Pelé, Brazil’s sublimely skilled soccer star who charmed the world, dead at 82

Pelé, Brazil’s sublimely skilled soccer star who charmed the world, dead at 82
(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 31, 1990 Former Brazilian soccer star, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known as Pelé (L), plays the ball during a friendly soccer match opposing Brazil to world soccer star to celebrate Pele's fiftieth birtday in Milan. - Brazilian football icon Pele, widely regarded as the greatest player of all time and a three-time World Cup winner who masterminded the 'beautiful game', died on December 29, 2022 at the age of 82, after battling kidney problems and colon cancer. (Photo by Gerard MALIE / AFP)

Pelé, the magical Brazilian soccer star who rose from barefoot poverty to become one of the greatest and best-known athletes in modern history, died at the age of 82, his daughter said on Instagram on Thursday.

Pelé had been in and out of hospital in recent months after a tumour was found on his colon.

Pelé, whose given name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, scored a world record 1,281 goals, and is the only player ever to win the World Cup three times.

With sublime skills and a winning smile, he helped make soccer the world’s most popular sport and he charmed popes, presidents and Hollywood stars in a seven-decade career as player and ambassador for the sport.

Born on 23 October 1940, in the small Minas Gerais town of Tres Corações, or “Three Hearts”, Edson Arantes do Nascimento learnt the game from his father, a semi-professional player whose promising career was derailed by a knee injury.

In this file photo taken on 28 April 1963, Brazilian football player Pelé listens to the instructions of the referees at Colombes before the match France vs Brazil. (Photo: AFP)

Brazilian soccer legend Pelé (L) and Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona (R) during the match between Italy and Argentina in Zurich, Switzerland, 10 June 1987. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Several aspects of his youth are obscured by myth, including the origin of his famous nickname. As Pelé (sometimes) told it, he often played as goalkeeper in neighborhood games, and kids began comparing him to a local player named “Bile” – and the letters got twisted over the years.

Whatever the truth, he was soon dazzling scouts not as a goalkeeper but as an attacking forward – a prototype number 10.

He was respected for his range of talents, and more so than any player since, he could do it all: He was two-footed, had tremendous pace and stamina, he could head, pass, tackle – and of course, he could score goals.

He joined Santos at the age of 15 and turned the small coastal club into one of the most famous names in football.

Pele, Brazil’s sublimely skilled soccer star who charmed the world, dead at 82

Brazilian soccer legend Pele poses during an interview with Spanish news agency EFE at the Pele Museum in Santos, Brazil, 12 November 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / SEBASTIAO MOREIRA)

Over a glittering 18-year spell at the club he won every honour in Brazilian football as well as two Copa Libertadores – the South American equivalent of the Champions League – and two Intercontinental Cups, the annual tournament held between the best teams in Europe and South America.

His talent was soon recognised by the national team and he was chosen for the Brazil squad heading to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden – although a team psychologist called the 17-year-old “obviously infantile” and advised against playing him.

Pelé went on to score a hat-trick within one half of the semifinal against France, and another two goals in the final against the host Swedish team – helping Brazil to its first-ever championship.

Injuries kept him out of all but two games in the 1962 Cup, which Brazil won. At the 1970 tournament in Mexico, a now fully mature 29-year-old Pelé won the title for a third time with a Brazil side that included other stars such as Carlos Alberto Torres and Tostão, and is considered by many to be the greatest team ever.

“I told myself before the game, ‘He’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else’,” said Tarcisio Burgnich, the Italian defender charged with marking Pelé in the 1970 final.

“But I was wrong.”

Brazil players hold a banner supporting Brazilian soccer legend Pelé after winning the Fifa World Cup 2022 Round of 16 soccer match between Brazil and South Korea at Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, 5 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Abedin Taherkenareh)

People pass by a mural depicting the two soccer legends, Diego Maradona of Argentina and Pelé of Brazil, at Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 20 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sebastiao Moreira)

Soccer legend Pelé from Brazil (L) poses with the trophy after receiving the Fifa Presidential Award 2007 from Fifa President Joseph Blatter during the 17th Fifa World Player Gala in Zurich, Switzerland, 17 December 2007. (Photo: EPA / STEFFEN SCHMIDT)

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Pelé initially retired in 1974 but after finding that ill-advised investments had left him broke he accepted an offer the following year to play in the fledgling North American Soccer League for the then-astonishing sum of about $1-million a year.

Pelé’s charisma dazzled even hardened New Yorkers. He hobnobbed with celebrities and once shared a table at the famed Studio 54 nightclub with Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Andy Warhol – who called Pelé the exception to his saying that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame.

“Pelé was one of the few who contradicted my theory: Instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries,” the artist said.

Even in such company, Pelé stayed away from alcohol and drugs, saying he needed to protect his body and serve as a role model for kids.

Brazilian soccer legend Pelé (L) appears with Portuguese soccer legend Eusebio da Silva Ferreira (R) prior to the friendly match between Portugal and Brazil at Luz stadium, in Lisbon, Portugal, 17 April 2002. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ANTONIO COTRIM)

Kylian Mbappé (R) of Paris Saint Germain and legendary Brazilian former soccer player Pelé (L) attend a press conference at a commercial event in Paris, France, 2 April 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / IAN LANGSDON)

A picture made available on 10 December 2020 shows Brazilian soccer legend Pelé (L) and Italian Paolo Rossi (R) at the Premio Artemio Franchi Siena in Siena, Italy, in 2006. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ANSA)

He admitted to other “weaknesses,” though. His two divorces, numerous affairs, and the two children he acknowledged fathering outside of marriage fueled perceptions of a gap between the squeaky-clean corporate pitchman and the elusive real-life person who preferred to be called Edson.

On the field, Pelé led the New York Cosmos to the league championship in 1977 and attracted millions of fans to a sport that had previously seemed inaccessible and European.

Years later, when the United States won the right to host the 1994 World Cup, the head of the U.S. soccer federation called Pelé the “most important” reason why.

Pelé’s 1,281 goals in 1,366 games, as tabulated by Fifa’s website, came at a startling rate of 0.94 per match. Some of those were friendlies or came in games played as part of his military service, but he was just as prolific in official tournaments, with 757 goals in 812 games.

Pelé had suffered from a series of health issues in recent years, including hip surgery that left him with recurring pain and trouble walking unaided. He reduced his public appearances, but remained active on social media.

Pelé is survived by six known children. A seventh, whom he didn’t recognise as his own for years, died of cancer in 2006. DM

(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Hugh Lawson.)


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