- Pele tells all about his World Cup memories
- From bursting onto the scene as a teenager in 1958 to winning a third title in 1970
- The legend also talks candidly on the impact that his father had on his career
When he was still a child and people first started to call him 'Pele', Edson Arantes do Nascimento cried about the nickname for months. Not for one minute did he imagine that those two syllables would become internationally synonymous with football greatness.
“My father had named me Edson after Thomas Edison, the great inventor. And I was really proud of it! I didn’t want anything to do with Pele,” he chuckled. However, he found a way of channelling this rage to devastating effect on the football pitch and, before too long, he had become one of the most recognisable footballers on the planet.
Several decades down the line, and with three World Cup winner’s medals under his belt, O Rei would appear to have made peace with his nickname. “It’s short, it sticks in people’s minds easily,” he conceded, as he looked back over his personal achievements in football.
He may have lost a yard of pace since his heyday, but Pele’s company remains as warm and engaging as ever. He spoke to us about his early days, the challenges he faced in the national team, his most memorable goals and more.
FIFA.com: Your name is still synonymous with the FIFA World Cup. Can you sum up what this tournament has meant to you over the years?
Pele: You’re absolutely right, I’ve got so many World Cup stories to tell! We never had it all our own way in those tournaments, but we always came out on top. 1958 was a dream: I was still a kid, and nobody thought we could go all the way. They used to question Vicente Feola, asking him how he expected to win the World Cup in Sweden with a 17-year-old in the team. But we did it! Then in 1962, when Brazil were in good shape, I picked up an injury, but we still managed to win the tournament. In England, I broke my meniscus and we fell short. But I played every game in 1970. It completed a perfect cycle for me: I started and finished as a champion.
In that final against Sweden in 1958, you scored a legendary goal after flicking the ball over the defender’s head in the area. At what exact moment did that move come to you?
I’d be lying if I said that it was all pre-planned (laughs). It was spontaneous. Thankfully, that was one of my strengths as a player: improvisation, the ability to come up with things off the cuff. Right at that moment, I had to act quickly. I managed to control the ball on my chest but, given the defender was coming to pressure me with his leg raised, I had to flick it over him. It came from God. I didn’t have time to think it through!
Conversely, your headed goal against Italy in the final of Mexico 1970 was a classic goalscorer’s finish.
We used to work on that one in training. Not the whole move, obviously, but definitely the positioning. We had a throw-in and we knew that, instead of drifting towards the ball like most players, we should pull off to the far side and wait. When the move went down the left flank, I waited a little further back on the right. Rivelino and I combined for that one. In the end, it happened by chance, but we’d worked on it a fair bit.
Can you remember the header itself?
Of course. It was something that ran in the family. My dad, who was also a footballer, scored lots of goals with his head. I always wanted to emulate him. I was never particularly tall, but I had good strength in my legs. My father always used to say to me: “Most players close their eyes when they head the ball. When the ball’s coming towards you, open your eyes wide and choose where you want to place it.” I worked on it a lot and, consequently, I scored many goals in that way. You have to open your eyes and head the ball down!
But it doesn’t always come off, right? People still talk about that save by Gordon Banks!
Absolutely, it was a similar chance.
Brazil had a series of great teams between the 1950s and the 1970s. Was there a feeling that you were better than the rest?
It was a great time for Brazil, with young players like Garrincha, Didi, and Zito. For that era, the team was very well organised. I remember Vicente Feola saying to us: “I know what I’m talking about: I’m older than you, I’m the coach. Be sure of one thing, you’re the best team in the world. But you have to respect each of your opponents. Don’t think for a minute that you just need to show up to win. You have to go out there with the mentality of earning the respect of your opponent.” I still remember his words today; he was our great professor.