Pele: The First Football Icon
Pele. Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Pele is a Brazilian former professional football (soccer) player, who is often widely regarded as the greatest football player of all time.
He was labeled The Greatest by FIFA, the highest governing body of association football.
Pele is one of the most successful, influential, and popular athletes of the 20th century.
Pele was born on 23rd October 1940 in Tres Coracoes, Minas Gerais, Brazil, to Dondinho and Celeste Arantes.
Dondinho, born Joao Ramos do Nascimento, was a football player who played for Fluminese as a center forward.
He was named Edson Arantes do Nascimento. His first name, Edson, was actually inspired by the American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison, but without the ‘i’. But due to some mistake in his birth certificate, many of his documents show his name as Edison instead of Edson.
The young Edson got his nickname Pele during his school days, although no one knew what it actually meant. Not even Pele himself. In his autobiography, Pele stated that he had no idea what the name meant, and neither did any of his old friends.
However, it is generally believed that he was given the nickname due to his pronunciation of the name of local club Vasco da Gama’s goalkeeper, Bile, who was his favorite player.
Growing Up in Poverty
Pele and his family lived in poverty in the municipality of Bauru in the state of Sao Paulo.
Pele was mentored and coached by his father in football from a very young age. As he and his friends could not afford a proper football, they mostly played with either a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with a string or a grapefruit.
Pele also worked in tea shops as a servant, in order to earn some extra money.
From a very young age, Pele began playing for several amateur teams in and around his locality.
He played for Sao Paulinho, Sete de Setembro, Ameriquinha, and Canto do Rio. He also led Bauru Athletic Club juniors to two Sao Paulo State Youth Championships.
In his mid-teens, Pele began playing for an indoor football (futsal) team called Radium. At the time, indoor football was just beginning to become popular in Bauru.
According to Pele, indoor football presented difficult challenges as it was a lot quicker than football on the grass, forcing the players to think faster and smarter as everyone was so close to each other on the pitch. This helped him to think better and faster on the spot.
Indoor football also allowed a then 14-year-old Pele to play with adults. He was part of the first futsal competition in the region, winning the first championship and many others thereafter.
In one of the tournaments, Pele was considered too young to play but eventually went on to become the top scorer of the tournament with 14 or 15 goals. He would later remark that this experience gave him a lot of confidence, making him realize that he should not be afraid of whatever might come his way.
Santos Football Club
In 1956, Pele’s coach at the Bauru Athletic Club, Waldermar de Brito, took a 15-year-old Pele to Santos to try out for the professional club Santos FC.
De Brito told the directors at Santos that Pele would become the greatest player in the world someday.
Pele’s trial took place at the Estadio Vila Belmiro, the home stadium of Santos FC, where he left a great impression on Santos coach Lula.
In June 1956, Pele signed a professional contract with Santos FC. He was promoted and advertised in the local media as a future superstar.
On 7th September 1956, Pele, aged 15, made his senior team debut against Corinthians Santo Andre. Santos won the match 7-1, with Pele scoring the first goal of his professional career during the game.
From the 1957 season onward, Pele, aged 16, was given a regular starting place in the first team. He went on to become the top scorer in the league.
On 7th July 1957, barely ten months after signing professionally for Santos, Pele was called to represent the Brazilian National Team against arch-rivals Argentina. Brazil ended up defeating Argentina 2-1, with Pele scoring his first goal for Brazil at just 16 years and 9 months of age.
Pele still remains the youngest goalscorer of the Brazilian National Team.
1958 World Cup
The 1958 FIFA World Cup was the 6th FIFA World Cup and was held in Sweden. It was the first World Cup to be played in a Nordic country.
Coming into the tournament, Pele was sidelined by a knee injury. But when he returned from the treatment room, his fellow players stood together and insisted upon his selection.
This would be Pele’s first World Cup, aged only 17, becoming the youngest player to participate in a World Cup.
In their first match of the tournament, Brazi beat Austria 3-0. And their second match against England ended in a 0-0 draw. Pele did not play in both of these games.
In their third match against the USSR, Pele made his World Cup debut. Brazil won the match 2-0, with Pele assisting in the second goal.
Brazil topped their group without conceding a single goal and advanced into the quarter-finals, where they faced and defeated Wales 1-0, with Pele scoring the only goal. He became the youngest goalscorer in World Cup history.
In the semi-finals, Brazil defeated France 5-2, with Pele scoring three goals for Brazil and taking them to the finals.
In the finals held on 29th June 1958 in Stockholm, Brazil defeated hosts Sweden 5-2, with another magnificent performance by the 17-year-old Pele, who scored two out of five goals for Brazil.
