Ask football fans to name the best ever footballer, and chances are they will come up with the name Pelé, even if they are too young to have ever seen him play. It speaks volumes about the strength of the legend that has sprung up around the famous Brazilian forward. Does that mean the choice is unfounded? Not really. With three World Cups to his name, and a total career tally of more than twelve hundred goals, there can be no doubting Pelé’s pedigree.

Pelé (2) was born under the name Edson Arantes do Nascimento in the village Três Corações, the son of a footballer known as Dondinho, who’s career was thwarted by a bad knee. He grew up in poverty in the town of Bauru in the province of São Paulo. As a boy Pelé helped alleviate the family’s financials woes by cleaning shoes at the local train station.(3) He started playing football in the streets, using a stocking stuffed with rags and paper as a ball. In 1954 Pelé was picked to play in the newly founded youth team of the club his father had played for, Bauru Athletic Club. Things were handled professionally, Pelé received a playing fee and the team was coached by the former Brazilian international Waldemar de Brito, who played for Brazil during the 1934 World Cup.(4)

Pele going past an opponent during the 1958 World Cup
Pelé going past an opponent during the 1958 World Cup

In school Pelé performed abysmally, and was held back three times, but on the football field his star was rising. It wasn’t long before clubs started to show an interest in the talented young striker. Following the advice of Waldemar de Brito, Pelé opted to join Santos CF, a successful football club from the coastal town of the same name. Santos played in the Paulista, the league centred around São Paulo. Pelé played his first official for Santos at the age of sixteen.(5) That year he immediately made his mark, scoring 36 goals in 29 matches. The next season Pelé was even more impressive, scoring 58 goals in 38 matches.

His overwhelming debut as a professional footballer quickly resulted in a place in the Brazilian national team and a spot in the seleção for the 1958 World Cup. A knee injury prevented him form participating in the first two games of the tournament, but in the final match of the group stage, against the Soviet Union, Pelé made his World Cup debut. He failed to score a goal in that game, but in the matches that followed the young forward asserted himself. He scored the only goal in the quarter final match against Wales, a hat-trick in the semi final against France, and two more goals in the final against Sweden. Aged seventeen, he was (and is) the youngest World Cup winner in history.

Pele in action for the Yellow Canaries
Pelé in action for the Yellow Canaries

Pelé was quick, strong, a good header and dribbler of the ball, but above all, he possessed a powerful and accurate strike in both legs. The avalanche of goals he produced for Santos, where he teamed up with fellow internationals like Zito and Carlos Alberto, helped the club win a string of trophies. They won the Brazilian national championship, the Taça Brasil, five times in a row, from 1961 to 1965. In 1962 and 1963 the club won the Copa Libertadores, followed both times by victory in the Intercontinental Cup, beating Eusebio’s Benfica and Gianni Rivera’s AC Milan respectively.

There was little joy for Pelé at World Cups in the 1960’s. In 1962 he was injured out of the tournament early on, and had to watch as a spectator how his team-mates successfully defended their title, with Garincha playing the starring role in his absence. In 1966 the World Cup ended in a bitter disappointment, as the reigning champions crashed out in the group stage of the tournament. Bitterly disappointed, Pelé decided to end his international career. His retirement from the intentional stage would last for two years, but as the 1970 Wold Cup drew nearer, Pelé, who scored his thousandth goal as a footballer in 1969(6), changed his mind and returned to the seleção.(7)

Pele as a football ambassador in the USA
Pele as a football ambassador in the USA

He would not live to regret his decision. The 1970 Brazilian national team is regarded by many as the best ever national team. Playing a swinging and attack-minded form of samba-football, they captured Brazil’s third World Cup. Starring roles were played by the likes of Carlos Alberto, Gerson, Jairzinho, Tostão, Rivelino, and of course Pelé. In the final of the tournament Italy were hopelessly outclassed and had to concede four goals, in spite of their defensive approach to the game. The emphatic 1970 World Cup triumph gave Pelé to end his international career on a high note. He played his last game for Brazil in the summer of 1971, against Yugoslavia in Rio’s Maracanã stadium.

In 1974, at the age of 34 years old, Pelé decided that the time had come to hang up his boots all together. But his retirement from football would prove to be short lived. A year later Pelé, motivated in part by financial problems he found himself in at the time, decided to come out of retirement. He accepted an offer to join New York Cosmos, one of the clubs that formed the famous North American Soccer League.(8) In the NASL Pelé earned a salary that could only have dreamed about during his years with Santos. He repaid the league by playing the role of goodwill ambassador for football in the United States to perfection.

On October 1st, 1977, in front of a 75,000 strong crowd (9), Pelé played his last match, a game between New York Cosmos and Santos, with the great man playing a half for each team. This time his retirement as a player would prove permanent. New York Cosmos had won the NASL that year, so that ‘O Rei’ could leave the club scene just as he had left the international scene, with his head held high. It was the end of a career that, if friendlies are included, saw him score 1283 goals in 1367 matches.(10) After his retirement Pelé has continued playing the role of goodwill ambassador for football. He was also Brazilian minister for Sport for a while.

#01: In the Brazilian birth register, Pelé’s date of birth is October 21, 1940. His given name is listed as Edison. Both are the result of sloppiness by the civil servant involved, according to Pelé. Pelé, My Live (Dutch Translation: Amsterdam 2006), 10-12.
#02: There is much discussion about the origin and meaning of the name Pelé. The word has no obvious meaning. According to Pelé, he picked it up as a result of him mispronouncing, as a child, the name of a goalkeeper called Bilé, whom he admired and often imitated. His family nicknamed him Dico as child. Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 33-35.
Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 9-17.
Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 41-43.
Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 45-48.
#06 Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 130-134.
#07 Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 135-136.
#08 Pelé found himself on the brink of bankruptcy after having lost the money he had earned as a player due to bad investments, a fate that had befallen him once before in the 1960’s. Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 111-112 en 167-169.
#09 Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 180.
#10 Pelé, Mijn leven (Amsterdam 2006), 275.
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