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Edson Arantes do Nascimento (1940-2022)

By Editorial Board
04 January 2023   |   3:55 am
Even as he was laid to rest yesterday, Pele, real name Edson Arantes do Nascimento, will remain indelible in the record of world football history, as a person who came, saw and conquered.

Pele / Photo by Franck FIFE / AFP

Even as he was laid to rest yesterday, Pele, real name Edson Arantes do Nascimento, will remain indelible in the record of world football history, as a person who came, saw and conquered. Naming him as ‘King’ Pele is not a mistake, for what Pele represented as a football legend with unparallel achievements, dexterity and candour on and off the pitch. His death, on December 29, 2022, leaves an irreplaceable void in the world of sports, particularly football.

A global superstar, Pele’s popularity in and outside the football pitch transcends boundaries. And in many years to come, his outstanding sporting performances and success will keep inspiring the coming generations. From his exploits with Santos Football Club, to winning three World Cup titles with Brazil, Pele was a genius, and he gifted his skills to the entire world. He was the iconic sporting figure for Brazil, a country that regards itself as football’s spiritual home.

Born on October 23, 1940, Pele was regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. He was labelled ‘the greatest’ by world football governing body, FIFA. Pele was among the most successful and popular sports figures of the 20th century.  In 1999, he was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and was included in the Time list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. And in the year 2000, Pele was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS), and was one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the Century.

His 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, which includes friendlies, were recognised as a Guinness World Record. Pele began playing for Santos FC at age 15 and the Brazil national team at 16. During his international career, he won three FIFA World Cups: 1958, 1962 and 1970, the only player ever to do so. He was nicknamed O Rei (The King) after Brazil won the FIFA World Cup in 1958. Pele was the joint-top goalscorer for Brazil with 77 goals in 92 games.

At the club level, he was Santos’s all-time top goalscorer with 643 goals in 659 games. In a golden era for Santos, he led the club to the 1962 and 1963 Copa Libertadores and to the 1962 and 1963 Intercontinental Cup.  Pele was credited with connecting the phrase ‘The Beautiful Game’ with football. His ‘electrifying play and penchant for spectacular goals’ made Pele a star around the world, and his teams toured internationally to take full advantage of his popularity.

During his playing days, Pele was for a period the best-paid athlete in the world. He was adept at striking the ball with either foot in addition to anticipating his opponents’ movements on the field. While predominantly a striker, he could also drop deep and take on a playmaking role, providing assists with his vision and passing ability, and he would also use his dribbling skills to go past opponents.

In Brazil, he was hailed as a national hero for his accomplishments in football and for his outspoken support of policies that improve the social conditions of the poor. His emergence at the 1958 World Cup, where he became a black global sporting star, was a source of inspiration for both the young and old.

Pele grew up in poverty in Bauru in Sao Paulo. He earned extra money by working in tea shops as a servant. His father taught him how to play football. He could not afford a proper football, so, he usually played with either a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with string or a grapefruit.

In 1956, de Brito took Pele to Santos, an industrial and port city located near Sao Paulo, to try out for professional club, Santos FC, telling the directors at Santos that the 15-year-old would be ‘the greatest football player in the world.’

Pele impressed Santos coach, Lula, during his trial at the Estádio Vila Belmiro, and he signed a professional contract with the club in June 1956.

Thereafter, Pele became a regular feature in the local media, which tagged him a future superstar. He made his senior team debut on September 7, 1956, at the age of 15 against Corinthians de Santo Andre and had an impressive performance in a 7–1 victory, scoring the first goal in his prolific career during the match. When the 1957 season started, Pele was given a starting place in the first team and, at the age of 16, became the top scorer in the league. Ten months after signing professionally, the teenager was called up to the Brazil national team.

After the 1958 and the 1962 World Cup, wealthy European clubs, such as Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United, tried to sign Pele in vain. Valencia CF also arranged an agreement that would have brought Pele to the club after the 1958 World Cup, but after his performances at the tournament Santos declined to let the player leave. And in 1961, the government of Brazil under President Janio Quadros declared Pele as an ‘official national treasure’ to prevent him from being transferred out of the country.

After retiring in 1977, Pele became a worldwide ambassador for football and made many commercial ventures.

Pele visited South Africa again on July 17, 2007 to attend the ‘90 Minutes for Mandela’ match honouring Mandela, who turned 89 the day after his arrival. He returned in 2010 for the FIFA World Cup Finals in Johannesburg. Nigerians also benefited from Pele’s legacy for Mother Africa. The danger of being hit by a stray bullet in the Nigeria civil war (1967-1970) notwithstanding, Pele and his famous club, Santos FC, came visiting the country in 1969. The news of Pele’s visit soon spread, and it provided the soldiers on both sides a respite. After featuring in the first match at Onikan Stadium, Lagos, Pele and his team went on to play in Benin City at the newly opened Ogbe Stadium at the invitation of the then Military Governor of the Midwest Region, the late Samuel Ogbemudia.

After 1969, Pele visited Nigeria two more times: in 1976 as Pepsi ambassador, promoting football as well as the Pepsi brand in an African tour. Pele was back two years later, promoting football again with another Brazilian club. The club played a friendly match with the then Green Eagles in Lagos with Pele featuring for both sides in each half. Pele always believed that an African team would win the FIFA World Cup before the end of the 20th Century. He also openly expressed his admiration for Nigeria’s breed of footballers and brand of football. Pele’s love and vision for Mother Africa remained apparent even on his sick bed before he finally waved goodbye on December 29, 2022.

Pele is clearly a ‘king’ who reigned beyond the football pitch. His lesson for the world of sports in general and football in particular remains that with the right attitude, mentality and fitness, the capacity of the human body can be stretched to unbelievable limit. Certainly, the void left by the legend will be very difficult to fill.