With 6 goals throughout the tournament, Pele finished as the second-highest scorer of the tournament along with Helmut Rahn of West Germany, behind France’s Just Fontaine who scored 13 goals.
But nevertheless, Pele was the star of the tournament.
This was Brazil’s first World Cup title ever and Pele became the youngest player to play and win in a World Cup final match at 17 years and 249 days.
Pele’s first goal in the finals where he flicked the ball over a defender before volleying it into the corner of the net, was selected as one of the best goals in World Cup history.
After the match ended, Pele passed out on the field and was revived by Garrincha. After he recovered, he began to cry out of happiness as he was being congratulated by his teammates.
Pele was named the best young player of the tournament. His brilliant performance instantly made him a world-famous athlete, a source of inspiration and hope to millions of unprivileged youth across the world.
First Major Title with Santos
In 1958, Santos won the Campeonato Paulista (the top-flight professional football league in Sao Paulo), giving Pele his first major title with the club.
Pele became the top scorer of the tournament with 58 goals, a record that stands to this day.
In 1959, Pele helped Santos win their first victory in the Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo (a tournament between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo teams), with a 3-0 victory over Vasco da Gama. But Santos failed to retain the Paulista title that year.
1959 South American Championship
The 1959 South American Championship was held in Argentina.
Fresh from their World Cup victory, Brazil entered the tournament as a favorite along with the host nation.
Brazil played their first match against Peru which ended in a 2-2 draw, with Pele scoring one goal for Brazil.
In their second match, Brazil beat Chile 3-0, with Pele scoring two goals.
In their third match, Brazil defeated Bolivia 4-2, with Pele scoring the first goal for Brazil.
In the fourth match, Brazil defeated Uruguay 3-1, with Paulo Valentim scoring all 3 goals for Brazil.
Their fifth match was against Paraguay, whom they defeated 4-1, with Pele scoring 3 goals.
Brazil played their last match against hosts Argentina, which ended in a 1-1 draw, with Pele scoring the lone goal for Brazil.
Argentina won the title as they topped the table with 5 wins, 1 draw, and no losses. Brazil finished a close second with 4 wins, 2 draws, and no losses.
Pele was named the top scorer of the tournament with 8 goals. He was also named the best player in the tournament.
Further Success with Santos
In the year 1960, Pele scored 47 goals to help Santos regain the Campeonato Paulista trophy.
But the club failed to win the Rio-Sao Paulo tournament, finishing in 8th place.
The same year, Santos went on to win the Taca Brasil (the Brazilian national football championship), after beating Bahia in the finals. With 9 goals to his name, Pele finished as the top scorer of the tournament.
Their victory in Taca Brasil allowed them to take part in the Copa Libertadores de America, which was the most prestigious club tournament in the western hemisphere.
In the year 1962, Santos had one of its most successful seasons. The club went on to win the Copa Libertadores, securing the first title for a Brazilian club. Pele finished as the second-top scorer of the tournament with four goals.
The club also defended the Campeonato Paulista (37 goals from Pele), the Taca Brasil (with Pele scoring four goals in the final series against Botafogo), and won the 1962 Intercontinental Cup against Benfica (with Pele scoring 3 goals in a 5-2 victory).
1962 World Cup
Coming into the 1962 World Cup in Chile, Pele was one of the most famous and highly-ranked players in the world.
Brazil was the favorite to win the title once again, having players like Pele and Garrincha in their ranks.
In Brazil’s first match against Mexico, Pele assisted in the first goal and then ran past four defenders to score the second one. Brazil won the match 2-0.
In the next match against Czechoslovakia, Pele injured himself while attempting a long-range shot. The injury ruled him out for the rest of the tournament.
But in spite of Pele’s absence, Brazil went on to win their second World Cup, with Garrincha taking the leading role, after defeating Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the finals in Santiago.
The 1963 season was another good season for Santos.
Having automatically qualified for the semi-finals as defending champions, Santos managed to retain the Copa Libertadores title after victories over Botafogo and Boca Juniors, with Pele again starring in the victories with a total of 5 goals.
Santos became the first and only Brazilian team to date to lift the Copa Libertadores on Argentine soil.
Although the club lost the Campeonato Paulista, finishing in 3rd place, they went on to win the Rio-Sao Paulo tournament with a 3-0 win over Flamengo in the final, with Pele scoring one goal.
Santos would also go on to retain the Intercontinental Cup, beating AC Milan, and the Taca Brasil, beating Bahia.
In 1964, Santos failed to win the Copa Libertadores but won the Campeonato Paulista (with Pele scoring 34 goals), the Rio-Sao Paulo title (which they shared with Botafogo), and the Taca Brasil.
