Pelé was a world icon and Brazil’s king of the ‘beautiful game’

SAO PAULO – Pelé was simply “the king”. In his 1958 World Cup debut for Brazil, he embraced “the beautiful game” of football and never really let it go.

He won a record three World Cups and was widely regarded as one of the greatest players in his sport. His majestic and electrifying presence made him one of the most recognizable personalities in the world.

Pele died Thursday at the age of 82. He has been in treatment for colon cancer since 2021.

Pelé was the game’s top scorer and spent almost two decades enchanting fans and impressing opponents. His grace, athleticism and movements on football’s highest stage captivated everyone. He orchestrated a fast, fluid style of play that revolutionized the sport – a flair that embodied Brazilian elegance on the pitch.

He led his country to the heights of football and became his sport’s global ambassador on a journey that began on the streets of Sao Paulo state, where he kicked a sock stuffed with newspapers or rags.

“Pele changed everything. He turned football into art and entertainment,” Neymar, a Brazilian soccer player, said on Instagram. “Football and Brazil have gained prestige thanks to the king! He’s gone, but his magic will remain. Pele is eternal!”

When talking about football’s greatest player, only the late Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned besides him.

Various sources counting various series of games list Pelé’s total goals anywhere between 650 (league games) and 1,281 (all senior games, some against low-level competition). When Maradona interviewed Pele once, he jokingly asked the Brazilian how he amassed so many goals.

The player who would be dubbed ‘The King’ was introduced to the world at the age of 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, becoming the youngest ever player at that tournament.

Pelé was the symbol of his country’s World Cup triumph in Mexico in 1970. He scored in the final and set up Carlos Alberto with a smooth pass to score the last goal in a 4-1 win over Italy.

The image of Pele in a bright yellow Brazil shirt with the number 10 on the back is alive with football fans everywhere. As does his trademark goal celebration – a right-fist leap high above his head.

Such was Pelé’s fame that in 1967 factions of a civil war in Nigeria agreed on a brief truce so he could play an exhibition match in the country. In 1997 he was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. When Pelé visited Washington to help popularize the game in North America, it was the US President who first shook his hand.

“You don’t have to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pele is,” said Ronald Reagan.

Pelé was Brazil’s first modern black national hero, but he rarely spoke about racism in a country where the rich and powerful tend to come from a white minority.

Opposing fans taunted Pelé with monkey chants at home and around the world.

“He said that he would never play if he had to stop every time he heard those chants,” said Angelica Bastihi, one of Pelé’s biographers. “He’s the key to black pride in Brazil, but he never wanted to be a flag-bearer.”

Pelé’s life after football took many forms. He was a politician – Brazil’s extraordinary sports minister – a wealthy businessman and ambassador to UNESCO and the United Nations.

He had roles in films, soap operas, and even composed songs and recorded CDs of popular Brazilian music.

Pelé was an ambassador for his sport until his last years, but as his health deteriorated, his trips and appearances became less frequent. After needing a hip replacement, he began using a cane.

In his final years he was often seen in a wheelchair and did not attend a ceremony unveiling a statue of him representing the 1970 Brazil World Cup team.

“He’s getting very shy, he’s very embarrassed,” his son Edinho told “He doesn’t want to go out.”

Pelé spent his 80th birthday with some relatives.

Pelé spent a month in hospital in 2021 after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor from his colon. Pelé said he was ready to “play 90 minutes plus overtime” but soon began chemotherapy.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940 in the small town of Tres Coracoes in the interior of Minas Gerais state, Pelé grew up wearing shiny shoes to buy his modest football gear. His father was also a player.

Pelé’s talent caught on when he was 11 and a local pro player took him to the Santos youth team. Despite his youth and five-foot-eight frame, Pelé’ scored against grown men with the same ease he displayed against friends back home. He made his debut for the Brazilian club in 1956 at the age of 16 and the club quickly gained worldwide recognition.

The name Pelé came from mispronouncing the name of a player named Bilé. He later became known simply as “O Rei” – The King.

Pelé competed as a reserve player at the 1958 World Cup but became a key figure for his country’s championship team. His first goal, in which he flicked the ball over a defender’s head and sped around to volley it home, was voted one of the best in World Cup history.

“When Pelé scored,” said veteran Sweden midfielder Sigge Parling, “I honestly have to say I wanted to applaud.”

The 1966 World Cup in England – won by the hosts – was a bitter one for Pelé, who was already considered the world’s best player at the time. Brazil were eliminated in the group stage and Pelé, furious at fouls and tough tackles from Portugal, swore it was his last World Cup.

He changed his mind and was rejuvenated at the 1970 World Cup. In a game against England, he scored a header for a certain number of points, but great goalkeeper Gordon Banks flicked the ball over the bar in an amazing move. Pelé likened the rescue – one of the best in World Cup history – to a “salmon climbing a waterfall”. He later scored the opening goal in the final against Italy, his last World Cup game.

In total, Pelé played 114 games with Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals – 77 of them in official matches. Most of his goals came from Santos, whom he led to five domestic titles, two Copa Libertadores trophies and two Club World Cups – all in the 1960s.

His run at Santos spanned three decades until his semi-retirement after the 1972 season. Wealthy European clubs tried to sign him, but the Brazilian government intervened to prevent his sale and declared him a national treasure.

On the field, Pelé’s energy, vision and imagination fueled a gifted Brazil national team, who used sophisticated passing combinations to sever defenses and allow players room to display their flashy skills.

The fast, fluid gameplay exemplifies “O Jogo Bonito” – Portuguese for “The Beautiful Game”. And at the center, like a maestro directing his orchestra, was Pele. It was his 1977 autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game, that put the phrase in the lexicon of football.

In 1975 he joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Though past his prime at 34, Pelé briefly raised football in North America before ending his career on October 1, 1977 in an exhibition between Cosmos and Santos. Among the dignitaries in attendance was perhaps the only other athlete whose fame spanned the globe – Muhammad Ali.

Pelé had two illegitimate daughters and five children from his first two marriages to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He later married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki.


AP writer Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Azzoni is based in Madrid.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Pelé was a world icon and Brazil’s king of the ‘beautiful game’

Sarah Y. Kim

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