Pelé, the powerful Brazilian king of the « beautiful game », dies at 82
SAO PAULO (AP) — Pelé, the Brazilian soccer king who won a record three World Cups and became one of the most important sports figures of the last century, died on Thursday. He was 82 years old.
The standard bearer of the « beautiful game » had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer since 2021. He had been hospitalized for a month for multiple ailments.
His agent Joe Fraga confirmed his death.
Widely regarded as one of football’s greatest players, Pelé spent nearly two decades delighting fans and dazzling opponents as the game’s most prolific goalscorer with Brazilian club Santos and the Brazil national team. .
His grace, athleticism and mesmerizing movements have captivated players and fans alike. He orchestrated a fast, flowing style that revolutionized the sport – a samba style that personified his country’s elegance on the pitch.
He took Brazil to the heights of football and became a global ambassador for his sport on a journey that began in the streets of the state of Sao Paulo, where he kicked a sock stuffed with newspapers or of rags.
In the conversation about football’s greatest players, only the late Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned alongside Pele.
Different sources, counting different series of games, list Pelé’s goal tallies between 650 (league games) and 1,281 (all senior games, some against low-level competitions.)
The player who would be nicknamed ‘The King’ was introduced to the world aged 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the youngest player in the tournament’s history. He was carried off the pitch on his teammates’ shoulders after scoring twice in Brazil’s 5-2 win over the host nation in the final.
Injury limited him to just two games when Brazil retained the world title in 1962, but Pele was the symbol of his country’s 1970 World Cup triumph in Mexico. He scored in the final and set up Carlos Alberto with a nonchalant assist for the final goal in a 4-1 win over Italy.
The image of Pelé in a bright yellow Brazil jersey, with the No.10 stamped on the back, lives on with football fans around the world. So did the celebration of his trademark goal – a leap with a straight punch above his head.
Such was Pele’s fame that in 1967 factions in a civil war in Nigeria agreed to a brief ceasefire so he could play an exhibition game in the country. He was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. When he traveled to Washington to help popularize the game in North America, it was the US president who reached out first .
« My name is Ronald Reagan, I am the President of the United States of America, » the host told his visitor. « But you don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pele is. »
Pelé was Brazil’s first modern black national hero, but rarely spoke about racism in a country where the wealthy and powerful are generally drawn from the white minority.
Opposing fans taunted Pelé with monkey chants at home and around the world.
« He said he would never play 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 never wanted to be a standard bearer. »
Pele’s life after football took many forms. He was a politician – the extraordinary sports minister of Brazil – 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.
As his health deteriorated, his travels and appearances became less frequent. 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 squad. Pelé spent his 80th birthday in isolation with a few family members in a beach house.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, in the small town of Tres Coracoes in the interior of Minas Gerais state on October 23, 1940, Pelé grew up shining shoes to buy his modest football gear.
Pele’s talent caught the eye when he was 11 and a local professional player brought him into Santos’ youth teams. It didn’t take long for him to join the senior team.
Despite his youth and 5-foot-8 height, he scored against grown men with the same ease he showed against friends back home. He made his debut for the Brazilian club aged 16 in 1956, and the club quickly gained worldwide recognition.
The name Pelé comes from the fact that he mispronounced 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 sent the ball over a defender’s head and raced around it to bring it home, was voted one of the best in Cup history of the world.
The 1966 World Cup in England – won by the hosts – was bittersweet for Pele, then already considered the best player in the world. Brazil were knocked out in the group stage and Pelé, angry at the rough treatment, 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 for some score, but tall keeper Gordon Banks knocked the ball down by over the bar in a stunning move. Pele likened the save – one of the best in World Cup history – to a « salmon climbing a waterfall ». Later, he scored the opening goal in the final against Italy, his last World Cup game.
In all, Pelé made 114 appearances for Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals, 77 of them in official matches.
His run with Santos spanned 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 prevent him from signing. be sold, declaring it a national treasure.
On the pitch, Pelé’s energy, vision and imagination drove a gifted Brazilian national team with a fast and 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 the football lexicon.
In 1975, he joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Although he is 34 years old and past his prime, Pelé has given football greater visibility in North America. He led Cosmos to the 1977 league title and scored 64 goals in three seasons.
Pelé ended his career on October 1, 1977, in an exhibition between the Cosmos and the Santos in front of a crowd of some 77,000 people in New Jersey. He played half the match with each club. Among the dignitaries present was perhaps the only other athlete whose fame spanned the globe – Muhammad Ali.
Pelé would go through 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, with Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He then married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki.