Football legend Pelé dies at 82

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, mononymously known as Pelé — one of football’s greatest players and a transformative figure in 20th-century sports who achieved a level of global celebrity few athletes have known, died on Thursday, December 29 in São Paulo, Brazil. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Joe Fraga. The Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo, said the cause was multiple organ failure, the result of the progression of colon cancer.

Pelé had been receiving treatment for cancer in recent years, and he entered the hospital several weeks ago for treatment of a variety of health issues, including a respiratory infection.

A national hero in his native Brazil, Pelé was beloved around the world — by the very poor, among whom he was raised; the very rich, in whose circles he traveled; and just about everyone who ever saw him play.

Celebrated for his peerless talent and originality on the field, Pelé (pronounced peh-LAY) also endeared himself to fans with his sunny personality and his belief in the power of football to connect people across dividing lines of race, class and nationality.

He won three World Cup tournaments with Brazil and 10 league titles with Santos, his club team, as well as the 1977 North American Soccer League championship with the New York Cosmos. Having come out of retirement at 34, he spent three seasons with the Cosmos on a crusade to popularize football in the United States.

Before his final game, in October 1977 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Pelé took the microphone on a podium at the center of the field, his father and Muhammad Ali beside him, and exhorted a crowd of more than 75,000.

“Say with me three times now,” he declared, “for the kids: Love! Love! Love!”

Pelé kicking a ball over his head as two other players look on.
Pelé kicks a ball over his head in 1968 in an acrobatic move. Off-balance or not, he could lash the ball accurately with either foot. ©Associated Press

In his 21-year career, Pelé scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 professional matches, including 77 goals for the Brazilian national team.

Many of those goals became legendary, but Pelé’s influence on the sport went well beyond scoring. He helped create and promote what he later called “o jogo bonito” — the beautiful game — a style that valued clever ball control, inventive pinpoint passing and a voracious appetite for attacking. Pelé not only played it better than anyone; he also championed it around the world.

Among his athletic assets was a remarkable center of gravity; as he ran, swerved, sprinted or backpedaled, his midriff seemed never to move, while his hips and his upper body swiveled around it.

He could accelerate, decelerate or pivot in a flash. Off-balance or not, he could lash the ball accurately with either foot. Relatively small, at 5 feet 8 inches, he could nevertheless leap exceptionally high, often seeming to hang in the air to put power behind a header.

Like other sports, football has evolved. Today, many of its stars can execute acrobatic shots or rapid-fire passing sequences. But in his day, Pelé’s playmaking and scoring skills were stunning.

Pelé sprang into the international limelight at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, a slight 17-year-old who as a boy had played football barefoot on the streets of his impoverished village using rolled-up rags for a ball. A star for Brazil, he scored six goals in the tournament, including three in a semifinal against France and two in the final, a 5-2 victory over Sweden. It was Brazil’s first of a record five World Cup trophies.

Pelé also played on the Brazilian teams that won in 1962 and 1970. In the 1966 tournament, in England, he was brutally kicked in the early games and was finally sidelined by a Portuguese player’s tackle that would have earned an expulsion nowadays but drew nothing then.

With Pelé essentially absent, Brazil was eliminated in the opening round. He was so disheartened that he announced he would retire from national team play.

But he reconsidered and played on Brazil’s World Cup team in Mexico in 1970. That team is widely hailed as the best ever; its captain, Carlos Alberto, later joined Pelé on the Cosmos.

“I wish he had gone on playing forever,” Clive Toye, a former president and general manager of the Cosmos, wrote in a 2006 memoir. “But then, so does everyone else who saw him play, and those football people who never saw him play are the unluckiest people in the world.”

In a black and white photo, Pelé tightly hugging a teammate after leaping into his arms, his legs wrapped around him.
Pelé, right, hugging a teammate in 1958 after Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2 to win the World Cup. ©Associated Press/Reportagebild

Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born on Oct. 23, 1940, in Três Corações, a tiny rural town in the state of Minas Gerais. His parents named him Edson in tribute to Thomas Edison. (Electricity had come to the town shortly before Pelé was born.) When he was about 7, he began shining shoes at the local railway station to supplement the family’s income.

His father, a professional player whose career was cut short by injury, was nicknamed Dondinho.

Brazilian football players often use a single name professionally, but even Pelé himself was unsure how he got his. He offered several possible derivations in “Pelé: The Autobiography” (2006, with Orlando Duarte and Alex Bellos).

