Soccer Great Pelé Put the ‘Beautiful’ in ‘Beautiful Game’
Pelé, the Brazilian footballer whose talent and achievements were so legendary that they earned him the nickname “The King,” died on Thursday at the age of 82, his agent Joe Fraga confirmed. While a cause of death was not announced, the football legend had been hospitalized earlier this month for various ailments, including a respiratory infection, after battling colon cancer since 2021.
For the world of sports, and for pop culture, it’s an almost incalculable loss, since Pelé was a true icon, famed for his athletic prowess and beloved for his magnetic personality, both of which made him football’s first modern superstar.
Over the course of a three-decade career, Pelé won a record three World Cups for his native Brazil, along the way scoring 1,279 goals in 1,363 games—the latter a Guinness World Record.
When his tenure in his homeland had run its course, he joined the New York Cosmos as a de facto emissary for football in the United States, and in 2000, FIFA named him co-Player of the Century (an honor he shared with Argentina’s Diego Maradona).
With a beaming smile and infectious, outgoing personality, he was a ubiquitous pitchman for a variety of products during the nascent days of TV, which allowed him to become football’s first millionaire.
Pelé was the Babe Ruth of football, a truly transformative presence who altered the sports landscape through unparalleled skill, grace, and charisma.
Netflix’s ‘Pelé’ Reveals the Football God’s True Colors
Pelé’s international appeal was rooted in his life’s something-from-nothing trajectory.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940 (he was reportedly named after Thomas Edison), he developed a love of football from his father João Ramos do Nascimento, a semi-pro player known by the nickname “Dondinho.”
His father was never able to make it in the big leagues, and when he suffered a serious injury, Pelé took it upon himself to help financially support his clan by shining shoes. It wasn’t long, however, before the boy’s gifts were impossible to ignore.
In 1956, the 15-year-old Pelé was brought by his mentor (and former football star) Waldemar de Brito to Santos, where he aced a tryout and earned an immediate spot on the professional squad. He scored his first goal before turning 16, and in his initial full season, he led the club in goals.
The origins of Pelé’s nickname were forever in dispute (some claimed it was the byproduct of his childhood mispronunciation of a favorite local player), and Pelé himself claimed to not know its true meaning. What was clear, however, was Pelé’s remarkable fluidity on the pitch, his speed and quickness amplifying his peerless ball-handling abilities.
At 16, he was recruited for the national team, and he made his international debut in the 1958 World Cup, which proved to be a triumph. At the age of just 17, he scored three goals against France in a semi-final win, and then added two more goals in the finals against host country Sweden.
Having lost to Sweden in the 1950 competition, the victory meant everything to Brazil, and made Pelé an instant celebrity, as well as putting the country on the map as a football powerhouse.
As a prodigy with few equals, the young Pelé was subsequently inundated with offers to jump ship from Santos to a variety of European clubs. In response to this attempted poaching, Brazilian President Jânio Quadros took the amazing (and shrewd) step of declaring the athlete an official national treasure, thus making any potential departure legally tricky. Pelé, however, never exhibited a serious interest in departing Brazil, and though he was sidelined for much of the 1962 World Cup due to a thigh injury, Brazil secured its second straight tournament title, further enhancing his illustrious status.
Pelé’s goal-scoring feats were outright awe-inspiring—in the span of just four years (1957-1961), he scored a whopping 355 goals—and because live TV was just coming into its own, his greatness was routinely witnessed by his countrymen.
His ascension to the top of the global sports mountain seemed not only warranted, but unstoppable, which is why it came as a shock when the Pelé-led national team faltered in its quest for a third straight championship at the 1966 World Cup.
Unwilling to simply allow Pelé and his teammates to operate freely against them, European clubs adopted a rough-and-tumble defensive strategy against the superstar—a tack that rattled Pelé, and would later be adopted, in somewhat altered form, by the NBA’s Detroit Pistons in their 1980s quest to slow down another explosive phenom: Michael Jordan.
The 1966 World Cup defeat seemed like not only an end to Brazil’s good football times, but an extension of the country’s political turmoil, which had begun in 1964 with the military coup that overthrew the administration of President João Goulart.
In an era in which Muhammad Ali was sacrificing his world boxing titles in America to boldly protest his drafting into the Vietnam War, Pelé remained notably silent about his homeland’s transition to brutal authoritarianism—and, in fact, was cordial with the despots (including, most notably, General Emílio Garrastazu Médici) who sought to exploit his accomplishments for their own autocracy-validating gain.
Some critics decried Pelé for his apoliticism (another trait that aligned him with Michael Jordan), but the footballer defended his actions to his death, stating in 2021’s docu-biography Pelé, “My door was always open. Everyone knows this. And that includes when things were really bad.”
While it wouldn’t reverse Brazil’s political fortunes, Pelé attained competitive redemption in 1970 when, at 29-years-old, he helped power an underdog Brazilian team to yet another World Cup trophy.
The embodiment of Brazil’s resolve, and sense of self-worth, Pelé thus became a borderline-mythic figure, and when his playing days ended with both the national team and Santos—he retired in 1974—he leveraged his prominence into a then-lucrative three-year, $2.8 million contract with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League.
At 34, Pelé wasn’t his former self, but he nonetheless notched 37 goals and 30 assists during his Big Apple career, along with the 1976 MVP award and a 1977 Soccer Bowl title.
Having thrived as a global ambassador for the game, Pelé hung up his cleats after that victorious 1977 campaign. Nonetheless, he remained in the spotlight for decades. He was awarded the International Peace Award in 1978, and in 1994, he was appointed as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Brazil made him its Extraordinary Minister for Sport in 1995, and in 1997, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
He was married four times—to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi (1966-1982), Xuxa (1981-1986), Assíria Lemos Seixas (1994-2008), and Marcia Aoiki (2016-2022)—and had seven children.
Even in retirement, Pelé’s legacy remained firmly intact as arguably the finest practitioner ever of the “beautiful game.” In 1980, the daily French sports newspaper L'Équipe named him Athlete of the Century, as did the International Olympic Committee in 1999. Time magazine included him on its list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
His name became synonymous with not just the sport he loved, but with athletic greatness, and the charm and warmth he showed both on and off the field. Few did it better, or with more infectious joy.
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