Pele. The God of football. O Rei. Whatever the name, the memory is the same – of a world-beating superstar, a record-breaking footballing 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 spectators had never seen before. Add his killer instinct in front of goal and Pele was just about the perfect footballer. And if the Seleçaõ came to incarnate the "beautiful game" in the eyes of so many football lovers around the world, this can largely be credited to the breathtaking talents of their celebrated No10. In 1958, Pele's skills captivated the imagination all the more as he exploded into fans' living rooms via the first ever FIFA World Cup broadcast on television.
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 in his first official match against Corinthians in September 1956. A legend was born.
Perfect ball control
In 1958, he played in his first FIFA World Cup at the tender age of 17. The world was amazed as this slight teenager emerged from nowhere to light up the tournament with his dazzling skills. In fact it was player power that earned him a place in the starting line-up for Brazil's third match against the Soviet Union. Pele had been injured, but upon his return from the treatment room, the squad closed ranks and persuaded coach Vicente Feola to select him and Garrincha in a forward trio alongside Vava.
Pele repaid his team-mates with a goal against Wales in the quarter-finals, and a hat-trick against France in the last four. He was unstoppable, allying perfect technique with lightning speed, opportunism, intelligence and uncanny composure. He oozed class, and rounded off his first FIFA World Cup with two splendid goals against Sweden in the Final. He had the audacity to pull off a sombrero for the first, lifting the ball over the last defender, before smashing it home on the volley. His second was a delightful glancing header past a spellbound Swedish goalkeeper.
Sweden defender Sigge Parling later confessed: "After the fifth goal, I felt like applauding." At the final whistle, Brazil goalkeeper Gilmar had to console the boy genius as was carried off the field in tears on his team-mates' shoulders. Pele only got better in the years to come, tormenting defences and confirming his status as a footballing idol. He scored 127 goals in 1959, 110 in 1961, and carried off the Copa Libertadores twice (1961, 1962), together with two Intercontinental Cups (1962, 1963).
He arrived at the 1962 FIFA World Cup in Chile ready to set the world alight again but, sadly, was injured in Brazil's very first game and did not reappear, watching from the sidelines as his team-mates regained their world title. By now, he was a marked man – and the same unhappy fate awaited him in 1966 as he departed the tournament on a stretcher, hacked down in Brazil's third game against Portugal. This time, though, Brazil followed him out of the competition.
Pele would have to wait until Mexico 1970 before reminding the world of his exceptional talents. Ably assisted by lieutenants Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivelino, and Carlos Alberto, he shone in all his glory that year. It was the first FIFA World Cup broadcast in colour around the globe and Pele seemed determined to add an extra layer of brilliance. Highlights included his attempted lob from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia, a stunning header that brought an even more spectacular save from England keeper Gordon Banks, and the unforgettably cheeky moment when he stepped over the ball, letting it run past Uruguay goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, before shooting narrowly wide. Fittingly, it was Pele who scored Brazil's 100th FIFA World Cup goal in the Final – a magnificent header after a typically athletic leap.
Pele set some truly startling records in his long and distinguished career. His 1,000th goal came in 1969 in front of a delirious crowd at the Maracana stadium. He scored five goals in a game on no fewer than six occasions, four goals on 30 occasions and a hat-trick 92 times. In one match, against the hapless Botafogo in 1964, he hit the back of the net eight times. In all, the great man notched up 1,281 goals in 1,363 games and picked up 91 international caps, registering 71 goals.
He would hang up his boots for the last time in 1977 after a spell in the United States with New York Cosmos. JB Pinheiro, the Brazilian ambassador to the United Nations, hailed the achievements of his celebrated compatriot when he said: "Pele played football for 22 years, and in that time he did more to promote world friendship and fraternity than any other ambassador anywhere."