Pelé: Legendary Brazilian Soccer Superstar Dies at 82

The Brazilian superstar played in 4 World Cups and was the only player to win 3, in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Andy Warhol: “Instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.”


Pelé, the legendary Brazilian who made soccer popular in places that hadn’t yet embraced the “beautiful game”–including the U.S., has died. He was 82.

An unequaled hero of fútbol, Pelé died Thursday, December 29, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, after diagnosed with colon cancer in 2021.

Pelé burst onto fame during the 1958 World Cup tournament, where he scored three goals in semifinal match and two more in the final at the age of 17, capping brilliant and emotional victory for the Brazil national team.

He would win two more World Cup titles before joining the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League in 1975.

He’s the only player in history to play on 3 world champion teams, amazing feat considering 140 countries vie for the World Cup every four years.

In 1969, Brazil issued postage stamp with Pelé’s, celebrating his 1,000th goal, and FIFA in 1999 named him Co-Player of the Century along with Diego Maradona of Argentina, the same year the International Olympic Committee voted him Athlete of the Century.

In 1970, an unparalleled 900 million viewers watched Pelé in his last televised World Cup game.

Nelson Mandela

Political statesmen remarked on his skill and influence. “To watch him play was to watch the delight of child combined with extraordinary grace of a man in full,” South Africa president Nelson Mandela said in 2000.

“Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us. For those who love soccer, Pelé is a hero,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in Time in 1999.

Ronald Reagan

“My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the president of the United States. But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pelé is,” Reagan joked when meeting him in the 1980s.

Artist Andy Warhol once remarked, “Pelé was one of the few who contradicted my theory: Instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.”

In 1967, at the height of popularity, 48-hour cease-fire was declared during the Nigerian Civil War so that both sides could watch Pelé play when he visited.

A former Brazilian ambassador to the U.N. said that during the years Pelé played, “he did more to promote world friendship and fraternity than any other ambassador anywhere.”

Pelé also dabbled in acting, playing himself. He co-starred in Hotshot, 1987 movie about an American soccer player who seeks his advice.

He also wrote and produced films and appeared in the 1981 Sylvester Stallone movie Escape to Victory.

A singer and musician, he composed the soundtrack to the 1977 movie Pelé.

In 2016, Brian Grazer produced Pelé: Birth of a Legend, which focused on his childhood, and 2021 Netflix documentary looked at his life from 1958-70, from young superstar to national hero.

Pelé appeared on ‘Mike Douglas Show’ in 1978 with the host and Jerry Lewis. EVERETT

He was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento (after Thomas Edison) on Oct. 23, 1940, in the town of Tres Coracoes in Minas Gerais in Brazil. Everyone called him Dico until the nickname Pelé came to him as boy, though he was unsure why his playmates began to call him that.

His father made meager living as professional footballer who never recovered from serious knee injury, and his mother insisted that he choose a different, more stable profession.

As boy, he played soccer barefoot with other children. “We would stuff the largest man’s sock we could find with rags or crumpled-up newspaper, roll it into as close a ball shape as we could manage and tie it around with string,” he wrote. “Brazilians learn to kick as soon as they learn to stand up; walking comes later.”

At age 7 he began shining shoes, at the Bauru Athletic Club, where his father played. The money he earned went to the household, though he admits holding back a bit of it so he could attend a movie occasionally.

When his dad finally found second job–aide in health clinic– Pelé helped him by emptying bedpans and making coffee while his dad told tales of the famous soccer players he knew. “His love of the game came through in every word he uttered,” Pelé wrote.

He and friends created a soccer club and raised money for ball and uniforms by selling soccer cards, stacking firewood and rolling fresh cigarettes from discarded butts. When the gang was desperate, they sold peanuts they stole, but this activity led to tragedy when a team member was killed in mudslide near a cave where they hid the stolen nuts.

They named themselves the September 7th Club, honoring Brazil’s Independence Day and the name of street they played near, but they preferred their nickname, the Shoeless Ones.

When he got drunk on wine, his father spanked him, and he swore off liquor.
As an adult, Pelé was overwhelmed with offers to endorse products–he became soccer’s first millionaire–but never accepted offers to promote cigarettes or liquor.

