Brazil legend Pele, who has died aged 82, is widely regarded as the greatest footballer of all time, the iconic sporting figure for a country that regards itself as the game’s spiritual home.
Pele’s greatness can be measured by the simple fact that he could make football a spectacle of natural grace and beauty when he missed as much as when he scored.
One of the game’s first global personalities, he scored a world record 1,281 goals in 1,363 games and layered his brilliance across a career spanning from his start as a teenager with Santos to a finish as a money-spinner at New York Cosmos.
And wherever football is played, the name of Pele will synonymous with it.
Pele – the boy genius
Pele started out as a young boy at Bauru FC in Sao Paulo state under the guidance of former Brazil international Waldemar de Brito. When he came to the attention of Brazil’s elite, he chose to join his mentor’s former club Santos.
It was not long before he was making his senior debut, aged 15, on 7 September 1956, scoring the first of more than 1,000 career goals in a 7-1 win against Corinthians Santo Andre.
Pele ensured Santos dominated not only in Brazil but also further afield, winning the Copa Libertadores – South America’s equivalent of the Champions League – in 1962 and 1963 with victories against Penarol of Uruguay in a play-off and then against Argentina’s Boca Juniors, 5-3 on aggregate.
It was inevitable international honours would follow swiftly and he donned the famous Brazil shirt for the first time on 9 July 1957 against Argentina at the Maracana aged 16 years and nine months, scoring number one of 77 goals in 92 appearances for his country in a 2-1 defeat.
Pele’s great rival of the age was Portugal’s legend Eusebio, but when the pair were in opposition in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup, played between the winners of the Copa Libertadores and the European Cup, there was only one winner.
Pele was on target twice in Santos’ 3-2 win against Benfica in the Maracana before scoring a hat-trick in a 5-2 victory in return at the Stadium of Light.
In Brazil, Pele will also be associated with the white shirt of Santos, for whom he scored 619 goals in 638 appearances which, coupled with his glorious deeds for his country, gave him – in his homeland at least – the undisputed title of the game’s greatest player.
Brazil’s World Cup hero
Pele charmed the globe as a 17-year-old when he scored twice as Brazil beat Sweden 5-2 in the 1958 World Cup final but shone brightest in the galaxy of stars assembled in their legendary 1970 World Cup team, scoring the opening goal in a 4-1 win against Italy in the final in Mexico’s Aztec Stadium.
Pele’s story bookended those two great Brazil sides and when, in the modern game, much is made of the “number 10” role and indeed the shirt itself, Edson Arantes do Nascimento will be regarded by many as the first and the greatest.
When the argument of who was the game’s finest is conducted – almost always in a World Cup context – Brazil’s great rivals Argentina will make the case for the late Diego Maradona, who almost single-handedly, literally according to England after his infamous “Hand Of God” quarter-final goal, took them to World Cup glory in 1986.
Argentines will even offer up Maradona’s successor Lionel Messi as another rival to Pele’s greatness in an argument that will never be fully settled to the satisfaction of either of these great South American adversaries.
Pele, though, did not have Maradona’s dark side, one example of which saw the latter ejected from the 1994 World Cup in the United States after testing positive for the drug ephedrine. Messi, however, has since gone on to claim World Cup glory with Argentina at the 2022 tournament.
Pele suffered World Cup disappointments too, none more than when he was brutally kicked out of the competition in England in 1966.
He left the scene of the 3-1 defeat by Portugal at Goodison Park draped in a blanket after a succession of fouls that left him limping on one leg, with his right knee heavily bandaged. During the match, he had stayed on and continued throwing himself into the physical challenges to prove bravery accompanied brilliance as substitutes were not permitted.
That knee injury was caused by earlier savage challenges in Brazil’s first game against Bulgaria and Pele was so disgusted by his treatment that he vowed never to play in another World Cup – a decision the game was grateful he later reversed.
Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win was the pinnacle of Pele’s career. He was the focal point of a dream team that has become enshrined in the game’s history. Pele may have been the headline act but he was accompanied by names such as Rivelino, Jairzinho, Tostao and Gerson, as well as the great captain and leader Carlos Alberto.
The image of the shirtless Pele being carried aloft by team-mates and supporters after the World Cup was won in Mexico City is seared on the memory, along with that famous picture of another shirtless embrace with England captain Bobby Moore, a gesture packed with mutual respect, after Brazil’s 1-0 group game victory in Guadalajara.
The magic misses
Testimony to Pele’s brilliance are two occasions in the 1970 Mexico World Cup when he failed to score – and yet are used to this day as prime exhibits of the skill, power, elegance and mental speed and agility that mark him out as arguably the greatest to have ever graced the game.
The first came in Brazil’s opening group game against Czechoslovakia when Pele, from several yards inside the centre circle in his own half, received the ball languidly then spotted keeper Ivo Viktor off his line.
In an elegant, instinctive swing of his right boot, he sent the ball in a high arc towards goal, landing inches wide, with the panicking Viktor making a scrambling retreat before the relief of realising he had not been embarrassed by Pele’s genius.
Fast forward to the semi-final against Uruguay, again in Guadalajara, when Pele raced at full speed on to Tostao’s pass, yet still had the presence of mind to run past keeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, also allowing the ball to run past the pair. The keeper had been sold perhaps the greatest dummy in World Cup history.
Sadly the angle was subsequently too tight for Pele to score but the moment is still replayed whenever World Cups are relived and as the late, great BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme, probably taken as much by surprise as Mazurkiewicz, said in that wonderful moment: “What genius. Incredible.”
Pele the global icon
Pele’s peak came before the days of transfers around the globe so the finest years of his club career were served out entirely in Brazil – but it is mind-boggling to even guess at the transfer fee he would have commanded in this era.
When the North America Soccer League was formed in an attempt to spread the football word to the United States, Pele became an inevitable target. The great German Franz Beckenbauer was also a focus of attention but Pele added status and glamour, heading Stateside in 1975 to close out his career at New York Cosmos.
Such was Pele’s worldwide reputation that his name alone added instant credibility. The curtain came down on his career with an exhibition game between Cosmos and Santos at New York’s Giants’ Stadium in October 1977 after he had led them to the title in his third and final season at the club.
Pele was arguably football’s first global superstar, a standing that lived on after he finished playing. The mere mention of his name conjures up images of Brazil’s great teams and evokes memories from the Maracana to Mexico.
Life after football
Pele travelled the globe as an ambassador for the game, in demand around the world and also by large organisations desperate to bask in the wattage of his fame and standing.
He was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 BBC Sports Personality Of The Year ceremony.
Before receiving the award, recorded tributes were paid by Beckenbauer, Johann Cruyff and Sir Bobby Charlton. Beckenbauer said: “He was the best player in the history of football.”
The great Brazilian was back in England in March 2015 on a promotional visit, appearing on the pitch at Anfield at half-time in Liverpool’s defeat by Manchester United, receiving a prolonged standing ovation from all corners of the stadium.
He was also used prominently in an ambassadorial role for Brazil, appearing at the closing ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics before the handover to the next hosts Rio, who staged the games in 2016.
Pele, however, will always be associated with “The Beautiful Game” – and arguably no-one played it more beautifully.