Most probably, he wrote, the nickname was a reference to a player on his father’s team whom he had admired and wanted to emulate as a boy. The player was known as Bilé (bee-LAY). Other boys teased Edson, calling him Bilé until it stuck.

One of Pelé’s earliest memories was of seeing his father, while listening to the radio, cry when Brazil lost to Uruguay, 2-1, in the deciding match of the 1950 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. The game is still remembered as a national calamity. Pelé recalled telling his father that he would one day grow up to win the World Cup for Brazil.

He signed his first contract, with a junior team, when he was 14 and transferred to Santos at 15. He scored four goals in his first professional game, which Santos won, 7-1. He was only 16 when he made his debut for the national team in July 1957.

When Brazil’s team went to the World Cup in Sweden the next summer, Pelé later said, he was so skinny that “quite a few people thought I was the mascot.”

Once they saw him play, it was a different story. Reports of this precocious Brazilian teenager’s prowess raced around the world. One account told of how, against Wales in the quarterfinals, with his back to the goal, he received the ball on his chest, let it drop to an ankle and instantly scooped it around behind him.

As it bounced, he turned — so quickly that the ball was barely a foot off the ground — and struck it into the net. It was his first World Cup goal and the game’s only one, and it put Brazil into the semifinals.

“It boosted my confidence completely,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The world now knew about Pelé.”

In a black and white photo, Pelé, in a white uniform, chases the ball during a soccer match while an opposing player sprawls on the ground at right.
Pelé in his debut game in 1975 with the New York Cosmos at Randalls Island Stadium. © Barton Silverman/The New York Times

The world now knew about Brazilian football, too. Pelé undoubtedly benefited from playing alongside other remarkably gifted ball-control artists — Garrincha, Didi and Vavá among them — as well as from Europe’s lack of familiarity with the Brazilian style.

Most European teams used static alignments; players seldom strayed from their designated areas.

Brazil, though, encouraged two of the four midfielders to behave like wingers when attacking. This forced opponents to cope quickly with four forwards, rather than two. Making things more difficult, the forwards often switched sides, right and left, and the outside fullbacks sometimes joined the attack. The effect dazzled onlookers, not to mention opponents.

After the semifinal against France, in which Pelé scored a hat trick in a 5-2 Brazil win, the French goalkeeper reportedly said, “I would rather play against 10 Germans than one Brazilian.”

The team went home to national acclaim, and Pelé resumed playing for Santos as well as for two Army teams as part of his mandatory military service. In 1959 alone, he endured a relentless schedule of 103 competitive matches; nine times, he played two games within 24 hours.

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Santos began to capitalize on his fame with lucrative postseason tours. In 1960, en route to Egypt, the team’s plane stopped in Beirut, where a crowd gathered threatening to kidnap Pelé unless Santos agreed to play a Lebanese team.

“Fortunately, the police dealt with it firmly, and we flew on to Egypt,” Pelé wrote in his autobiography.

He had become such a hero that, in 1961, to ward off European teams eager to buy his contract rights, the Brazilian government passed a resolution declaring him a nonexportable national treasure.

When Pelé was about to retire from Santos in the early 1970s, Henry A. Kissinger, the United States secretary of state at the time, wrote to the Brazilian government asking it to release Pelé to play in the United States as a way to help promote football, and Brazil, in America.

By then, two more World Cups, numerous international club competitions and tireless touring by Santos had made Pelé a global celebrity. So it was beyond quixotic when Toye, the Cosmos’ general manager, decided to try to persuade the player universally acclaimed as the world’s best, and highest paid, to join his team.

The Cosmos had been born only a month earlier, in one afternoon, when all the players had gathered in a hotel at Kennedy International Airport to sign an agreement to play for $75 a game in a country where football was a minor sport at best.

Toye first met with Pelé and Julio Mazzei, Pelé’s longtime friend and mentor, in February 1971 during a Santos tour in Jamaica. It took dozens more conversations over the next four years, as well as millions of dollars from Warner Communications, the team’s owner, for Pelé to join the Cosmos.

During that period, he became the top scorer in Brazil for the 11th time, Santos won the 10th league championship of his tenure, and Pelé took heavy criticism for retiring from the national team and refusing to play in the 1974 World Cup, in West Germany.