When he was 12, his soccer got boost when mayor of Bauru created youth tournament that pitted neighborhood teams against one another, but participants were required to wear shoes.

A man with 3 sons on Pelé’s team agreed to supply used shoes in exchange for being allowed to coach them and rename the team, “Ameriquinha,” which, in Portugese, means “Little America.”

The final game of the tournament was played at BAC Stadium, where his father played. The stadium was packed with 5,000 fans, and Ameriquinha took first place. Some fans threw coins onto the field, which were given to Pelé, the smallest member of his team, because he was the leading scorer. His mother made Pelé share the money with teammates.

Ameriquinha’s coach moved when Pelé was 13 and the team disbanded, but BAC was starting juvenile team and invited him to join. Valdemar de Brito, former World Cup player, was the coach, and it was the first time Pelé was afforded new shoes. The coach permitted no swearing or arguing, even off the field, and asked his players to stop reading local newspaper because it was publishing stories about the team and he feared that reading them would turn his players into “prima donnas.”

He joined additional club at age 14, and was offered tryout with the Bangu Club, pro team larger than the one of his father’s. His mother wouldn’t allow it because Pelé would move to Rio de Janiero.

The Santos Football Club made him a similar offer, and his mother acquiesced. His parents bought him the first long pants he owned and shipped him off to Vila Belmiro, where — after two failed attempts at sneaking back home because he feared he was too young and too small to compete — he settled into roles with the Santos Juvenile and Infantile teams, though he trained with the “first team.”

Still underage in 1956, he was under contract–technically illegal–Santos earned the equivalent of $60 per month.

His debut with Santos Club first team was during “friendship” game against Cubatao. Santos won 6-1 and Pelé scored 4 goals. The first time he scored in a game that counted was, ironically, on Sept. 7. It was 1956 and he was 15.

At age 16, he got 20 percent raise and signed legal contract with Santos. Shortly thereafter, Pelé played for Santos in the Maracana Tournament in the capital in front of the largest crowd he had ever seen in his life, and he scored 3 goals.

He played in the World Cup tournament, where he became the youngest player ever to score–at 17 years and 239 days old.

Pelé played his last game for Brazil in 1971 when 180,000 fans shouted in unison, “Fica! Fica!” [“Stay! Stay!”]

In 1974, he attended the World Cup as TV commentator.

Pelé scored 400 goals for Santos before the age of 20, even though he was often double- or triple-teamed by defenders, and Santos won 11 league championships during his tenure. On Oct. 2, 1974, at the 20-minute mark during his final game with Santos, he caught the ball with his hands in mid-play, placed it in the center of the field, knelt down and raised his arms, tears streaming down. The crowd roared, and Pelé disappeared into the stadium’s tunnel.

The gesture signaled his retirement, but a year later he signed for $1.4 million annually to play for the New York Cosmos, a team owned by Warner Communications that played in the North American Soccer League. While the NASL was not  popular, Pelé’s debut game was broadcast by CBS to dozens of countries.

Fans banner wishing Pelé well during World Cup match between Brazil and South Korea, Dec. 5, Doha, Qatar. FRANCOIS NEL/GETTY IMAGES

Pelé played his last professional game on Oct. 1, 1977, exhibition match between the Cosmos and Santos, where he played half the match on one team and the other half on the other in front of capacity crowd at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The game was televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Youth soccer has become one of the biggest participation sports since Pelé’s prediction, and viewership for pro soccer exploded in the U.S. in 2014, with 18.2 million viewing the U.S. play Germany in the World Cup.

Pelé began endorsing products after his 1958 World Cup debut, beginning with a $1,000 deal to hawk Tetra-Pak’d milk. In 2014, his contracts totaled $73 million to endorse Volkswagen, Hublot watches, Emirates Airlines, Subway sandwiches–according to Sports Illustrated.

What set Pelé apart from Maradona and current soccer stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, wrote S.L. Price, “was that quality of kinetic joy. Every run and goal, all 1,283 of them, seemed to signal his thrill at being alive.”

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