Pelé, called “the Black Pearl,” was one of the greatest soccer players in the history of the game. With a career total of 1,280 games, he may have been the world’s most popular athlete in his prime.
Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, who took the name Pelé, was born on October 23, 1940, in Tres Coracoes, Brazil, the son of a minor league soccer player. Pelé grew up in an extremely poor neighborhood, where one of the only sources of entertainment for a poor boy was to play soccer, barefoot and with a makeshift ball. Many players on the Brazilian soccer fields gained nicknames that had no apparent meaning. His father was dubbed “Dondinho” and young Edson took the name “Pelé,” though he does not recall how or why he picked up the name.
Soccer’s National Treasure
Pelé signed with Santos and immediately started practicing with the team’s regulars. He scored the first professional goal of his career before he turned 16, led the league in goals in his first full season and was recruited to play for the Brazilian national team.
The world was officially introduced to Pelé in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Displaying remarkable speed, athleticism and field vision, the 17-year-old erupted to score three goals in a 5-2 semifinal win over France, then netted two more in the finals, a 5-2 win over the host country.
The young superstar received hefty offers to play for European clubs, and Brazilian President Jânio Quadros eventually had Pelé declared a national treasure, making it legally difficult for him to play in another country. Regardless, Santos club ownership ensured its star attraction was well paid by scheduling lucrative exhibition matches with teams around the world.
More World Cup Titles
Pelé aggravated a groin injury two games into the 1962 World Cup in Chile, sitting out the final rounds while Brazil went on to claim its second straight title. Four years later, in England, a series of brutal attacks by opposing defenders again forced him to the sidelines with leg injuries, and Brazil was bounced from the World Cup after one round.
Despite the disappointment on the world stage, the legend of Pelé continued to grow. In the late 1960s, the two factions in the Nigerian Civil War reportedly agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire so they could watch Pelé play in an exhibition game in Lagos.
The 1970 World Cup in Mexico marked a triumphant return to glory for Pelé and Brazil. Headlining a formidable squad, Pelé scored four goals in the tournament, including one in the final to give Brazil a 4-1 victory over Italy.
Pelé announced his retirement from soccer in 1974, but he was lured back to the field the following year to play for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League, and temporarily helped make the NASL a big attraction. He played his final game in an exhibition between New York and Santos in October 1977, competing for both sides, and retired with a total of 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.
The Legend Lives On
Retirement did little to diminish the public profile of Pelé, who remained a popular pitchman and active in many professional arenas.
In 1978, Pelé was awarded the International Peace Award for his work with UNICEF. He has also served as Brazil’s Extraordinary Minister for Sport and a United Nations ambassador for ecology and the environment.
Pelé was named FIFA’s “Co-Player of the Century” in 1999, along with Argentine Diego Maradona. To many, his accomplishments on the soccer field will never be equaled, and virtually all great athletes in the sport are measured against the Brazilian who once made the world stop to watch his transcendent play.