Pelé Dead at 82

Pop Culture

Pelé, agreed upon by all who would decide such things to be among the finest athletes who ever lived, died at 82 in São Paulo according to his manager, Joe Fraga. Born into poverty in 1940 in Três Corações, Brazil, Pelé followed in his father’s footsteps to become a professional soccer player, but it was clear from a young age that he was a rising star and remarkable player. He left home at 15 to play professionally for Santos FC, and at 17 scored two goals in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden. He led his nation to two more wins (and one controversial loss) on the world stage, then came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in 1975. He frequently appeared on television and was a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. His overstocked shelf of awards and prizes extended well beyond the world of sports, to include, among other things, an honorary knighthood by the British Empire. He was 82 years old. 

Andy Warhol, who once immortalized the soccer legend in a series of portraits, once said that Pelé would have “15 centuries” of fame, a play on his well-known quote about everyone having their 15 minutes. 

Pelé was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, named for the inventor Thomas Edison. He earned his nickname as a child when he mispronounced the name of a local soccer player named Bilé. What began as teasing stuck, and though the word Pelé has no meaning in Portuguese, some have noted over the years that it means “miracle” in Hebrew.

That’s apt for the athlete whose stats make him the clear greatest of all time in his chosen field. Pelé holds the Guinness World Record for the highest number of goals at an astonishing 1,279. There are understandable asterisks about whether “friendly” matches should count (and you can go down that rabbit hole if you like), but there was more to Pelé’s greatness than just his numbers. His style of play made him dangerous with either foot, and he worked the field with alacrity and flair. While he did not invent the so-called “bicycle kick,” it became his signature move, recognizable even to non-soccer fans, and deployed in some of his most memorable plays.

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Pelé’s first trip to the FIFA World Cup in 1958 ended with a victory for Brazil against host nation Sweden. This was the Brazilian team’s first win, eight years after an upset loss to Uruguay in 1950 when Brazil hosted the tournament. (That game, the Maracanazo, the most highly attended sporting event in history with close to 175,000 people, is still spoken about in hushed tones by Brazilians.)

Four years later, Pelé and the Brazilian national team repeated their win, this time against Czechoslovakia in Chile. He led the team to victory in the early rounds against Mexico (in what is one of his most fondly remembered games) but ended up getting injured midway through the tournament, and sitting out the final. 

Brazilian footballer Pele playing for Brazil, circa 1958.By Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images.

By 1966, Pelé was recognized as the best player in the world. As such, he was a magnet for fouls. Though the team won their first match during the 1966 World Cup against Bulgaria in England (and Pelé scored one of the game’s two goals), he was kicked so many times by opponents that he had to sit the next game (against Hungary) out. Though still recovering, he returned to face Portugal, and was brutally fouled, while the ref did not make a call against the offender. There were no substitutions allowed at that point in the game, so he hobbled his way to defeat in a match that is still considered a low point for FIFA. Pelé called the tournament “a revelation to me in…unsportsmanlike conduct and weak refereeing,” and said his World Cup career was over.

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