“You were a genius who enchanted the world. A magician with the ball at his feet. A true legend“. These are the words that Pelé wrote in a public farewell letter to Diego Maradona after the latter’s death at the end of November 2020. If he were still alive, Maradona would undoubtedly express himself in the same way about his former rival and friend Pelé, who has just succumbed to cancer.
Both footballers marked the football of the last century with their style – Argentinian Maradona as a playmaker, Brazilian Pelé as a striker. Both were popular heroes in their respective countries and both delighted football fans around the world with their technique and goals. Pelé, who was 20 years older than Maradona, was football’s first superstar, however. To date, the Brazilian is the only player to have been world champion three times: he was not only elected “player of the 20th century” by FIFA, but also “athlete of the 20th century” by the IOC (International Olympic Committee ).
“Pelé is immortal, while Edson is not afraid of growing old or dying“Pélé once said in an interview, aware of the difference between Pelé, the football icon, and Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the man.
This name was given to it on October 23, 1940 in tribute to the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison. The origin of his nickname, however, is unclear. The most common version is that when he was little he adored his father’s team goalkeeper, named “I know“, and stated that he too wanted to play as “Pile“. This is how the name of “Skin“, which initially annoyed him.
It will not take long for Brazil, then the whole world, to take an interest in the young boy. In 1956, at only 15 years old, Pelé obtained a contract with FC Santos and scored his first goal on his debut in the first division. His call up to the national team was not long in coming: at 16 years and 257 days, he made his debut against Argentina (1-2) and scored the only goal of the Selection.
The following year, Pelé was called up to the national team to take part in the World Cup in Sweden – a tournament he first started on the bench. But very quickly, the kid made himself indispensable and scored six goals in four games, thus contributing largely to Brazil’s first World Cup title. In the final against the host country, Pelé unleashed the crowds and made himself known to the world with his acrobatics and his double, registered at the age of 17 years, 8 months and 6 days only. A real record of precocity.
In his native country, Pelé was already revered like no other footballer. When he was not yet 20 years old, the Brazilian government declared him “national treasure” and banned its sale abroad. During his travels around the globe, the young Pelé was welcomed as a President of the Republic. If he had many ups, the Brazilian also had downs, as during of the 1962 World Cup, which was played in Chile.
And at Selection managed to defend her title successfully, Pelé played a minimal role in this victory, due to an injury in the second match of the group stage. Four years later, in England, the defending champion was eliminated in the first round, to everyone’s surprise. But in 1970, in Mexico, Pelé led his team to a third world title.
A year later, Pelé played his 92nd and last international match: in the mythical Maracana stadium, in front of 180,000 fans, he bid farewell to the national team, for which he had scored 77 goals. For many, his departure from the national team seemed premature: Pelé was only 30 years old.
In 1970, Pelé won the World Cup for the third time in his career.
An enigmatic international retreat
The reason for his international retirement is still the subject of speculation today: was it due to a violent argument with the president of the Brazilian football federation at the time, Joao Havelange? Pelé himself later mentioned a political argument: he would not have wanted to support the military government of the time. Basically, no one really knows if he was really an opponent of the dictatorship, he who was under investigation by the military, who suspected him of having links with leftist leaders.
On the other hand, Pelé continued his career in the Brazilian championship. Unfortunately, it is impossible to accurately reconstruct the number of games he played and the number of goals he actually scored for FC Santos, the club that will probably always be associated with him. Officially, it is 1,088 goals in 1,114 matches. Nobody knows either what was the thousandth goal of his career. For a long time, everyone thought it was the one he scored on November 19, 1969, on a penalty in a match against Vasco da Gama. That day, everyone was happy, even the bells were ringing. However, subsequent research revealed that this penalty was most likely… his 1,002nd goal.
The famous thousandth goal, against Vasco da Gama. His 1,002nd, in fact…
A surprise return
In 1974, Pelé put an end to his career, before returning less than a year later, to everyone’s surprise, and committing to Cosmos New York, in the North American Soccer League, little known at the time. The reason: a man, who called himself his friend, had embezzled all his fortune. In three years at the Cosmos, Pelé earned $4.5 million, which was the highest amount in a football contract until then. “Pelé is the best player of all time“, would later say his German teammate at the time, Franz Beckenbauer. “He dominated football for over twenty years. All the others, be it Maradona, Cruyff or Platini, come after him. There is no one comparable to Pelé“. In 1977, Pelé made his final farewell to football.
First black to hold a ministerial post
During his years in New York, Pelé laid the groundwork for a successful career as a businessman. He not only made important contacts, but also founded a sports marketing company. Considered religious and modest, Pelé bought a radio station (Radio Club de Santos) as well as a film production company. Although he has always toyed with the idea of a political function and even announced one day that he wanted to found a left-wing party, it was not until 1995 that serious things began, when he became the first black to occupy a ministerial post. That year, Pelé was appointed Extraordinary Minister of Sports. For four years he tried to fight corruption in Brazilian football, but was most successful in promoting grassroots sport as well as projects for children and young people.
Pelé, who has been married twice and had seven children, has also served as a sports ambassador for his country, for the United Nations and for UNICEF. “All the children in the world want to be like Pelé in football – that’s why I bear the responsibility of showing them how to become a good footballer, but also how to become a good man“, he once said.
major health problems
In recent years, Pelé has experienced recurring health problems. A poorly healed hip operation in 2012 led to further disabilities. He also had to remove a kidney stone. In 2021, a tumor was removed from his colon. Since then, Pelé has hardly appeared in public. “Imagine: he was the king, an impressive person, and today he can no longer walk normally“said Edson, the son of Pelé, in February 2020. “That’s why he’s held back a lot. He’s ashamedEdson further announced that his father was suffering from depression. Pele, however, vehemently denied this information soon after.
“One day I hope we play football together in the sky“, announced Pelé on Twitter the day of Maradona’s death. The dribblers now play together, in other spheres. Basically, it has always been so.