In 1965, Santos again failed to win the Copa Libertadores (although Pele finished as the top scorer with 8 goals) and the Rio-Sao Paulo title.
In 1966, Santos failed to win the Taca Brasil after being defeated 9-4 by Cruzeiro in the final series.
In the years 1967, 1968, and 1969, Santos managed to win the Campeonato Paulista tournament.
On 19th November 1969, Pele scored his 1,000th goal in all competitions. The goal was a highly anticipated moment in Brazil and was dubbed O Milésimo (The Thousandth). It was scored in a match against Vasco da Gama at the Maracana Stadium, from a penalty kick.
1966 World Cup
Coming into the 1966 World Cup held in England, Pele was almost unanimously regarded as the greatest and most famous football player in the world.
Brazil was the favorite once again, boasting world champions like Pele, Garrincha, Djalma Santos, and Gilmar, and other stars like Tostao, Gerson, and Jairzinho.
But this time, Brazil’s World Cup campaign would end in disaster.
In their first match against Bulgaria, Pele was continuously fouled by the Bulgarian players. Pele still managed to score from a free-kick, but he was left injured. Brazil won the match 2-0.
Pele missed the second match against Hungary, in which Brazil lost 3-1.
And although Pele was still only recovering, he was brought back into the team for their deciding match against Portugal. During the match, Pele was brutally fouled by Portuguese defender Joao Monais, who was not even sent off in spite of the foul.
Pele had no choice but to remain on the field and continued to limp for the rest of the game as substitutes were not allowed at the time.
Brazil lost the match 3-1 and was eliminated from the World Cup, causing a major upset.
After the dreadful match against Portugal, Pele vowed to never play again in the World Cup, a decision he would later change.
Exhibition Game in Lagos
In 1969, Santos played an exhibition match with Lagos team Stationery Stores FC, in Lagos.
In order to watch Pele play, the two factions involved in the Nigerian Civil War agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire.
The match ended in a 2-2 draw, with Pele scoring both goals for Santos.
1970 World Cup
In preparation for the 1970 World Cup to be held in Mexico, Pele was called to represent the national team in early 1969. He refused at first. But then later accepted the call and played in six qualifying matches, scoring 6 goals.
The 1970 World Cup was believed to be Pele’s last World Cup. He was 30 years old.
Brazil’s squad for the tournament had undergone some major changes, with players like Garrincha, Djalma Santos, Valdir Pereira, and Gilmar retiring from the game. Instead, the team consisted of other talented players such as Rivelino, Gerson, Carlos Alberto Torres, Tostao, Jairzinho, and Clodoaldo.
In their first match, Brazil defeated Czechoslovakia 4-1, with Pele scoring Brazil’s second goal.
In their second match against England, Pele nearly scored a header that was saved by English goalkeeper Gordon Banks. Banks’ save is often referred to as the Save of the Century.
However, in the second half of the match, Pele controlled a cross from Tostao before flicking the ball to Jairzinho, who scored the goal. Brazil won the match 1-0.
In the third match, Brazil beat Romania 3-2, with Pele scoring two goals, including a 20-yard bending free-kick.
Brazil topped their group and advanced to the quarter-finals, where they met and defeated Peru with a score of 4-2, with Pele assisting Tostao for the third goal.
In the semi-finals, Brazil defeated Uruguay 3-1, with Pele assisting Rivelino in the third goal.
Brazil was once again in a World Cup final and was the favorite to win it.
Brazil faced Italy in the finals at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Pele scored the opening goal with a header after out-jumping Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich. The goal was Brazil’s 100th World Cup goal. Pele’s leap into the arms of Jairzinho while celebrating the goal is considered one of the most iconic moments in World Cup history.
Pele then went on to assist Jairzinho for the third goal and Carlos Alberto for the fourth goal, which is often regarded as the greatest team goal of all time, as it involved all but two of the team’s outfield players.
Brazil won the match 4-1, winning the World Cup for the third time. Pele was awarded the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament.
The 1970 Brazil World Cup team is often referred to as the greatest football team in history.
On 18th July 1971, Pele played his last international match against Yugoslavia in Rio de Janeiro.
After the 1974 season (his 19th season with Santos), Pele retired from Brazilian club football, although he continued to occasionally play for Santos in official competitive matches.
He had scored a total of 643 goals for Santos during his time at the club, which became a record for the most goals scored for a single club until Lionel Messi surpassed it for Barcelona in 2020.
In 1975, Pele came out of semi-retirement to sign with the New York Cosmos for the North American Soccer League (NASL) for the 1975 season.
