Pele: RIP, the king of kings

Pele Obituary

It’s possible to refer to Pele as the greatest footballer that ever lived and still underestimate his effect on the sport.

There can be few people in the world who have never heard of him. He transcended boundaries both geographical and sporting. When he burst onto the world scene as a fresh-faced 17-year-old and single-handedly turned the World Cup into the global mega-event it is today.

Here’s a test for you. Name two more famous sporting characters from the 20th century than Pele or Muhammad Ali.

You can’t can you? Pele was huge, even before a time of celebrity and brands. He was the first black superstar in any sport.

FIFA launched the World Cup to provide a professional global competition for which the amateur-populated Olympic Games was struggling to contain. It failed to truly ignite interest from everywhere. After WWII it was seen as an ideal vehicle to reunite the world. But even the iconic Magnificent Magyars of 1954 weren’t able to fully turn the fire into a rage.

What the tournament needed was a focal point. It needed a young man who could epitomise the values FIFA desired for the game. A poor man turned into a superstar based on what he could do with a football, not where he was from or how he was educated. It set football up as the sport for the working man. It’s such a simple game, can be played anywhere, indoors, outdoors anywhere. Play it in the street with your mates, and only one of you needs the vital equipment to get the game started.

There had been ‘superstars’ within the game before Pele arrived. Stanley Matthews, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano, Arthur Kinaird. But none of them reached into the public’s psyche like Pele did.

Maybe he was lucky television was beginning to take an interest. But then maybe television was lucky there was a character such as him to pin their hopes on.

The evolution of the human race is such that within every sport participants will get faster, stronger, fitter and healthier. Records will aways be broken. There are players who will score more goals than Pele. Someone is going to win more World Cups than him. But they will all be treading a path he created. You can never take away the mark any pioneers have made throughout history, and there’s little doubt Pele was a pioneer.

Born in October 1940, in Minas Gerais in South-East Brazil, the man was so famous many people knew him by his nickname (Pele) and his real name, Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

He grew up in poverty in Sao Paulo, not able to afford a proper football. Futsal was where he learned his craft, giving him the ability to think quickly and react faster than others.

He was playing for Santos by the time he was 15, and an international player once he was 16, scoring on his debut against Argentina. At 17 he set the 1958 World Cup alight in Sweden as he fulfilled the dreams of over 200 million Brazilians in winning the trophy for the first time in their history.

The torment of 1950 was forgotten as the kid scored a hat-trick in a Semi-Final win over France, the youngest to do so, to take them into the Final. He was the youngest player to play in a World Cup Final as his two goals earned a 5-2 win. His second goal was voted as one of the best ever as he flicked the ball up over a defender and volleyed it past the keeper into the corner of the net.

From there the number 10 shirt became iconic throughout South America. Six goals in four games also earned him the best young player award.

By the next tournament in Chile came around, Pele was the best player in the world. In their first match against Mexico, he scored one and made one as they looked ominous in opening their account. But in the next game against Czechoslovakia he injured himself going for a long-range shot and that was his World Cup over with.

Brazil retained their title. When they arrived in England in 1966 they were favourites to make it three in a row. Pele scored in the opening game from a free-kick against Bulgaria becoming the first player to score in three successive World Cups. But then the Bulgarians proceeded to kick lumps out of him, to such an extent he missed the next match against Hungary. Back for the game against Portugal, he was subjected to even further violence rendering him only able to limp through most of the game as substitutes weren’t allowed at the time.

Brazil and their talisman limped out of the tournament at the group stage and the most famous footballer in the world vowed never to set foot inside a World Cup stadium again.

He wasn’t seen again in a Brazil shirt for another two years. Initially reluctant he was eventually persuaded back and scored twice in a 4-0 win over Paraguay. It was his 59th goal in 60 internationals.

When he arrived in Mexico two years later for his fourth World Cup, a record at the time, he had 71 goals to his name.

The 1970 World Cup was to be his last and yet possibly his best. Brazil under Mario Zagallo, one of Pele’s teammates back in 1958, were a formidable prospect. Tostao, Jairzinho, Rivellino, Gerson, Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo. The names have gone down in folklore and their conductor was Pele. This was a man on a mission, still smarting from having been kicked out of the last campaign, there would be no stopping him this time.

On target in the opening win over Czechoslovakia, he would’ve scored in the next game too but for a phenomenal save from Gordon Banks. Two goals against Romania had them flying.

Brazil and Pele have always claimed the win over England was crucial as it gave them a far easier route to the Final where Italy were waiting. Both nations had won the trophy twice, so when Brazil romped away with a 4-1 win they were allowed to keep it.

Pele opened the scoring with a header which looked far easier than it was. Bending his back with his head slightly behind, he still managed to gain enough purchase on the ball to see it fly into the top corner. The sight of him being held aloft with his arm in the air went all around the world.

Pele remains the only man in history to win the World Cup three times.

His last appearance for his country came in July 1971 when Yugoslavia were the visitors to the Maracana. His international career ended with a record of 77 goals in 92 appearances. Brazil never lost a game when he and Garrincha were on the pitch, and they won 67 of the games he played in.

