Pelé, the Brazilian soccer king who won a record three World Cups and became one of the most prominent 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. The medical center where he was hospitalized last month said he died of multi-organ failure as a result of cancer.
“Pelé changed everything. He transformed football into art, entertainment,” Neymar, another Brazilian soccer star, said on Instagram. “Football and Brazil elevated his position thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will live on. Pelé is eternal!”
A funeral was planned for Monday and Tuesday, with his coffin to be carried through the streets of Santos, the coastal city where his storied career began, before burial.
Widely regarded as one of soccer’s greatest players, Pelé spent nearly two decades charming fans and dazzling opponents as the game’s most prolific goalscorer for Brazilian club Santos and the Brazil national team.
His grace, athleticism, and mesmerizing moves captivated players and fans alike. He orchestrated a fast, flowing style that revolutionized the sport: a samba-like style that epitomized his country’s elegance on the pitch.
SEE l Remembering Pelé:
He took Brazil to the heights of soccer and became a global ambassador for his sport on a journey that began on the streets of Sao Paulo state, kicking a sock full of newspapers or rags.
In the conversation about the best football players, only the late Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned alongside Pelé.
Different sources, counting different sets of games, list Pelé’s goal totals between 650 (league games) and 1,281 (all senior games, some against lower-level competition).
The player who would be nicknamed “The King” was introduced to the world at age 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the youngest player in the tournament’s history. He was carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates after scoring twice in Brazil’s 5-2 win over the host country in the final.
The image of Pelé in a bright yellow Brazilian jersey, with the number 10 emblazoned on the back, lives on among soccer fans everywhere. As was his trademark goal celebration: a jump with a right fist over his head.
Pelé’s fame was such that in 1967 factions of a civil war in Nigeria agreed to a brief ceasefire so that he could play an exhibition match in the country. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain in 1997. When he visited Washington to help popularize the game in North America, it was the US president who reached out to him 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 he rarely spoke out about racism in a country where the rich and powerful tend to come from the white minority.
Rival 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 key to the pride of blacks in Brazil, but he never wanted to be a standard bearer.”
Tonight we light the arch in honor of Pelé.
His unique talent lit up soccer and inspired the world. pic.twitter.com/6Ho2Fqz37A
Eclectic life after football
Pele’s life after soccer took many forms. He was a politician, the Extraordinary Minister of Sports 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. Often seen in a wheelchair during his later years, he did not attend a ceremony to unveil a statue of him representing the Brazil team at the 1970 World Cup. Pelé spent his 80th birthday in isolation with some members of his family in a house on the beach.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, in the small town of Tres Coracoes in the interior of the state of Minas Gerais on October 23, 1940, Pelé grew up shining shoes to buy his modest soccer team.
Pelé’s talent caught the eye when he was 11 years old, and a local professional player took him to Santos’ youth ranks. He did not take long to reach the senior team.
Despite his youth and height of 5-foot-8, he scored against grown men with the same ease that he displayed against his friends at home. He made his debut for the Brazilian club at age 16 in 1956, and the club quickly gained worldwide recognition.
The name Pelé is due to the fact that he mispronounced the name of a player named Bilis.
He went to the 1958 World Cup as a reserve, but became a key player for his country’s champion team. His first goal, in which he flicked the ball over a defender’s head and ran around it to volley it home, was voted one of the best in World Cup history.
The 1966 World Cup in England, won by the hosts, was bitter for Pelé, by then already considered the best player in the world. Brazil was eliminated in the group stage and Pelé, angry at the mistreatment, swore that it was his last World Cup.
He changed his mind and was rejuvenated at the 1970 World Cup. In a game against England, he headed in for a certain goal, but the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks flicked the ball over the crossbar in an astonishing play. Pelé compared the save, one of the best in World Cup history, to “salmon climbing over a waterfall”. Later, he scored the opening goal in the final against Italy, his last game in the World Cup.
The king of soccer has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten.
RIP KING 💔👑… pic.twitter.com/F55PrcM2Ud
Record of 95 goals for national teams
In total, Pelé played 114 games for Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals, including 77 in official matches.
His career with Santos spanned three decades until he partially retired after the 1972 season. Rich European clubs tried to sign him, but the Brazilian government intervened to prevent him from being sold, declaring him a national treasure.
On the pitch, Pelé’s energy, vision and imagination propelled a talented Brazilian 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 soccer lexicon.
Pelé finished his career on October 1, 1977, in an exhibition between the Cosmos and Santos before a New Jersey crowd of some 77,000. He played half the game with each club. Among the dignitaries present was perhaps the only other athlete whose renown 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 sons from his first two marriages, to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He later married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki.
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