Arriving in America
Pele arrived in America as a popular and much-admired figure.
People wanted to touch him, shake his hands, or get a photo with him. His arrival increased public awareness and interest in soccer in America.
During his first public appearance in Boston, he was injured by a frenzied crowd of fans who had surrounded him. He was eventually evacuated on a stretcher.
The New York Cosmos
On 15th June 1975, Pele made his debut for the New York Cosmos against the Dallas Tornado at Downing Stadium. The match ended in a 2-2 draw, with Pele scoring one goal.
He would go on to lead the Cosmos to the 1977 NASL Championship, in his third and final season at the club. He was 37 years old.
He finished his official playing career by leading the Cosmos to their first Soccer Bowl title with a 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders in Portland, Oregon.
Pele’s arrival in Cosmos resulted in the influx of other football stars in the league. Over the course of the next few years, players such as Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Eusebio, Bobby Moore, Johan Cruyff, Gordon Banks, and George Best joined the NASL.
Pele’s Last Match
On 1st October 1977, Pele played in an exhibition match between the Cosmos and Santos. It was his farewell match, the very last one of his illustrious career.
The match was held at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey to a sold-out crowd, which included Muhammad Ali and Bobby Moore. The match was televised throughout the world.
Before the match could begin, Pele delivered an important message to the crowd, saying that love was more important than what we can take in life.
He played the first half with the Cosmos and the second half with Santos. Cosmos won the match 2-1, with Pele scoring a 30-yard free-kick for the Cosmos. It was the last goal of his career.
It began raining in the second half of the match. The following day, a Brazilian newspaper came out with the headline, Even The Sky Was Crying.
Life After Football
Since his retirement from football, Pele has acted as an ambassador for football, sports, and other causes, advocating and promoting them across the world.
In 1992, he was appointed as a UN ambassador for ecology and the environment.
In 1994, he was appointed as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador.
In 1995, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso appointed him to the position of Extraordinary Minister for Sport. The same year, he was awarded Brazil’s Gold Medal for outstanding services to his sport.
During his time as the Extraordinary Minister for Sport, he proposed legislation to reduce corruption in Brazilian football, which came to be known as Pele Law.
In 1997, he received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.
He also went on to star in documentary films based on his life, and he made cameo appearances in a few films. He even composed music for the 1977 documentary on his life, along with Brazilian composer and arranger, Sergio Mendes. The album was his debut as a singer and songwriter.
In 2012, he received an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh for his significant contribution to humanitarianism and environmental causes, as well as for his sporting achievements.
On 29 December 2022, Pele, aged 82, died due to multiple organ failure, a complication of colon cancer.
Pele is widely regarded by critics, players, managers, and viewers alike as the greatest football player to have ever played the game.
He is often ranked and lauded as the best player in the history of football, commanding great respect and admiration among his colleagues and the subsequent generations of footballers as well.
Greats of the sport such as Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cryuff, Carlos Alberto, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Bobby Moore, Sir Bobby Charlton, Just Fontaine, Michel Platini, Romario, Jose Mourinho, Zico, Cristiano Ronaldo, and countless others have referred to Pele as the greatest of all time.
While presenting Pele with the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award, the great Nelson Mandela said, “To watch him play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full.”
Pele’s fame reached all corners of the world, such that in countries like Nigeria and Lebanon, the warring factions of the civil war called for a ceasefire just to watch him play in their country.
He was popular in every country he visited. In some countries, they wished to touch him. in some they wished to kiss him and in some, they even kissed the ground he walked on.
Pele has done more for football than perhaps any other player in history. The worldwide popularity that the sport now enjoys can be directly traced back to Pele’s popularity and influence across the world.
He is the reason why football came to be known as The Beautiful Game.
Pele’s playing style had everything, flair, accuracy, power, technique, speed, creativity, skills, and stamina. He was also known for his charismatic leadership and sportsmanship on the field.
He has been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades and holds many records to date.
In 2000, he was declared the World Player of the Century and the South American Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS). The same year, Pele and Maradona were named FIFA Player of the Century by FIFA, and Pele was awarded the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award.
He holds various records, such as the most career goals in world football with 1283 goals, most goals for the Brazilian national team with 77 goals, most goals for Santos with 643 goals, most hat-tricks in world football with 92 goals, most FIFA World Cup winners’ medal with 3 medals, and many others.
Pele’s influence in the world of football and sports, in general, will continue to live on for centuries. His greatness and stature remain unparalleled, inspiring athletes from different sports across the world.
He is an icon and legend of the 20th century and a giant of a human being.