Edson Arantes do Nascimento will never forget the day he saw his father cry. It was 1950 and Brazil, debuting in soccer’s World Cup, had received a crushing defeat from Uruguay during the deciding game.
“My father was crying with a lot of Brazilians,” the legendary Pelé recalled. “My father used to say, men should be strong. Men don’t cry. Then I saw my father cry when Brazil lost the game.
“Then I told him, ‘Father, don’t worry. I’m going to win a World Cup for you.’ … [Six] years later, I was in Sweden with Brazil and Brazil won the World Cup. I was 17 years old. That was a gift from God. I don’t know why I said it, why I promised it to my father.”
The world’s most beloved athlete and international soccer icon, Pelé, sadly passed away on Thursday at 82 years old due to poor health caused by cancer and kidney and cardiac dysfunctions. The Brazilian star led his country to World Cup victory in 1956 with aplomb before becoming widely renowned across the globe for his brilliance both on-and-off the pitch in the 60s and 70s alongside Muhammad Ali.
Pelé, who was so beloved that warring factions in Nigeria called a two-day cease-fire just to witness him play during an exhibition match in 1969, ultimately upheld the promise he made to his father as a young boy. He became the only player in history to win three World Cups – Brazil was triumphant again in 1962 and 1970 – proving himself one of the greatest footballers of all time.
Pelé was fiercely devoted to Santos in his native Brazil, and he rejected a slew of European playing offers due to this loyalty. He planned on retiring after one last match with the club in 1974; however, severe financial pressures forced him into making an unprecedented decision. At 35 years old, Pelé signed a staggering $7 million contract (as reported by the New York Times) with the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos- giving himself three more seasons as a professional soccer player.
Giants Stadium was often filled to capacity of 80,000 with the superstar presence of Pelé on the team. This led to a remarkable 78% increase in league-wide attendance from 1975 (7,597) all the way up to 1977 (13,584). It’s clear that this soccer great changed not only his teams fortunes but also those of entire leagues!
Through his exceptional skill and magnetic charisma, Pelé is universally credited with sparking the gradual rise of soccer – or ‘the beautiful game’ as he so fondly referred to it – in America.
“It really was ludicrous to think that Pelé, the greatest player of all, was going to end up playing for this ridiculous little team in New York drawing 1,500 people,” stated the Cosmos general manager, Clive Toye. “But I told him don’t go to Italy, don’t go to Spain, all you can do is win a championship. Come to the U.S. and you can win a country.”
On October 23, 1940, Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born to modest parents Dondinho and Celeste in the impoverished town of Tres Coracoes near Brazil’s southeast region. His father was a professional soccer player who introduced little Edson to soccer with a crudely constructed ball made from rolled-up newspapers encased inside an old sock.
He quickly excelled at the game, impressing all of his fellow neighborhood kids who then dubbed him Pelé after mispronouncing Bile, a goalkeeper from Brazil’s Vasco da Gama team and Pele’s hero. Initially uncomfortable with the nickname, it eventually stuck – and so did his love for the sport!
As he developed his skills at the Bauru Athletic Club, Pelé caught the eye of Valdemar de Brito, a former World Cup star who recommended him to Santos. In his inaugural full season with them, Pelé scored an astonishing 32 goals – topping all other teams in that category! This achievement earned him recognition from Brazil and eventually selection for their 1958 World Cup team when he was only 17 years old.
After sustaining a knee injury, Pelé had to miss the initial two matches of the tournament in Sweden. Yet he was determined not to let his teammates down and made an incredible return for the quarterfinals, where he scored an unforgettable game-winning goal! Taking it one step further, Pelé completed a hat trick during the semifinals and increased Brazil’s points even more with 2 goals in their 5-2 win against Sweden. It was surely a glowing moment of success for both him and his team!
As the first international broadcast of the World Cup aired, Pelé was cementing his name as a hero with unbelievable performances. The nickname he had once been disenchanted by, now became known around the world and in households everywhere.
Brazil was victorious once again in the 1962 World Cup, but were dethroned during the 1966 tournament hosted by England. Even though Pelé was still performing at an elite level, he declared his retirement from international soccer after their defeat.
“I was really torn,” Pelé stated in 2021 documentary. “I didn’t want to play in the ’70 World Cup. I didn’t want to repeat what happened in England.”
His opinion was not well-received by the people of Brazil, nor their authoritarian President Emilio Medici. Soon enough Pelé heard rumors he may have to change his stance or else risk facing Medici’s fury – a man known for punishing those who opposed him through imprisonment and torture. To protect himself and others from harm, it would be better if Pele put on his cleats one last time in honor of Brazil.
Despite the fact that Pelé claimed to be politically neutral, he had already faced backlash for a previous rendezvous with Medici.
“I don’t think I could have done anything different,” he said in the documentary. “It wasn’t possible. … I’m Brazilian. I want what is best for my country. I’m not Superman. I don’t work miracles.”
“I was just a normal person who was granted the gift of being a futbol player. But I am absolutely certain that I have done much more for Brazil through futbol in my own way than many politicians who are paid to do so have done.”
At the age of 29, Pelé competed in Mexico for the 1970 World Cup. The Brazilian team was triumphant over Italy with a final score of 4-1, and Pelé scored first to set an incredible precedent.
“The 1970 World Cup was the best moment of my life, but I think it was more important for the nation,” he stated. “Because if Brazil had lost in Mexico things would have gotten a lot worse. Brazil’s victory gave the whole country a moment to breathe. The 1970 World Cup was for the nation, not for the sport.”
In 1975, Pelé made history by signing with the Cosmos. It was a momentous decision that had an immense impact on their 7-year-old league’s credibility and reputation. What’s more? He emerged as the highest-paid team athlete globally at that time! His return to soccer in the U.S., however, shocked his fellow countrymen since he previously swore off playing any further games after being absent from the 1974 World Cup tournament.
After guiding the Cosmos to the 1977 NASL title, he finally retired – yet was tempted back for one more game against Santos FC, his former team. He played half as part of each squad and ended with a total of 1,283 goals in 1,367 matches. Pelé’s illustrious career came to an end that day; however, his spirit remains in every field around the world!
Following his retirement, Pelé transformed into an ambassador for the beloved game he once held the title of Brazil’s minister of sport. His fame never faded and he spent many years promoting soccer worldwide.
Once, a journalist inquired of Pelé whether he was as renowned as Jesus Christ.
“There are parts of the world where Jesus Christ is not so well known,” he stated.