Pele won a record three World Cups and was widely regarded as one of the greatest players in his sport
As “The King,” Pelé has mesmerized fans and dazzled opponentsBy TALES AZZONI and MAURICIO SAVARESEAssociated PressThe Associated PressSAO PAULO
SAO PAULO (AP) — Pele was simply “The King.” He embraced “the beautiful game” of soccer in his 1958 World Cup debut for Brazil and never really let go.
He won a record three World Cups and was widely regarded as one of the greatest players in his sport. His majestic and galvanizing presence places him among the most recognizable figures in the world.
Pele died on Thursday at the age of 82. He had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer since 2021.
Pelé was among the game’s most prolific goalscorers and spent nearly two decades dazzling fans and dazzling opponents. The grace of him, his athleticism and his moves on the highest stage in football have transfixed everyone. He orchestrated a fast and fluid style of play that revolutionized the sport, a talent that epitomized Brazilian elegance on the pitch.
He took his country to the top of soccer and became a global ambassador for his sport in a journey that began on the streets of São Paulo state, where he would kick a sock stuffed with newspaper or rags.
“Pele changed everything. He turned football into art, entertainment,” Neymar, another Brazilian footballer, said on Instagram. “Football and Brazil have raised their position thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will last. Pele is eternal!”
In the conversation about the greatest football player, only the late Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned next to him.
Different sources, counting different match series, list Pele’s goal totals at between 650 (league matches) and 1,281 (all senior matches, some against lower-level competition). When Maradona once interviewed Pele, he jokingly asked the Brazilian how he amassed so many goals.
The player who would be nicknamed “The King” was introduced to the world at 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the youngest player ever at the tournament.
Pelé was the emblem of his country’s triumph at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. He scored in the final and provided Carlos Alberto with an easy pass for the last goal in a 4-1 win against Italy.
The image of Pelé in a bright yellow Brazil jersey, with the number 10 printed on the back, remains alive among football fans around the world. As is her trademark goal celebration: a jump with a right fist thrust high above his head.
Pele’s fame was such that in 1967, factions in a civil war in Nigeria agreed to a brief ceasefire so he could play an exhibition match in the country. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain in 1997. When Pele visited Washington to help popularize the game in North America, he was the president of the United States who first extended his hand.
“You don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pele is,” said Ronald Reagan.
Pelé was Brazil’s first modern black national hero, but he rarely spoke out about racism in a country where the rich and powerful tend to come from the white minority.
Opposing fans taunted Pele with monkey chants at home and around the world.
“He said he would never have played if he had to stop every time he heard those chants,” said Angelica Basthi, one of Pele’s biographers. “He is the key to black pride in Brazil, but he never wanted to be a standard-bearer.”
Pele’s life after football took many forms. He was a politician-minister extraordinary of sport of Brazil-a wealthy businessman and ambassador of UNESCO and the United Nations.
He has had roles in movies, soap operas and has even composed songs and recorded CDs of Brazilian popular music.
Pele was an ambassador for his sport until his last years, but as his health deteriorated his travels and appearances became less frequent. After needing a hip replacement, he started using a cane.
He was often seen in a wheelchair during his later years and did not attend a ceremony to unveil a statue of him representing Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team.
“He gets very shy, he gets very embarrassed,” his son Edinho told Globoesporte.com. “He doesn’t want to go out”.
Pele spent his 80th birthday with some relatives.
Pele spent a month hospitalized in 2021 following surgery to remove a tumor from his colon. Pelé said he was ready “to play 90 minutes, plus extra time”, but he soon started chemotherapy.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, in the small town of Tres Coracoes, within the state of Minas Gerais, on October 23, 1940, Pelé grew up shining shoes to buy his modest soccer equipment. His father was also a player.
Pelé’s talent caught the eye when he was 11 and a local professional player brought him up to Santos’ youth academy. Despite his youth and 5-foot-8 frame, Pele scored against grown men as easily as he displayed against friends at home. He made his debut for the Brazilian club as a 15-year-old in 1956 and the club quickly achieved worldwide recognition.
The name Pelé came from him by mispronouncing the name of a player called Bilé. He later became known simply as “O Rei”-The King.
Pele went to the 1958 World Cup as a reserve but became an integral part of his country’s championship team. His first goal, in which he lobbed the ball over a defender’s head and ran around it to bring it home, was voted one of the best in World Cup history.
“When Pelé scored,” said veteran Swedish midfielder Sigge Parling, “I have to be honest and say I felt like cheering.”
The 1966 World Cup in England, won by the hosts, was bitter for Pele, now considered the best player in the world. Brazil were knocked out in the group stage and Pelé, angry at Portugal’s fouls and hard tackles, swore it was his last World Cup.
He changed his mind and was rejuvenated in the 1970 World Cup. In a match against England, he headed in for a certain score, but the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks sent the ball over the bar in a surprising move. Pele likened the save – one of the best in World Cup history – to a “salmon climbing a waterfall”. Subsequently, he scored the opening goal in the final against Italy, his last match in the World Cup.
In all, Pelé played 114 games for Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals, including 77 in competitive matches. Most of his goals came with Santos, which led to five national titles, two Copa Libertadores trophies and two club world championships, all in the 1960s.
His run with Santos spanned over three decades until he went into semi-retirement after the 1972 season. Wealthy European clubs sought to sign him, but the Brazilian government intervened to prevent his sale, declaring him a treasure national.
On the pitch, Pelé’s energy, vision and imagination guided a talented Brazilian national team, with intricate passing combinations that cut through defenses while leaving room for players to display flashy skill.
The fast and fluid style of play exemplified “O Jogo Bonito” – Portuguese for “The Beautiful Game”. And at the center of it all, like a maestro commanding his orchestra, was Pele. It was his 1977 autobiography, ‘My Life and the Beautiful Game’, that made the phrase part of the football lexicon.
In 1975, he joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Although he was past his prime at 34, Pele briefly gave soccer a higher profile in North America before ending his career on October 1, 1977, in an exhibition between Cosmos and Santos. Among the dignitaries at hand was perhaps the only other athlete whose fame spanned the world: Muhammad Ali.
Pele had two daughters out of wedlock and five sons from his first two marriages, to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He later married entrepreneur Marcia Cibele Aoki.
Azzoni is based in Madrid.