Pelé: the first global superstar who brought passion and a smile to football

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé, will be remembered as soccer’s first global superstar and as a symbol of a game he played with passion, gusto and a smile. In fact, he helped forge an image of the game that many people still yearn for today.

Pele was not just a great player and a wonderful ambassador for the world’s favorite sport; he was a cultural icon. In fact, he remains the face of a purity in soccer that existed long before big money and global geopolitics infiltrated the game.

It is testament to his legend that everyone from 1966 World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton of England and current superstar Kylian Mbappé to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – the brand new president of Brazil – and the former president of the United States Barack Obama have paid tribute to him.

The beginnings in Santos

Pelé was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in the Brazilian state of São Paulo in 1940. His early years were like those of many footballers who came before him and countless others who followed and were inspired by him: born into poverty, introduced to the game by a relative, later obsessed by a sport that taught him life and gave him opportunities.

First it was youth soccer, in 1953, when he signed for Bauru, his local club. But it was his first professional club, Santos, that propelled Pelé to stardom. Moving there in 1956, he made 636 appearances and scored 618 goals before leaving in 1974. Pelé was not only the beating heart of the team, but also an immense loyalist to one club.

At the age of 17, Pelé burst onto the world scene at the 1958 World Cup.
Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Long before the exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo or Erling Haaland, Pelé opened a scoring path that distinguished him from the other players around him. Similarly, he displayed a skill that even today makes some observers of the beautiful game place the Brazilian ahead of other contenders for the title of Best Player of All Time: Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona.

A year after signing for Santos, Pelé made his debut with Brazil, three months before his 17th birthday. In that match against Argentina he scored a goal, and 65 years later he is still the youngest scorer in the history of the Brazilian team.

A year later, in 1958, this young player helped his team win the World Cup in Sweden. Then again in 1962, at the World Cup in Chile, and once more at the 1970 tournament in Mexico.

Pelé played 92 games for Brazil and scored 77 goals. By comparison, England’s Harry Kane has scored 53 goals in 80 games. In addition to his achievements with the national team, Pelé won six Brazilian league titles and two South American championships with his club.

the american years

Later in 1975, he came out of semi-retirement to play for the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. By then, Pelé was around 30 years old, but he still managed to score 37 goals in 64 games. Some believe it was his brief stint in the United States that sparked the country’s interest in soccer.

After his retirement, Pelé was revered, adored and continued to be influential. He became FIFA’s Player of the 20th Century, an award he shared with Maradona. In 2014, he received FIFA’s first Ballon d’Or, and even Nelson Mandela spoke of his appreciation for the Brazilian by presenting him with a Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

Pelé’s talent has never been under suspicion. However, it was fortuitous that he played at a time when soccer was emerging from the shadows cast by global conflict, when the world needed symbols of hope and sporting heroes.

The Brazilian was able to serve this purpose, although he did so during a period when television – first in black and white, then in color – brought football directly into people’s living rooms. At that time, Pelé was Messi, Ronaldo and Mbappé rolled into one, and this new technology made him consumable all over the world.

Inevitably, throughout his life, Pele ran into trouble: his business activities were at times mired in controversy; at one point he was branded as a leftist antagonist of the Brazilian government, and later he was described as too conservative in his views on the Brazilian dictatorship. He had numerous children –some of them the result of love affairs– and one of them, Edinho, was sent to prison for laundering money from drug trafficking.

However, the lasting memory is of a man who played football in a way that many of us, both amateurs and professionals, have aspired to. Pelé was not only skillful, but also brought joy to countless people around the world for decades. For all of us, even those with only the slightest interest in football, we will never forget him.

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