Legendary Brazilian footballer Pelé dies at 82

Pelé, the Brazilian king of football who won a record three World Cups and became one of the most influential sports figures of the last century, died on Thursday. He was 82 years old.

The “beautiful game” standard-bearer has been treated for colon cancer since 2021. The medical center where he had been hospitalized for the past month reported that he had died of multiple organ failure as a result of cancer.

“All that we are is because of you” – his daughter Kelly Nascimento posted on instagram. “We love you endlessly. Rest in peace.”

His agent Joe Fraga confirmed his death: “The King is dead.”

Widely regarded as one of the greatest players in football, Pelé spent almost two decades captivating fans and dazzling opponents as the highest scorer in the game with the Brazilian club Santos and the Brazilian national team.

His grace, athleticism and mesmerizing movements captivated players and fans. He orchestrated a fast, flowing style that revolutionized the sport, a samba-like flair that epitomized his country’s elegance on the pitch.

He took Brazil to football heights and became a global ambassador for his sport in a journey that began on the streets of the state of São Paulo, where he kicked a sock stuffed with newspapers or rags.

In talking about the greatest football players, along with Pele, only the late Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned.

Various sources counting various sets of games list Pelé’s total goals as somewhere between 650 (league matches) and 1281 (all senior matches, some against low-level competition).

The player, who will be called the “King”, was introduced to the world at the age of 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, becoming the youngest player ever to take part in the tournament. He was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of teammates after scoring two goals in Brazil’s 5–2 victory over the host country in the final.

An injury kept him in just two games when Brazil retained the world title in 1962, but Pelé became a symbol of his country’s triumph at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. He scored in the final and provided Carlos Alberto with a sloppy pass for the final goal in a 4–1 win over Italy.

The image of Pelé in Brazil’s bright yellow jersey with the number 1.10 embossed on the back remains alive among football fans everywhere. As well as his trademark goal celebration – a jump with a right fist high over his head.

Such was Pele’s fame that in 1967 the parties to the Nigerian Civil War agreed to a brief ceasefire so that he could play an exhibition match in the country. He was knighted by the British Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. When he visited Washington to help popularize the game in North America, the President of the United States was the first to extend his hand.

“My name is Ronald Reagan, I am the President of the United States of America,” the host said to his guest. “But you don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pele is.”

Pelé was Brazil’s first modern black national hero, but rarely spoke of racism in a country where the rich and powerful tend to come from a white minority.

The opposing fans taunted Pele with monkey screams at home and around the world.

“He said he would never play if he had to stop every time he heard these chants,” said Angelica Basti, one of Pelé’s biographers. “He is the key to black pride in Brazil, but he never wanted to be the flag bearer.”

Pele’s life after football took many forms. He was a politician, Brazilian Minister of Sports, a wealthy businessman, and an ambassador for UNESCO and the United Nations.

He had roles in films, soap operas, he even composed songs and recorded CDs with popular Brazilian music.

As his health deteriorated, his travels and appearances became less frequent. In his later years, he was often seen in a wheelchair and did not attend the unveiling of a statue depicting him representing Brazil in the 1970 World Cup. Pele spent his 80th birthday in isolation with several family members in a beach house.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born on October 23, 1940 in the small town of Tres Coracos in the hinterland of Minas Gerais. Pele grew up cleaning shoes to buy his modest football kit.

Pelé’s talent attracted attention when he was 11 years old and a local professional player brought him to Santos’ youth team. It didn’t take long for him to get to the senior team.

Despite his youth and 5ft 8in height, he scored against grown men with the same ease as he did with friends back home. He made his debut for a Brazilian club at the age of 16 in 1956 and the club quickly gained worldwide recognition.

Pele’s name came from his mispronouncing the name of a player named Bile.

He went to the 1958 World Cup as a reserve but became a key player in his country’s national team. His first goal, in which he threw the ball over the head of a defender and went around him to hit the target, was considered one of the best in the history of the World Cup.

The 1966 World Cup in England, won by the hosts, was bittersweet for Pelé, who by then was already considered the best player in the world. Brazil were knocked out in the group stage and Pelé, angered by such rough treatment, vowed that this was his last World Cup.

He changed his mind and rejuvenated at the 1970 World Cup. In the game against England, he headed the ball and scored a certain score, but the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks amazingly got the ball over the bar. Pele compared the save – one of the best in World Cup history – to “salmon climbing up a waterfall.” He later scored the first goal in the final against Italy, his last World Cup match.

In total, Pele played 114 matches for Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals, including 77 in official matches.

His stint with Santos spanned three decades until he retired after the 1972 season. Wealthy European clubs tried to sign him, but the Brazilian government intervened to prevent his sale, declaring him a national treasure.

On the pitch, Pelé’s energy, vision and imagination led the gifted Brazilian team to a fast and fluid game that epitomized “O Jogo Bonito” – Portuguese for “beautiful game”. His 1977 autobiography “My Life and the Beautiful Game” made the phrase part of the football lexicon.

In 1975, he joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Football League. Despite being 34 years old and past his prime, Pelé has given football a higher status in North America. He led Cosmos to the 1977 league title and scored 64 goals in three seasons.

Pele ended his career on October 1, 1977 at an exhibition between Cosmos and Santos in front of a crowd of 77,000 in New Jersey. He spent half of the match with each club. Among the dignitaries present was, perhaps, the only other athlete whose fame spanned the entire globe – Muhammad Ali.

Pele had a difficult time in his personal life, especially when his son Edinho was arrested on charges of drug possession. Pele had two out-of-wedlock daughters and five children from his first two marriages, to Rosemerie dos Reis Cholbi and Assyria Seixas Lemos. He later married businesswoman Marcia Sibela Aoki.