Born into poverty (he used to kick a grapefruit in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais), Pelé finished his career as arguably the greatest soccer player of all time.
He was that rarity; Like Muhammad Ali, Pelé was a sports star, who transcended his sport.
The Brazilian brought joy and creativity to a sport often stagnant in rigidity and personified or nice game – “the beautiful game.”
“Pele changed everything,” current Brazil international Neymar Jr. wrote after Pelé’s death was announced.
“He turned football into art, into entertainment. He gave a voice to the poor, to black people and especially. He gave visibility to Brazil.”
From dazzling as a 17-year-old in 1958 on his way to his first World Cup success to claiming the Ballon d’Or as a player in the 1970 World Cup by winning a third world title, “Oh King” (“The King”) achieved almost everything possible with the famous yellows and blues of Brazil.
And there were goals, many of them.
Pelé scored 757 goals in 812 official matches for club and country. However, there is disagreement over how many goals he scored in his career. According to Reuters, Brazil’s football association and Santos say Pelé scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 games, although FIFA puts the figure at 1,281 goals in 1,366 games.
But it wasn’t just the phenomenal amount of goals he scored. As Neymar suggests, Pelé was also an artist on the pitch.
“Even if he didn’t use a paintbrush or a pen, he just had a ball at his feet,” says CNN Sport’s Don Riddell.
The world saw Pelé for the first time in the 1958 World Cup.
“When we arrived in Sweden, no one knew what Brazil was. They know about Argentina…Uruguay. It was a surprise for us,” Pelé told CNN in 2016.
At the age of 17 years and seven months, Pelé became the youngest person to play in a World Cup, a record that the Brazilian held until Northern Ireland’s Norman Whiteside achieved that milestone in 1982.
Almost 15 years after leaving the world in anguish at the 1958 World Cup, Pelé hung up his boots for the selectionbequeathing his nation the legacy of being the most successful team in World Cup history and the most feared team in international football.
Pelé’s crowning moment for Brazil came at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, a tournament further romanticized for being the first World Cup broadcast in color.
Throughout that tournament, Pelé blazed a trail of technicolor splendor, a blur of yellow and gold, seducing and bewitching rival teams.
His four goals earned him the player of the tournament award, crowned by an assist on Carlos Alberto’s stunning goal in the final against Italy.
“We won the World Cup, and I think in my life in sport (that was the pinnacle), without a doubt,” Pelé told CNN.
Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich summed up Pelé’s superhuman genius very well: “I told myself before the game that he is made of skin and bones like everyone else. But he was wrong.”
Even the moments when Pelé didn’t score helped cement his legendary status, particularly England goalkeeper Gordon Banks’ incredible block on the Brazilian’s powerful header in a group match, widely considered the greatest save of all. the times.
“The save was one of the best I have seen in my life, in real life and in the thousands of games I have watched since,” Pelé wrote in a 2019 Facebook post in tribute to Banks after the goalkeeper’s death. .
“When you are a footballer you know right away how well you have hit the ball. I hit that header exactly as I expected. Exactly where I wanted it to go. And he was ready to celebrate.
“But then this man, Banks, appeared before my eyes, like some kind of blue ghost.”
Despite playing all but three years of his career for Brazilian club Santos, Pelé’s dynamism, majesty on the ball and lethality in front of goal ensured he became one of world football’s first black stars.
Pelé admitted to CNN in 2015 that he was very interested in Europe to cross the Atlantic, but decided not to do so out of loyalty and “love” for Santos; Another reason why he is so loved in his native country.
“Before it was a profession full of love, now it is just a profession,” Pelé said.
“There is no such love for playing for my club, playing for my country. It is clear that a footballer needs to make a living from the game. “It’s different from my time.”
Such was his impact as a footballer, that Pelé also became the symbol of a new country, according to a recent Neflix documentary.
“To deal with that, I think he creates this character of Pelé, someone who almost gives up his own identity to essentially become Brazil,” Ben Nicholas, co-director of the documentary about the Brazilian’s life, told CNN.
In addition to carrying the weight of a country’s aspirations on the world stage, the rise of the Brazilian army in 1964, which showed interest in football as a tactical and political strategy – in particular, pointing to the 1970 World Cup as a “ question of government” – presented a problem for the apolitical Pelé, according to the Netflix documentary.
“There’s a really revealing line at the end of the film,” said the documentary’s other director, David Tryhorn, “in which Pelé is expected to give us maybe a ‘peléismo,’ where he would talk about joy and happiness, but actually talks about ‘relief.’”
The football debate about the GOAT will continue until the end of time: will it be Pelé? Or is it Diego Maradona? Or Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
But Brazil’s pure love and adoration for Pelé is unmatched and goes beyond just an excellent footballer, but rather a totem of a nation.