Edson Arantes do Nascimento. I learnt that name as a pre-teen and I have always remembered it where as the chemistry, logarithms and physics I would have been taught around the same time have long been forgotten.
That name however is still lodged in the corner of my now addled brain.
Of course the world and probably the majority of you reading this him know as Pele, who for me, is still the best footballer of all time. Yes, others have claimed that crown in recent years, but old romantics like me remember their first love and for me football wise at least that will always be Pele. He became such a huge name that he crossed over from mere football to becoming an everyday superstar name around the world.
World Cup 1970 was the competition for me, which fully ignited my love of football. That 1970 Brazil team. Among others, the names of Carlos Alberto, Jarzinho, Toastao, Rivelino, Gerson and of course Pele still trip off my tongue. I wanted that wonderful yellow football shirt so badly and I distinctly remember kicking a leather black and white panelled football around the garages on Glebe Estate, Peckham, aged 9 recreating, with running commentary of course, that fourth Brazilian goal from the final versus Italy.
Pele was born in October 1940 in Tres Coracoes, in the state of Minas Gerais, the son to footballing father Dondinho and his wife Celeste, who named him after the famed inventor Thomas Edison. He picked up his famous nickname from the surname of his favourite player from his youth, namely Bile, the then goalkeeper for Vasco da Gama. Young Edson mispronounced Bile one day and it simply stuck. Although the word Pele has no meaning in Portuguese, in Hebrew it means miracle. That will have to do then eh?
His background was poverty stricken and he learnt to play with a homemade football constructed from a sock into which old newspapers were stuffed. Coached by his father, it was evident he was a special talent even as a kid. He was especially good at Brazilian indoor football, a kind of five a side game. Pele credits that speedy game, with improving his technique and being able to think quickly on a pitch. Off it he worked as a waiter to supplement the family income.
That all changed though when the Sao Paolo club Santos gave him his debut at 15 and he scored in a 7-1 victory. Santos went on to win the Brazilian championship in 1958 with Pele scoring 58 goals in the season. A record that is still standing to this day.
‘I arrived hoping to stop a great man, but I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us.’
—Benefice goalkeeper Costa Pereira
He played for the Brazil national team at the tender age of 16 and he remains the youngest ever scorer for his national side. He appeared in the 1958 World Cup finals staged in Stockholm, aged 17 and it was there he first wore what would become the trademark number 10 on his shirt. There he became the youngest player to appear in the tournament and though he began it injured he ended it on fire. He scored a hat-trick in the semi final versus France and then he scored two goals as Brazil ran out winners in the final winning 5 -2 over home favourites Sweden.
Swedish player Sigvard Parling would later comment; ‘When Pelé scored the fifth goal in that Final, I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding.’
Subsequently after the tournament all the major club sides around the World were queuing up to buy Pele. However Santos refused to sell him after seeing street riots from their fans when news broke of his possible transfer. He was classified as a national treasure, which prevented him leaving the country to play for another domestic team.
At the World Cup in Chile in 1962, Brazil once again ran out winners, but Pele was injured early on in the tournament and took no part after Brazil’s second game.
In England for the 1966 finals, Brazil and Pele started brightly enough, but ‘special treatment’ on the 5ft 8 player in the early rounds, especially versus Portugal, finally took its toll on him and with him side-lined, Brazil were eliminated after only three matches.
Pele actually considered retiring from international football before Mexico in 1970, but he was talked around and as mentioned earlier, that famous team swept all before them. Pele was on fine form and many of his ‘plays’ from that tournament are still remembered fondly 50 nearly years later.
It was he who got the opening goal against Italy in the final before playing an enduring part in what is considered up there as one of the greatest team goals in football history.
Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich, who marked Pelé during the final, said later ‘I told myself before the game, he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else – but I was wrong.’
After a total of nineteen seasons with Santos, Pele retired in 1974 only then to sign with the New York Cosmos in the US in1975. His name and image was used as a marketing tactic in increasing awareness of ‘soccer’ in that country.
He played for New York until 1977 and finally retired for good after leading them to the title that year, playing his last game against his beloved Santos.
His stats are simply mind-boggling. Overall he scored 1281 goals in 1363 games. 650 league goals in 694 games. In 92 appearances for Brazil, he scored 77 goals and to top all that off, he scored 92 hat tricks in his career. Quite extraordinary.
O Milésimo – his one-thousandth goal – occurred in a match against Vasco da Gama, when Pelé scored from a penalty kick, at the Maracanã Stadium. Ironically enough he was a rare penalty taker, considering it a ‘cowardly’ way to score.
He went on to appear in the 1981 film ‘Escape to Victory’ which featured a World War II grudge match between allied prisoners of war and a German team alongside Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and half the Ipswich team of that era.
In 1992, he was appointed a UN ambassador for ecology and the environment as well as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. 1997 sees him receive an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.
To end this piece, I’ll leave others to reflect on the impact ‘The Black Pearl’ made.
‘Pelé was one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.’ —Andy Warhol.
‘The greatest player in history was Di Stéfano. I refuse to classify Pelé as a player. He was above that’ – Ferenc Puskas.
‘How do you spell Pelé? Easy: G-O-D.’ – Paddy Creand.
‘Pelé is the greatest player of all time. He reigned supreme for 20 years. There’s no one to compare with him.’ – Franz Beckenbauer.
‘Pelé was the most complete player I’ve ever seen, he had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only five feet and eight inches tall, yet he seemed a giant of an athlete on the pitch. Perfect balance and impossible vision. He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch. I remember Saldanha the coach being asked by a Brazilian journalist who was the best goalkeeper in his squad. He said Pelé. ‘ – Bobby Moore
So, the greatest ever? You’ll get no argument from me.
The Mumper of SE5