He was born as Edson Arantes do Nascimento on Oct. 23, 1940, but came to be known by a single word recognized around the world — Pelé.
Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, winner of a record three World Cups, died Thursday at the age of 82 at Albert Einstein hospital in Sao Paulo, where he had been since the end of November.
His agent, Joe Fraga, confirmed his death to the Associated Press, and his daughter Kely Nascimento wrote on Instagram: “We love you endlessly. Rest in peace.”
Pelé was hospitalized on Nov. 29 to treat a respiratory infection that was aggravated by COVID-19. The soccer legend had also been undergoing treatment after having a colon tumor removed in September 2021. Medical officials said he died of multiple organ failure as a result of the cancer, according to the Associated Press.
The Brazilian will forever be synonymous with greatness. He won three World Cups, is one of the greatest goal-scorers of all time and was jointly named FIFA’s player of the 20th century, along with Maradona, during a glittering, 22-year career that ensured his wide consideration as the finest to ever play the game.
Yet Pelé’s time in the sport cannot be summed up by statistics, accolades or trophies. Quite simply, he transcended soccer, becoming its first truly global superstar, with a level of fame that remained nearly as strong 40 years after his retirement as it was during his playing pomp.
“Pelé changed everything. He transformed football into art, entertainment,” Brazilian star Neymar said on Instagram. “Football and Brazil elevated their standing thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will endure. Pelé is eternal!”
Beloved for his cheery nature and for bringing a level of playful delight to the beautiful game, his silky skills and an inherent creative streak helped soccer emerge from a rather dour period in which defensiveness and tactical stifling had become the norm.
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Modern greats such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the spiritual and philosophical descendants of Pelé, who had the ever-present willingness to try the audacious, and had the raw ability to make it work. He showed the magic of flashing footwork and exquisite ball control, that technique could trump brute force, that delicate movement and inspired thought was the game’s most dangerous yet picturesque weapon.
Pelé, a World Cup sensation
A worldwide audience got its first glimpse of Pelé during the 1958 World Cup, at the age of 17. After senior members of the Brazil team applied pressure to the coaching staff, Pelé was brought onto the team for the latter stages of the tournament, and dominated.
His performance in the final was spectacular, scoring twice during a 5-2 victory over host nation Sweden, including a flick over a defender followed by a powerful volley that remains one of the finest goals in World Cup history. It was impudent, mischievous, perfect and helped clinch the title for Brazil — the only time a South American team has won a World Cup staged in Europe.
The world was duly alerted and international defenses quickly realized the only way to stop Pelé was to kick him. Soccer back then offered far less protection for skilled players, and as the most destructive attacker in the world, he was the most obvious target.
His next two World Cup campaigns were ruined by injury. Brazil managed to defend its title in 1962 despite him playing a limited role, but they were bounced out in the group stage in 1966, with Pelé again hampered by physical ailments.
He arguably saved his best for last on the biggest stage of all. Brazil’s performance in winning the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was perhaps history’s greatest, a brilliant team led by the biggest star on the planet.
Pelé was 29 years old and starting to decline physically, but that did not prevent him from destroying the competition. Brazil won each of its six games, capped by a 4-1 demolition of Italy in the final.
How many goals did Pelé score?
The number of goals scored during his career varies depending on the source, Pelé counted 1,283 goals for all matches played, official and unofficial. The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as the world’s most prolific scorer with 1,279 goals. That includes being the all-time leading scorer for Brazilian club Santos with 643 goals in official matches, according to the club, and 77 international goals — tied with Neymar — according to FIFA.
Despite attempts by big European clubs to sign him, Pelé spent virtually his entire career with Santos, in part because he had been listed as a “national treasure” by the nation’s politicians, meaning he could not be sold abroad.
In his soccer twilight however, he was lured to play with the New York Cosmos in the fledgling North American Soccer League, spending three seasons in the Big Apple and often playing in front of packed crowds at the Meadowlands.
For a time, along with other imports, such as Giorgio Chinaglia, he helped turn the Cosmos into the hottest ticket in New York, before American soccer’s first boom fizzled out into nothing more than bankruptcy.
Pelé’s legacy is part of soccer history
In later life, Pelé became a businessman and a spokesman for a variety of companies, leveraging his celebrity status into an ongoing stream of earnings.
Some in his homeland found the constant touting of one of Brazil’s most beloved sons for a swath of commercial causes to be somewhat unedifying, but if nothing else, the endorsements kept him in the public eye into his 70s, long after he had hung up his cleats.
Those who met Pelé routinely found two surprises. One was the true and genuine warmth of his nature. The other was his relatively slight stature, at 5-foot-8 and not overly muscular.
Because in soccer he will be immortally remembered as a giant, in terms of personality, ability and impact on his sport’s history.
The legend of Pelé is one of soccer’s eternal stories.