Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Pele. O Rei. Whatever the name, the memory is the same: of a world-beating superstar, a record-breaking football icon. Above and beyond his unequalled achievement in winning three FIFA World Cups™, Pele was a genius who was constantly reinventing the game of football.
With every touch of the ball, every pass, every dribble, Pele was capable of coming up with something new - something the fans had never seen before. With a killer instinct in front of goal, an eye for the perfect pass and supreme athleticism, the Brazilian was just about the perfect footballer. And if the Seleção came to incarnate the 'beautiful game' in the eyes of so many observers around the world, this can largely be credited to the breathtaking skills of their most celebrated No10.
First spotted at the age of 11 by former Brazilian international Waldemar de Brito, he joined Santos at the age of 15 and had not yet turned 16 when he scored on his first team debut in a friendly against Corinthians of Santo Andre in September 1956, rising from the bench to net his side's sixth goal in a 7-1 win. A legend was born.
Emphatic introduction to the world
The world first set eyes on Pele in Sweden in 1958. He was just 17 when he played in his first World Cup, a slight teenager who emerged from nowhere to light up the tournament with his dazzling skills. It is often said that it was player power that earned Pele a place in the starting line-up for Brazil's third match of the finals against the Soviet Union. He had been sidelined by a knee injury but on his return from the treatment room, his colleagues closed ranks and insisted upon his selection in attack alongside Vava.
The prodigy repaid his team-mates with the only goal against Wales in the quarter-finals - and in doing so established a record as the youngest scorer in World Cup history, aged 17 years and 239 days. Having found his range, he then struck a second-half hat-trick inside 23 minutes in Brazil's 5-2 defeat of France in the semi-finals.
By now, Pele was unstoppable, allying perfect technique with lightning speed, intelligence and opportunism, and he rounded off his first World Cup with two splendid goals against Sweden in the Final. For the first, he had the audacity to pull off a sombrero, lifting the ball over the last defender before smashing the ball home on the volley. His second, in the final minute, was a looping header over the keeper. Sweden player Sigge Parling later confessed that "after the fifth goal, I felt like applauding."
At the final whistle, Seleção keeper Gilmar had to console the boy wonder, who was carried off the field in tears on his team-mates' shoulders. "I felt like I was living in a dream," remembered Pele, and in many ways he was, a player set apart by his extraordinary talent. In the years that followed he only got better. He scored 127 goals in 1959, 110 in 1961, and inspired Santos to consecutive Copa Libertadores triumphs in 1962 and 1963; conquests which preceded back-to-back Intercontinental Cup successes.
Pele arrived at the 1962 World Cup in Chile ready to set the world alight again. It was the perfect stage to showcase his talents but, sadly, he aggravated a groin injury in Brazil's second outing against Czechoslovakia and did not reappear. Instead, he watched from the sidelines as his team-mates regained their world title. Pele was, by now, a marked man and the same unhappy fate awaited him in 1966 in England, where he again exited the finals on a stretcher, the victim of some fierce tackling in games against Bulgaria and Portugal. This time, though, Brazil joined him in departing the scene early, falling at the first hurdle.
The King is crowned
Pele would have to wait until Mexico 1970 before reminding the world of his exceptional talents. In the first World Cup to be broadcast around the world in colour, 'The King' shone in all his glory, ably assisted by team-mates Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivelino, Gerson and Carlos Alberto. Highlights included his attempted lob from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia, a stunning header that brought an even more stunning save from England goalkeeper Gordon Banks, and the unforgettably cheeky moment when he stepped over the ball, letting it run past Uruguay keeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, before shooting narrowly wide.
Fittingly, it was Pele who scored Brazil's 100th World Cup goal in the 4-1 Final win over Italy - a header after a typically athletic leap. "It was a special feeling to score with my head. My father once scored five headers in one match - that's one record I've never been able to beat." It was his 12th goal in 14 World Cup appearances and he remains one of only two players to have netted in four separate tournaments.
Besides scoring, he provided the sublime lay-off for Carlos Alberto to conclude a nine-pass move with the spectacular final goal against Italy. Tarcisio Burgnich, the Azzurri defender given the unenviable task of marking Pele, was later quoted as saying: "I told myself before the game, 'he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else'. But I was wrong".
Brazil earned the right to keep the Jules Rimet trophy after winning it for a third time with arguably the greatest team ever. Pele had become a living legend. The day after the final Britain's Sunday Times newspaper summed it up: "How do you spell Pele? G-O-D."
Throughout his career, Pele was a record breaker. His 1,000th goal, a penalty, came in 1969 in front of a delirious crowd at the Maracana. He scored five goals in a game on no fewer than six occasions, managed 30 four-goal hauls and netted 92 hat-tricks. In one match against Botafogo in 1964, he hit the back of the net eight times. In total, the great man struck 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.
Pele quit what he called o jogo bonito (the beautiful game) in 1974, before returning the following year to play for the New York Cosmos in order "to bring the world's game to the American public". He would hang up his boots for the last time in 1977.
J.B. Pinheiro, the Brazilian ambassador to the United Nations, was quoted as saying: "Pele played football for 22 years, and in that time he did more to promote world friendship and fraternity than any other ambassador anywhere". And who could contradict him? In warring Nigeria a ceasefire was declared when Pele played in Lagos in 1969. The President of Brazil declared him a "national treasure" to thwart any potential transfer to a European club. And in the port city of Santos, 19 November is forever 'Pele Day', to celebrate the anniversary of his 1,000th goal.
Since his playing career ended, Pele has used his ambassador's status to promote his country, the UN and UNICEF. "Every kid in the world who plays football wants to be Pele," he said, "which means I have the responsibility of showing them how to be a footballer but also how to be a man." But that is what Gods are for, isn't it?
Did You Know?
Pele scored on his Brazil debut in 1957 in a 2-1 loss to Argentina. His last international was a 2-2 draw against Yugoslavia in 1971.
Pele revealed he turned down approaches from Real Madrid, AC Milan, Juventus and Manchester United to stay with Santos at club level.
When Pele saw his father crying after Brazil lost the 1950 FIFA World Cup™ to Uruguay, he told him: “Don't worry. One day I'll win it.”
Pele's father, Dondinho, was also a semi-professional footballer and played as a forward. Pele’s parents gave him the nickname ‘Dico’.
Pele scored five goals over two legs as Santos beat Benfica in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup by an 8-4 aggregate margin of victory.