys, Pele and the team were unstoppable. In the Group stage they beat Czechoslovakia, England and Romania, with Pele scoring three goals, and assisting twice. In the course of the game he had six assists to his credit, including two in the final against Italy; and four goals, including the first one in the final.
Rivellino crossed a high ball over the head of the Italian defenders, and Pele took to the air, outmuscling the great Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich, and headed the ball into the net. Burgnich, who was known as “La Roccia” (the rock), said, “I used to think Pele was flesh and blood like me; I was wrong.” Pele himself said it was the “World Cup of my life”. After the win, Rivellino recalled that Pele cried out three times in the dressing room “I didn’t die. I didn’t die. I didn’t die.” His immortality was assured.
New York Cosmos
After returning to Brazil Pele continued to play for Santos till September 1974. In his 18 years with the club, Pele scored a whopping 643 goals, a record that still stands, and won over 20 trophies for the club. In 1975, Pele came out of semi-retirement and signed up with New York Cosmos for an unprecedented amount of $6 million to play for three years. Even in the US, where football was never a top sport, Pele became an immediate sensation. His presence drew more crowds than rockstars.
In fact, Pele’s presence alone made football (soccer) popular in the US. Following in Pele’s footsteps, a large number of stars from across the world began to play in the North American Soccer League. In 1977, legends like Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto signed up with Cosmos. Playing with Pele was as much a lure as the money they were offered. “I am the biggest fan of Pele. He is the greatest soccer player in the history of sports. May be the greatest sportsman... you can compare him only with Muhammad Ali,” said Beckenbauer, the Kaiser, after joining Cosmos. In September 1977, Pele came with the Cosmos team to Kolkata to play against Mohun Bagan.
Thousands lined up in the streets all the way to the airport just to catch a glimpse of the king as he passed by. Thirty-eight years later, thousands lined the streets again when he revisited the city in 2015 at the age of 74.
For all his fame and global stardom, Pele never lost his humility or his smile. He was one of the most accessible superstars and was as happy posing with heads of states for pictures as he was with his fans. During his playing days, he was sometimes criticised for his political neutrality. Even when the military dictatorship in Brazil was at its most repressive, Pele remained silent. He was certainly no Muhammad Ali taking on the establishment and risking everything for his principles.
Many felt Pele was above all that. Many felt he could have done more. Many more felt that by just being Pele he had done more than enough. “I was not superman, no miracle man. I was just a normal person to whom God granted the gift of being a footballer. But I am totally convinced that I helped Brazil a lot more with my football, with my way of being, than the politicians whose job it was to do this very thing,” he said in his defence.
But the fact is Pele changed the world’s perception of Brazil. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, under whom Pele served as Sports Minister for three years, credited him for transforming the country into one that “believed in itself”. In his pursuit of glory, Pele spread harmony and promoted integration. At a time when apartheid existed, along with segregation in the US, the biggest name in the world of sports was a black man.
Pele, simply by being Pele, brought joy and inspiration to the world. Many of his records have either been broken or equalled; those that remain may one day be overtaken. Great players existed before him and many others will come and mesmerise the world long after his death. But only Pele could have made the whole world pause when he had the ball at his feet.
As the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini said, “The moment the ball arrived at Pele’s feet, football transformed into poetry.” He brought a sense of wonder into ordinary lives. Pele did not belong to any era; he transcended long ago the time-bound confinement of eras to represent the spirit of football itself.
- Brazilian football legend Pele passed away on December 29, after a prolonged illness. He was 82 and is survived by his wife Marcia Aoki and seven children.
- In a professional career that spanned 21 years (he turned pro when he was still 15), Pele created football history that is practically impossible to emulate.
- At 17 years, he was not only the youngest player to play in a World Cup final but was also the youngest to score a hat-trick in the World Cup.
- The “Pele phenomenon” touched and inspired every tier of human society from slums to palaces.
- Standing at just 5’8”, Pele moved on the pitch as though to the rhythm of a Samba beat in his head.
- Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, under whom Pele served as Sports Minister for three years, credited him for transforming the country into one that “believed in itself”.