Pele, the transcendent Brazilian star widely regarded as the greatest soccer player of all time, died on Thursday. He was 82.
According to the Sao Paulo medical centre where he had been hospitalised for the previous month, his death was caused by multiple organ failure following a battle with colon cancer, as confirmed by his agent Joe Fraga. He was diagnosed for the first time in 2021.
“We are all because of you,” his daughter Kely Nascimento wrote on Instagram. “We will always love you. “May you rest in peace.”
His exploits were legendary, and they continue to astound even decades later. Pele famously dribbled through four Mexican defenders to score a golazo of the highest order during the 1962 World Cup in Chile. With Brazil, he won three World Cups. He scored six goals in the 1958 World Cup and 12 goals in his World Cup career before joining the Cosmos of the North American Soccer League and becoming a beloved pioneer for the sport in America.
The GOAT debate rages on in soccer, as it does in other sports, but there are very few top contenders. For the time being, Pele and the two Argentinians, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, stand head and shoulders above all other candidates on most lists.
Nobody understood his own greatness better than Pele.
“You can’t make another Michael Jordan, just like you can’t make another Pele,” Pele once told the Daily News.
He was the artist’s and Brazilian futbol’s story. Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born as the son of a part-time soccer player in the small Brazilian town of Coracoes. He grew up in a two-bedroom house with six other family members, kicking a grapefruit or a sock full of rags through the streets.
By the age of 14, he was playing for his father’s team, Bauru. By the age of 15, in 1955, his father had arranged for him to work for the top Brazilian club, Santos, under coach Luiz Alonso Perez. Pele scored four goals in his debut for Santos and received a $1,000 bonus.
“Not only is Pele the greatest player I’ve ever coached,” Perez said, “but he’s the greatest player anyone has ever coached.”
He was never a one-dimensional offensive threat. Pelé was an attacking choreographer who started and finished plays. Brazil’s chances were always dependent on his presence. He scored an impossible curling free kick against Bulgaria in the 1966 World Cup. The Bulgarians then brutally tackled him out of the game and the tournament. Brazil immediately lost focus, and the next match was against Hungary. If Pele had remained healthy, England may never have won its only championship.
He finished with 92 goals in 77 matches for Brazil, and a total of 1,279 goals for club and country, which is still a record. He and Maradona were named joint winners of FIFA’s Player of the Century award.
Pele’s ball control and breathtaking sprints were made possible by a rare combination of mind and physiology. Brazilian tests on their superman in 1966 revealed that his heart rate was only 56-58 beats per minute and that his peripheral vision was 30 percent better than the average athlete.
“Whatever field of endeavour this man entered, physical or mental, he would be a genius,” said Brazilian psychologist Dr. Hilton Gosling.
Pele was officially declared a “national treasure” by the Brazilians, deflecting international interest in his services. Italian clubs offered Santos $2 million for a proposed transfer, but the team refused. He retired from international soccer in 1974, at the age of 34, as the undisputed king of his sport. However, he returned the following year to sign a three-year, $7 million contract with the Cosmos in order “to make soccer truly popular in the United States.”
“Today, soccer has arrived in the United States,” he declared when signing with the Cosmos. “Get the word out.”
Brazilians were outraged by the signing, but Pele embraced the role of soccer pioneer and missionary in America. When the United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup over Brazil in 1988, he expressed his delight. His presence in the United States sparked a massive, albeit brief, surge in interest in the NASL.
His performance with the Cosmos was still impressive, though not at his peak. Pele was dubbed “the Shakespeare of soccer” by Alex Yannis, a late New York Times soccer writer who covered him for the Cosmos.
Pele returned to Brazil in 1977 and established schools and academies. He became a spokesperson for MasterCard and was a regular at World Cups. He was always up for a lighthearted interview with journalists. He was well aware of his illustrious place in history. When a reporter approached him for an interview, Pele would spontaneously autograph a photo or publicity material and hand it to the journalist without prompting.
He was a well-known sports ambassador around the world. Pele was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Elizabeth and was given a private audience with Pope Francis in Vatican City. On that occasion, Pope Paul VI told him, “Don’t be nervous, my son. I’m more worried than you.”
Pele is said to have personally achieved a one-day ceasefire in a Nigerian-Biafran war and to have received the French Legion of Honor among his many accomplishments.
Pele dabbled in music, writing the score for his own autobiographical film. He was awarded the International Peace Prize. He served as a United Nations ambassador for ecology and the environment. In the 1990s, however, he became embroiled in internal squabbles within the Brazilian Football Confederation. He accused officials of corruption, alienating FIFA’s former president, Joao Havelange. Pele was barred from official functions at the 1994 World Cup in the United States because his son-in-law was president of the Brazilian leagues.
Havelange’s actions harmed his own ambitions, and Pele eventually regained his status at home and abroad.
Pele was the highest-paid soccer player in the world in his youth. He was married three times, had several affairs, and is the father of seven children. Pele received chemotherapy for colon cancer in 2021. His health reportedly deteriorated by late 2022, and he spent time in a hospital.
Pele loved to talk about almost anything, but he disliked discussing the mysterious origin of his nickname. His family referred to him as “Dico,” but this was changed to “Pele” when he was in school. According to one story, he mispronounced the name of a Vasco da Gama player named Bilé, and his classmates teased and labelled him for it.
Originally intended as an insult, Pele transformed it into something entirely different. It meant the soccer king in Brazil.