Toye made his last pitch in March 1975 in Brussels. Pelé had retired from Santos the previous October, and two major clubs, Real Madrid of Spain and Juventus of Italy, were each offering a deal worth $15 million, Pelé later recalled.

“Sign for them, and all you can win is a championship,” Toye said he told Pelé. “Sign for me, and you can win a country.”

To further entice him, Warner added a music deal, a marketing deal guaranteeing him 50 percent of any licensing revenue involving his name, and a guarantee to hire his friend Mazzei as an assistant coach. Pelé signed a three-year contract worth, according to various estimates, $2.8 million to $7 million (the latter equivalent to about $40 million today).

Clive Toye and Pelé embracing in front of a lectern with microphones from news outlets.
Clive Toye, the general manager of the Cosmos, with Pelé after the football star signed with the team in 1975. © Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

He was presented to the news media on June 11, 1975, at the “21” Club in New York. Pandemonium ensued: Fistfights broke out among photographers, and tables collapsed when people stood on them.

The hubbub continued when Pelé played his first North American Soccer League game, on June 15 at Downing Stadium on Randalls Island in the East River. It was a decrepit home; workers hastily painted its dirt patches green because CBS had come to televise the big debut. More than 18,000 fans, triple the previous largest crowd, shouldered their way in to watch.

At every road game during Pelé’s three North American seasons, the Cosmos attracted enormous crowds and a press contingent larger than that of any other New York team, with many journalists representing foreign networks, newspapers and news agencies.

Movie and music stars — including Mick Jagger, Robert Redford and Rod Stewart — showed up for home games, lured by Warner executives’ enthusiasm for their hot new talent.

The Cosmos moved to Giants Stadium in Pelé’s final season, 1977, and there, in the Meadowlands, reached the pinnacle of their — and the league’s — popularity. For a home playoff game on Aug. 14, a crowd of 77,691 exceeded not only expectations but also capacity, squeezing into a stadium of 76,000 seats.

That season, the Cosmos had added two more global superstars, Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany and Carlos Alberto of Brazil. (Later, in 1979, the Los Angeles Aztecs lured a third, Johan Cruyff of the Netherlands, to the league.) football seemed poised to enter the American mainstream.

But as it turned out, professional football was not yet ready to blossom in America, not even after the Cosmos won the 1977 league championship, in Seattle, or after Pelé’s festive farewell game in October, when he led the “Love!” chant and played one half for the Cosmos and the other half for the visiting team, his beloved Santos.

The league had expanded to 24 teams, from 18, and lacked the financial underpinnings to sustain that many games and that much travel. Nor could other teams match the Cosmos’ spending on top-quality players. The league went out of business after the 1984 season.

But at the grass-roots level, and in schools and colleges, football did take off. In 1991, the United States women’s national team won the first women’s World Cup. (The United States has won it three times since.)

In 2002, the men’s national team made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. And Major League Soccer has established itself as a sturdy successor to the N.A.S.L. (In 2011, the inaugural season of a new minor league with the N.A.S.L. name included a New York Cosmos team, of which Pelé was named honorary president.)

In June 2014, the city of Santos opened a Pelé Museum just before the start of the World Cup, the first held in Brazil since 1950. In a video recorded for the occasion, Pelé said, “It’s a great joy to pass through this world and be able to leave, for future generations, some memories, and to leave a legacy for my country.”

Pelé met Rosemeri Cholbi when she was 14 and wooed her for almost eight years before they married early in 1966. They had three children — Kelly Cristina, Edson Cholbi and Jennifer — before divorcing in 1982.

After his divorce, Pelé often appeared in the gossip pages, partying with film stars, musicians and models. He acted in several movies, including John Huston’s “Victory” (1981), with Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.

It also emerged that he had fathered two daughters out of wedlock. One, Sandra, whom he had refused to acknowledge, later sued for the right to use his surname. She wrote a book, “The Daughter the King Didn’t Want,” which he said greatly embarrassed him. She died of cancer in 2006.

His son, nicknamed Edinho, was a professional goalkeeper for five years before an injury ended his career. He later went to prison on a drug-trafficking conviction.

In 1994, Pelé married Assiria Seixas Lemos, a psychologist and Brazilian gospel singer; their twins, Joshua and Celeste, were born in 1996. They divorced in 2008. In his later years he dated a Brazilian businesswoman, Marcia Aoki, and he married her in 2016.

Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

In a color photo, Pelé, in a pale green leisure suit, greets two teams of boys sitting on a soccer field, one in red and pink uniforms, the other in blue and yellow uniforms.
Pelé greeting children during the inauguration of a football pitch in Rio de Janeiro in 2014. © Silvia Izquierdo/AP

His brother Jair Arantes do Nascimento, who was known as Zoca and also played for Santos, died in 2020.

Children always responded warmly to Pelé, and he to them. Neither big nor intimidating, he had a wide, easy smile and a deep, reassuring voice.

“I have never seen another human being who was so willing to take the extra second to embrace or encourage a child,” said Jim Trecker, a longtime football executive who was the Cosmos’ public relations director in the Pelé years.

Pelé was sensitive about having dropped out of school (he later earned a high school diploma and a college degree while playing for Santos) and often lamented that so many young Brazilians remained poor and illiterate even as the country had begun to prosper.

Indeed, the day he scored his 1,000th goal, in November 1969 at Maracanã stadium in Rio before more than 200,000 fans, Pelé was mobbed by reporters on the field and used their microphones to dedicate the goal to “the children.” Crying, he made an impromptu speech about the difficulties of Brazil’s children and the need to give them better educational opportunities.

Many journalists interpreted the gesture as grandstanding, but for decades, as if to correct the record, he cited that speech and repeated the sentiment.

In July 2007, at a promotional event in New York for a family literacy campaign, he said, “today, the violence we see in Brazil, the corruption in Brazil, is causing big, big problems. Because, you see, for two generations, the children did not get enough education.”

(On the subject of correcting the record, research for his 2006 biography turned up additional games played, and the authors concluded that the famous 1,000th goal was actually his 1,002nd.)

In London during the 2012 Olympics, Pelé joined a so-called hunger summit meeting convened by the British prime minister at the time, David Cameron, whose stated goal was to reduce by 25 million the number of children stunted by malnutrition before the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Pelé’s own venture into government began in 1995, when he was appointed Brazil’s minister for sport by then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Pelé began a crusade to bring accountability to the business operations of Brazil’s professional teams, which were still run largely as gentlemen’s clubs, and to reform rules governing players’ contracts.

In 1998, Pelé’s Law, as it was known, passed. It required clubs to incorporate as taxable for-profit corporations and to publish balance sheets. It required that players be 20 before signing a professional contract and gave them the right of free agency after two years (instead of after age 32).

Many of the provisions were later weakened, and corruption continued, but Pelé said he took pride that the free agency clause had survived.

Business deals gone awry plagued him throughout his life.

He himself said he was often gullible, trusting friends who were less competent than they appeared. In 2001, a company he had helped found a decade earlier, Pelé Sports and Marketing, was accused of taking enormous loans to stage a charity game for Unicef and then not repaying the money when the game failed to happen. Pelé shut down the company; Unicef said there had been no wrongdoing on his part.

While continuing to promote educational programs throughout his life, Pelé also pursued his musical avocation. He was never far from a guitar, and he carried a miniature tape recorder to capture tunes or lyrics as the mood struck him.

In a black and white photo, Pelé, shirtless and in shorts, playing a guitar on a lawn chair.
Pelé relaxing during the World Cup in Mexico in 1970. Pursuing a musical avocation, he was never far from a guitar. © Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos, via Getty Images

He composed dozens of songs that were recorded by Brazilian pop stars, usually without his taking credit.

“I didn’t want the public to make the comparison between Pelé the composer and Pelé the football player,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in 2006. “That would have been a huge injustice. In football, my talent was a gift from God. Music was just for fun.”

As he grew older, he often spoke of the difficulty of distinguishing between two personas: his real self, and the football superstar Pelé. He often referred to Pelé in the third person.

“One of the ways I try to keep perspective on things,” he wrote in his autobiography, “is to remind myself that what people are responding to isn’t me, necessarily; it’s this mythical figure that Pelé has become.”

His face remained familiar around the world long after his retirement from football. In 1994, when the World Cup was about to be played in the United States, Pelé sat in Central Park in New York waiting to be interviewed for ABC News. A teenager passed, did a double-take and then ran off; within minutes, people were streaming across the park to see him.

“There were hundreds of them,” Toye wrote in his own memoir. “Seventeen years after he last kicked a ball, this dark-skinned man is sitting in deep, dark shade under the trees — but he is still recognized, and once recognized, never alone in any country on earth.”

Source: New York Times

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