He possessed a unique set of skills. Strong with both left and right feet, he had a great turn of pace coupled with technical skill and immense strength. His dribbling skills were legendary as was his heading ability.

For all his innate will to win and competitiveness, his sportsmanship was something which really stood out. Another iconic photo of him is after the England match in 1970 when he and Bobby Moore exchanged shirts and congratulated each other as if they were both winners.

Moore would go onto speak of his compatriot in glowing terms;

“Pelé was the most complete player I’ve ever seen, he had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only five feet and eight inches tall, yet he seemed a giant of an athlete on the pitch. Perfect balance and impossible vision. He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch. I remember Saldanha the coach being asked by a Brazilian journalist who was the best goalkeeper in his squad. He said Pelé. The man could play in any position.”

Almost every player who has played the game alongside the man, or in the years since he retired have claimed he is head and shoulders above every other. Maradona is often compared and it is possible to make a case but with Pele you got the whole package of the player and the man.

He only played for two clubs. Santos, who gave him his big break, where he scored 643 goals. A record which stood for 46 years until Messi beat it. Then after retiring he was enticed back into the game by New York Cosmos. The North American Soccer League (NASL) was finally trying to crack soccer in the States and gambled on the biggest name they could think of.

As the phrase goes, “build it- they will come”, Pele opened the door for many other stars to follow. Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Neeskens, Moore, Best, Carlos Alberto, Banks, Eusebio, you name it, they all made it.

Having lead them to the Soccer Bowl in 1977 he announced another retirement. October 1977 saw him play for both sides in a specially arranged game against Santos. In the second half it started raining, leading to a Brazilian newspaper to come up with the headline “Even the sky was crying”.

He spent the rest of his life in various ambassadorial roles for both FIFA and the Brazilian FA. In 1994 he was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Three years later he was given an honorary knighthood by the Queen.

According to the much-revered statisticians, RSSSF, he is one of the most successful goalscorers in history. 1,301 goals in 1,390 matches including friendlies and tour games. His list of honours is as long as your arm.

With Santos he won Serie A five times and the Copa Libertadores twice. As mentioned earlier he won the Soccer Bowl with the Cosmos and of course there’s the small matter of three times winning the World Cup.

In December 2000 he shared the FIFA Player of the Century award with Maradona.

One other thing I mentioned earlier was the progress humans have made over the years with regards fitness, strength and health. When you consider the conditions today’s players benefit from with pitches like snooker tables, diet and sports technology able to push them further than ever before it is remarkable no player has beaten his goalscoring record for Brazil. Neymar recently equalled his 77-goal record over 50 years since the great man gave up playing.

Many have questioned why Pele played so many friendlies. He dedicated himself to the sport. He travelled the world giving people will little the ability to see what football could do for them as it had done for him. He never gave up thanking football for what it made him.

There are many stories of him visiting Africa on numerous occasions. How he paused the civil war in Nigeria. He was often feted more than the leaders of many of the countries he visited.

I started following football in the 1975-76 season and although I never saw Pele play it was blindingly obvious who everyone around me believed was the greatest. Even people who didn’t follow the sport knew who he was.

Stories were passed down and the joy and reverence held within the words, as people recalled performances they’d never witnessed before, was so evident.

Stories of his attempt to score from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia in 1970 and his dummy of the Uruguay keeper in the same tournament were recounted with due awe and respect.

Players just didn’t do that sort of thing back then. Well, they may have but never on such a huge stage, the biggest of all.

I have heard some scoff he didn’t score in either instance. This misses the point. I was told these stories before I’d seen the evidence for myself. They were told with such enthusiasm my young mind was hooked. Maybe he was meant to miss? Maybe if he’d have scored we would all have said we would never be able to do that? Maybe this demonstrated how tough the chances were?

The word ‘iconic’ is rightfully the cloth which adorns his table. His, is the table under the brightest spotlight and pride of place within the sport’s most illustrious ceremony.

The footballers of today have much to thank him for. Television and the media has much to be grateful for.

Much as Queen Elizabeth II was known simply as ‘The Queen’, there are many players of the past 60 years have been referred to as the King, but Pele was always THE King.

His Twitter account just simply announced to the world;

“Inspiration and love marked the journey of king Pele, who peacefully passed away today. Love, love and love, forever”

Daniel Austin put it succinctly;

“When monarchs die and people do the ‘what a life and service, he/she did so much for the betterment of the country’ thing, they’re actually more accurately talking about rare people like Pele.

A star whose talent gave an entire young nation a place in the world. Some legacy”

The FA released a tribute;

“Everyone who loves football, loves Pele. His unique talent  lit up the game, and inspired the world.

Our thoughts are with his family, the Brazil Football Confederation and the Brazilian people”

Wembley’s arch was lit in Brazil colours to mark his passing, as tributes have poured in from all peoples throughout the world.

When Maradona died Pele wrote how he hoped one day he’d ‘play ball with Maradona in the sky’. Today is the day.