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Why Pelé is a football legend

BY Kate Beeden

10th Jan 2023 Sport

Why Pelé is a football legend

The life and legacy of the Brazilian football hero who died in late December

The sporting world loves superlatives. “Legend”, “hero” and “genius” are commonplace in footballing circles with “the goat’ (greatest of all time) a recent addition to the proverbial football dictionary.

By definition there can only be one greatest, an accolade many attribute to Pelé, who died on December 29, aged 82.

A photo of the Brazilian football legend Pele from the 1990s
Pelé's legacy will live on. Photo credit: John Mathew Smith

The early years

Born in Tres Coracoes, Brazil on October 23, 1940, Edson Arantes do Nascimento was given the nickname Pelé at school and, in the way of all the best nicknames, it stuck. His father Dondinho played professionally for Fluminense and encouraged Pelé’s love of football, but no one could have predicted the impact Pelé would have on the sport.

No footballs, No problem

Pelé grew up in poverty and, without access to a ball, used a grapefruit to practice. He played for local amateur teams throughout his youth as well as embracing the newly popular offshoot of outdoor football—futsal. The fast pace of the indoor game gave Pelé the opportunity to develop his skills and playing against men taught him the importance of physical strength.

Game changer

A 17-year-old Pelé playing for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup final against hosts Sweden

Pelé signed professional papers in 1956, joining top-flight Brazilian side Santos FC. His impact was immediate, scoring on his debut in a 7-1 thrashing of Sport Club Corinthians Paulista. By the following season he was the league’s top scorer and called up to the Brazilian national team.

"In 1958 he became the youngest player to take part in, score in and win the World Cup final, earning the nickname O Rei ('The King')"

In 1958 he secured his first domestic honour as Santos won the Campeonato Paulista. Pelé’s influence was undeniable—he scored 58 goals on the way to the title—a record that remains unbeaten.

In the same year Pelé made his World Cup debut, and the 17-year-old was instrumental in leading Brazil to the trophy. He scored a semi-final hattrick and a goal against hosts Sweden in the final, making him the youngest player to take part in, score in and win the final. It also earned him a second nickname, O Rei (“The King”).

A one-club man… almost

Pele shirtless and being lifted up as he celebrates Brazil's 1970 World Cup winCelebrating winning his third World Cup with Brazil in 1970

Pelé’s Brazil continued to dominate world football at the 1962 tournament in Chile, beating Czechoslovakia 3-1 to retain the Jules Rimet trophy. Talks of Pele leaving his club Santos to join European powerhouses, such as Manchester United and Juventus, followed. Transfers to Inter Milan and Valencia came close to crossing the line, but the moves never happened. South America kept their king and, on November 19, 1969, Pelé scored his 1,000th goal in all competitions—a penalty against Vasco da Gama at the famous Maracanã Stadium.

"Pelé's tricky footwork, close control and two-footed shooting ability wouldn’t look out of place in the modern game"

Despite Brazil going on to win a third World Cup in 1970, with Pelé scoring the opening goal in the final against Italy, he remained at Santos for 19 seasons, retiring from Brazilian club football in 1974. The following year he signed for North American Soccer League side New York Cosmos and raised the profile of the game within the United States. Fans gravitated to Pelé and, in his first public appearance in Boston, a swarm of fans took to the pitch when he scored, causing injury and necessitating him being carried from the field of play on a stretcher.

Pele wearing Brazil kit in 1970 for the World Cup
Pelé in 1970 when the Brazil team was one of the best ever

Retirement from football

Pelé’s last professional match took place in August 1977, as the Cosmos beat Seattle Sounders 3-2 to win their second Soccer Bowl. An exhibition match between his two club sides at Giants Stadium, New Jersey followed in October 1977, with Pelé playing a half for each side and scoring his last goal, a free kick for Cosmos, from thirty yards.

Following his retirement from football, Pelé dedicated his life to ambassadorial work, being appointed UN ambassador for ecology and the environment in 1992 and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 1994. University of Edinburgh awarded him an honorary degree for his contribution to humanitarian and environmental causes, as well as his sporting achievements, and an honorary knighthood followed, with Queen Elizabeth II bestowing the honour in 1997.

Pelé’s legacy

Pelé’s influence on the football world is undeniable. In many ways he was ahead of his time. Following his death, a video showing Pele doing “Cruyff turns” and rabonas went viral on Twitter, demonstrating his tricky footwork, close control and two-footed shooting ability that wouldn’t look out of place in the modern game.

"He remains the only player to have won three World Cups and his stats show he almost reached a goal per game"

He is also credited with popularising the phrase “the beautiful game” to describe football, following the release of his autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game. He encouraged footballing greats, including Eusebio, Johan Cruyff, Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best, to play in North America—an instrumental factor in the growth of football on a global scale.

He remains the only player to have won three World Cups and his stats show he almost reached a goal per game, scoring 1,279 in 1,363 appearances.

Rest in peace, Pelé.

A legend, a hero, a genius. The greatest of all time.

You can find out even more on the iconic footballer in 'Pele: The Autobiography', on paperback, Kindle or audiobook today.

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