Brazilian legend Pele in 1970. Getty Images / 1970
Obituary

Pele Sunlight, samba and a style that made Brazilian football shine

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No one did more to create the illusion that Brazilian football exists in a permanent summer of beauty than Pele. He popularised the phrase "the beautiful game" and was the embodiment of that idea at a time when brute force and cynicism limited the potential for expressions of skill in the sport.

He was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Tres Coracoes, some 350 kilometres north-west of Rio de Janeiro, in 1940 and his father had a brief professional career. Young Edson acquired his nickname at school because he mispronounced the moniker of his favourite player, a goalkeeper called Bile.

At first, he hated it and punched a classmate who used it, an act that earned him a suspension from school. He was never entirely comfortable with what became one of the most recognisable names in the world.

“Over the years I’ve learnt to live with two persons in my heart,” he said. “One is Edson, who has fun with his friends and family. The other is the football player Pele. I didn’t want the name. Pele sounds like baby talk in Portuguese.”

He grew up in Bauru in Sao Paulo state and shined shoes to contribute to his struggling family’s funds. Footwork of a different sort caught the eye of Waldemar de Brito, a coach who had played for the national team. De Brito took the 15-year-old to Santos, the eponymous club of the port city an hour’s drive from Sao Paulo. The precipitous path to stardom started in the docklands of the Atlantic coast.

Pele scored on his debut for Santos. Within a year of signing professionally he was called up to the national side — known as A Selecao — and opened his international career with a goal in a 2-1 defeat by Argentina. He remains Brazil’s youngest goalscorer at 16 years and nine months, a record that is unlikely to be broken.

As a 17-year-old, he started the 1958 World Cup in Sweden on the bench. Three weeks after scoring twice in the final in the 5-2 victory over the host nation, he was a global sensation. In a team full of exceptionally talented players, he stood out for his youth, verve and killer instinct. His second goal involved chipping the ball over a defender’s head and collecting it on the other side before shooting, a stunning piece of bravura technique.

Something else stood out: Pele was obviously black. Both of Uruguay’s World Cup-winning sides of 1930 and 1950 featured a black player but top-class football was overwhelmingly white. The new Brazil featured three men with obvious African heritage and another two from mixed-race backgrounds. Pele was at the forefront of a new, multiracial age.

His fame spread over the next four years. After leading Santos to the Copa Libertadores — South America’s biggest prize — he scored a hat-trick against Benfica in Lisbon as the Brazilian side won the 1962 Intercontinental Cup. Pele was the face of his nation and a national treasure. Literally.

In 1961 the government awarded him the designation. It was not as much of an honour as it seems. The official edict meant that he could not leave the country to sign for a foreign club. The authorities were delighted when Pele took his prestigious — and lucrative — presence around the world as long as he came back home.

Santos made the most of it, organising numerous international friendlies. For the right price they guaranteed that Pele would play. The workload was extreme, so was the pressure.

Scroll through the gallery below for highlights of Pele's remarkable career

It began to tell. Pele missed most of Brazil’s defence of the World Cup in Chile in 1962 after picking up an injury in the second group game. The downside of his fame was that opponents knew who to target.

He was hacked out of the 1966 tournament in England by Portugal and the South Americans failed in their bid to win three global titles in a row. The experience soured Pele.

“I went away from that World Cup determined never to play for A Selecao again,” he said. “The only reason I decided to play in 1970 was because I was in great form with Santos. The scars of ’66 were still there though.”

Few would have known. Mexico was the first World Cup to be broadcast in colour and Brazil burst out of the television screens in all their vivid glory. Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao and Rivelino could all have been the focal point of a great team but they deferred to Pele. With good reason.

At 29, "O Rei" was at his peak. He collected the golden boot after scoring four goals — including the first in the 4-1 victory over Italy in the final — and became the only player to win three World Cups. His performance was sumptuous and the images from Mexico remain the most famous of his career: his grace, power and technique elevated him above all other players that had gone before.

A forlorn Tarcisio Burgnich, the hard man who marked Pele in the final, summed him up. “I told myself before the game: ‘He’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else’,” the mean-eyed Italian said. “But I was wrong.”

It was his last World Cup and his career seemed to be winding down in the 1970s. Over the years he had played friendlies across the globe in many of football’s backwaters with Santos — there are dubious claims that civil wars in Nigeria and Gabon were paused so that both sides could watch Pele. He would continue to be the game’s missionary in the most unlikely place of all: the USA.

In 1975 he joined the New York Cosmos in America’s fledgling league. The Big Apple succumbed to his celebrity and photographs of the great man at the legendary Studio 54 nightclub underlined his status.

Mick Jagger, Elton John, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Redford, Henry Kissinger and many other household names were in thrall to Brazil’s greatest export and paid court pitchside and at his table in the disco.

America, the "soccer"-resistant nation, succumbed to Pele. His final game was Cosmos against Santos in 1977 — he played a half for both sides — and it produced a record attendance at the Meadowlands Stadium. Even Muhammad Ali turned up to pay homage.

His post-football life was no less manic. He starred in films — most notably 1981’s Escape to Victory with Michael Caine — became a sports minister in Brazil, a Unicef ambassador and advertised Viagra. Accolades flowed and world leaders queued up to meet him — from popes to presidents.

There was scandal, too, when he was accused of misappropriating money from Unicef. A spat over television-rights finances in Brazil led to him being barred from the 1994 World Cup draw.

He married three times and produced children in and out of wedlock. Nothing tarnished his image or affected the esteem with which public held him.

Only Diego Maradona and George Best inhabit the same bracket in the game’s pantheon — with today's Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo likely to join them once they hang up their boots. Pele was football’s first global superstar. His name will always evoke sunlight, samba and style.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento made the sport beautiful. It may never be as bright again as in those summer days of 1970 when Pele ruled the world.

Updated: December 30, 2022, 4:32 AM
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