Football Legends: Pelé

In the wake of my F1 driver profiles, I figured I’d do the same thing with footballers, and what better place to start than arguably the greatest of all time, Pelé. When I started to write this, the great man was still with us. A few days later, he was gone, at the age of 82, and the world mourned the passing of a legend.

Pelé – who’s true name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento – shot to international fame during the 1958 World Cup. Then just 17 years of age, Pelé made his World Cup debut in Brazil’s final group game, but it was his performances in the knockout stages that lit up the tournament, including the goal that put Wales out, a semi-final hat-trick against France, and two goals against hosts Sweden in the final. Pele became the youngest player to play in, score in, and win a World Cup Final, and that record still stands today.

Pelé grew up in poverty, in the city of Bauru, and would play football with whatever he could, be it a grapefruit, or a sock stuffed with items, in the absence of an actual ball. He would hone his skills playing indoor football, on small pitches, at the age of 14, playing against adults. Pelé credits this experience as helping to develop his ability to think quickly, something that would serve him so well in his career. Having led Bauru Athletic Club Juniors to local championship success, Pelé was taken to the port city of Santos by his coach, Waldemar de Brito, in the belief that he could become something truly special. Pelé did enough to impress the coaches at Santos FC to earn a contract, at the age of just 15, in 1956, and so began his professional football career.

Pelé’s first game was on the 7th of September that very year, and he scored in a dominant 7-1 win over Corinthians. When the 1957 season started, Pelé would become a regular starter, and the league’s top scorer, and he would receive a call up to the national side. The rest, as they say, is history. Pelé got his first taste of domestic success when his goals helped Santos to the regional league title in 1958, but as already mentioned, he would reach international stardom for his World Cup efforts that year.

With Pelé scoring freely, Santos would win the national league title in 61, 62, 63, 64, 65 and 68, and they would win the Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) in 62 and 63. Numerous European sides hunted his signature, and Pelé nearly signed for Italian club Inter Milan in 1958, but Santos fans nearly rioted, and the contract was ripped up.

Pelé’s experience of the 1962 World Cup was muted. He both created a goal, and scored in Brazil’s victory over Mexico in Chile. Injury befell him in his next game, when attempting a shot against Czechoslovakia, and he was ruled out for the remainder of the tournament, however he would retroactively receive a winner’s medal in 2007. The 1966 World Cup in England was a bitter experience for Pelé, with Brazil failing to escape the group stages, and Pelé himself being virtually kicked off the pitch in games against Bulgaria and Portugal. With the referees seemingly failing to prevent the rampant fouling, Pelé vowed never to play in a World Cup again, but eventually agreed to return, for the 1970 tournament in Mexico. Brazil’s manager, Mário Zagallo, said “A kid in Sweden [1958 World Cup] gave signs of genius, and in Mexico [1970 World Cup] he fulfilled all that promise and closed the book with a golden key. And I had the privilege to see it all from close up.”

It obviously wasn’t all about Pelé, at any of the World Cup triumphs, and in 1970, Brazil had assembled one of the greatest teams in the history of the competition. The likes of Jairzinho, Pelé, Gerson, Tostão and Rivelino together formed a team that danced through the 1970 World Cup, with Pelé scoring several goals, and creating others, with glittering, beautiful football. His third World Cup was arguably his best, and it is fitting that he would play such a starring role in the first colour-TV tournament.

Pelé’s goal-scoring record is a matter of some debate. Whilst it is not doubted that he averaged nearly a goal per game during his career, both Pelé and Brazil’s football federation use a different yardstick for Pelé’s records to FIFA’s official stats. Including friendlies, he scored 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, averaging nearly a goal a game, something he sustained over the course of his entire career.

Such was Pelé’s superstardom, he was able to bring about a brief ceasefire in the Nigerian Civil War in 1969, for an exhibition match in Lagos. He ended is career on the 1st of October 1977, playing for US side New York Cosmos, against his old side Santos, and of course, he scored, with a 30-yard freekick.

Was Pelé perfect? Well, on a personal level, there were a few gremlins, but that can be said of anyone and everyone. Pelé is noted for having had several affairs in his time, and fathered seven known children, quite possibly more. He did a lot of goodwill work on behalf of environmental issues, and protested corruption in Brazil’s football establishment. He starred (alongside several other footballers) in the 1981 WWII film Escape to Victory. Pelé is credited with one of the most famous quotes of the sport, describing football as ‘the beautiful game’.

Thanks to Pelé, it certainly is beautiful.

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