Edson Arantes do Nascimento remembers exactly when he first saw his father cry. It was 1950 and Brazil, taking part in the FIFA World Cup for the first time, had just been beaten by Uruguay.
“My father cried with many Brazilians”, remembers the one better known under the name of Pelé. “My father used to say that men must be strong. Men don’t cry. Then I saw my father crying when Brazil lost the match.
“So I said to him, ‘Father, don’t worry. I will win a World Cup for you. … [Six] years later I was in Sweden with Brazil and Brazil won the World Cup. I was 17. It was a gift from God. I don’t know why I said it, why I promised my father.
Pelé, the Brazilian soccer star who led his country’s national team to that World Cup victory in 1956 and who in the 1960s and 1970s rivaled Muhammad Ali as the most popular athlete and the most recognizable in the world, died Thursday in a hospital in Sao Paulo. He was 82 and had been in poor health for several years as he battled cancer and what the hospital described in a statement this week as “kidney and heart dysfunction”.
Pele, whose attendance for an exhibition match in Nigeria in 1969 led to a two-day ceasefire in that country’s bitter civil war so that both sides could see him play, became the only player to win three World Cups when Brazil won again in 1962 and 1970, more than keeping his naive, boyish promise to his father.
Pelé played for Santos, a club in his native country, and during his career resisted numerous offers to play in Europe, citing his loyalty to Brazil. He had planned to retire after playing his last game for Santos in 1974. But he was deeply in debt, and at the age of 35 he agreed to a $7 million deal to play the final three seasons of his professional career with the New York. Cosmos of the North American Soccer League.
With Pelé as its main attraction, the Cosmos regularly filled the Giants’ 80,000-seat stadium to near capacity and its league-wide presence helped boost average attendance by nearly 80% between 1975 (7,597) and 1977 (13,584).
Through the strength of his skills and personality, Pelé is credited with sparking the slow but steady growth of football – “the beautiful game”, as he called it – in the United States.
“It was really ridiculous to think that Pelé, the greatest player of all, would end up playing for this ridiculous little team in New York attracting 1,500 people,” said Clive Toye, the general manager of Cosmos. “But I told him don’t go to Italy, don’t go to Spain, all you can do is win a championship. Come to the United States and you can win a country.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born on October 23, 1940, to Dondinho and Dona Celeste in the poor city of Tres Coracoes in southeastern Brazil. His father was a local football player and young Edson – first nicknamed Dico – started playing futbol with a crumpled up wad of newspapers inside a sock.
Soon he was better at the game than all the other kids in the neighborhood and they gave him the nickname Pelé for reasons that remain unclear since the word meant nothing in his native Portuguese. Thinking it was an insult, Pelé initially didn’t like the name, but he stuck.
He started to make a name for himself with Bauru Athletic Club where he was noticed by Valdemar de Brito, a former World Cup player, who pointed him out to Santos, a team at the local club. In his first full season, Pelé scored a league-leading 32 goals and it was not long before he was selected for Brazil’s 1958 World Cup squad. He was 17 years old.
Pele missed the first two games of the tournament in Sweden with a knee injury but came back to score the winning goal in the quarter-finals. He added a semi-final hat-trick and two goals in Brazil’s 5-2 final victory over the hosts.
The heroism of the prodigy coincided with the first international telecast of the World Cup. Pelé has become a household name around the world.
Brazil would win the World Cup again in 1962 and, after the defending champions suffered a devastating defeat in group play and were knocked out in the 1966 Cup in England, Pelé, although still at his heyday, announced that he had played his last World Cup. .
“I was really torn,” Pelé said in a 2021 documentary. “I didn’t want to play the 1970 World Cup. I didn’t want to repeat what happened in England.
This stance did not sit well with his compatriots or Brazilian President Emilio Medici and word made its way to Pelé that he might want to reconsider. The country had been in a state of upheaval for many years and the ruthless Medici, one of the many despots who controlled the country from 1964 to 1978, was known to imprison and/or torture anyone who came across him. It would be better for everyone if Pelé put on his cleats once again for the homeland.
Pelé, who considered himself politically neutral, had already been criticized for a previous meeting with Medici.
“I don’t think I could have done anything different,” he said in the documentary. “It was not possible. … I am brasilian. I want what is best for my country. I am not Superman. I don’t do miracles.
“I was just a normal person who was given the gift of being a futbol player. But I’m absolutely certain that I’ve done a lot more for Brazil through football in my own way than a lot of politicians who get paid. to do it.
So Pele, now 29, played in 1970 Mexico and Brazil beat Italy, 4-1, in the final, with Pele scoring the game’s first goal.
“The 1970 World Cup was the best time of my life, but I think it was more important for the nation,” Pele said. “Because if Brazil had lost in Mexico, things would have gotten worse. Brazil’s victory gave the whole country a moment to breathe. The 1970 World Cup was for the nation, not for the sport.”
Pelé would sign with the Cosmos in 1975, bringing some credibility to the 7-year-old league. At the time, his three-year, $7 million contract made him the highest-paid team athlete in the world. He had retired from football the previous year and his decision to return to the field in the United States upset his countrymen as he had insisted never to play again and missed the 1974 World Cup.
He retired – this time for good – after leading the Cosmos to the 1977 NASL Championship, although he returned for an exhibition match later that year against Santos, his former club side. Pelé played the first half of this game for Cosmos and the second half for Santos. He ended his career with 1,283 goals in 1,367 games.
Pele, who held the title of Brazilian Minister of Sports, spent many years after his retirement serving as an ambassador for the game he loved, his worldwide fame continuing long after he played his last game.
A journalist once asked Pelé if his fame was comparable to that of Jesus Christ.
“There are parts of the world where Jesus Christ is not so well known,” Pele said.