It was on this day seventy-five years ago that perhaps the greatest footballer ever to grace the game was born. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known as Pelé, celebrates his seventy-fifth birthday on October 23, 2015. He was born in 1940 in the town of Três Corações, from the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Pelé is more than just a footballing icon, as he has appeared in countless commercials, movies, magazines and signs with his beaming smile, lent his voice in songs and has been a source of inspiration, not just in his native Brazil, but around the world. For his contributions in football on and his humanitarian causes off the pitch, he has earned the nickname of O Rei, The King. Pelé’s ascent to footballing royalty started at a very young age. Young Edson, known as Dico by his family, grew up in the impoverished neighborhood of Bauru in the state of São Paulo. As the son of a former footballer – Bauru star Dondinho – he couldn’t afford an actual ball, but made due with a ball made of rags and socks to hone his skills. At age 15, Waldemar de Brito, a former player with the Brazilian national team turned coach, was impressed with Pelé’s talent, and convinced his family that he should head to Santos Futebol Clube to play professionally.
— Muhammad Ali (@MuhammadAli) October 23, 2015
At Santos, Pelé became an instant phenom and a future superstar just from his first days at the club. Not even at age 16, he would score his first professional goal against Corinthians of Santo Andre in September 1956, four months after joining the club. In 1957, the Brazilian media were abuzz with the phenomenal play of this wonderkid, as the 17-year-old Pelé, now promoted to a starting role in Santos FC’s senior team, led the Paulista (São Paulo State Championship) in goals. Brazil’s national team came and called him up to represent the nation, ten months after signing for Santos. The 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden was when the world got its’ first taste of Brazil’s young prodigy. It had been eight years since Brazil’s catastrophic defeat in the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay in Brazil. He promised his father Dondinho that he one day he’ll win the World Cup. Pelé shined whenever he had a chance, while fighting off a knee injury early in the tournament. He became the youngest player to play in a World Cup match, the youngest player ever to score a goal and a hat-trick in the World Cup, and the youngest player to play and score in the final, as Brazil would win the final over the hosts Sweden, 5-2. Pelé himself would record a brace. In four matches, the 17-year-old Pelé scored six goals, wearing the now iconic number 10 jersey. Pelé’s superstar status in Brazil after the 1958 World Cup victory exploded to heights never before seen anywhere else. Everything seemed set for the 1962 World Cup in Chile to be all about the now 21-year-old Pelé and Brazil. Santos FC had their best year with their talisman at number 10, as the Peixe (Fish) won the Paulista state title, the Brazilian league, and the first of two consecutive Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cups. But, with Brazil, Pelé suffered an injury against Czechoslovakia that would put him on the sidelines and out, but Brazil would still win the World Cup for the second consecutive time. It was around this time that Brazil labeled Pelé a national treasure, and the nation would refuse to let their idol leave to play elsewhere. European giants like Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United looked to obtain the Brazilian’s signature, but were rejected. Pelé was still seen as the best player in the world as the 1966 World Cup approached. But a nightmare for Brazilian fans awaited for the two-time defending champions in England. The star-studded Brazilians would get eliminated in the group stage, and Pelé suffered a considerable amount of fouls from opposing teams, namely the Bulgarians and Portuguese in the two games he played in. He would only score one goal, but he became the first player to score in three World Cups. In an era before substitutions were made, Pelé limped around Goodison Park in pain as Brazil were soundly defeated by Eusebio and Portugal 3-1. The abuse was so harsh, Pelé considered never playing in a World Cup again. The following year in 1967, Santos FC, using Pelé as a celebrity and ambassador to share the joys of football globally as they have been throughout the 1960s, were called into a rare situation. At the height of the Nigerian Civil War, the two opposing factions agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire, just to let Pelé and the Peixe entertain in their nation’s capital, Lagos. Santos still remained a top side in Brazil. Although Pelé was still considered the best player in the world, time was catching up with him heading into the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Brazil had an even stronger and more formidable than in previous years. With Pelé headlining in his fourth and final FIFA World Cup, the Seleção topped Italy 4-1 in the final. He scored four times in the 1970 World Cup, his fourth and last goal would be, fittingly, Brazil’s 100th goal scored in World Cup play. The celebrations for a third Brazilian World Cup were a coronation fit for a King.
Pelé’s time on the pitch had neared its end. By 1974, Pelé had announced his retirement. However, in a stunning and daring move, the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League acquired the rights to Pelé for over a then-unheard of $1 million. Pelé’s presence with the Cosmos boosted the popularity of the sport in the United States, and fans came in droves to see him in action. The NASL itself blew up in popularity as other elite star players, like George Best, Eusebio and Cosmos teammate Franz Beckenbauer came to the league. It all culminated in Pelé’s last season playing the sport he loved so much, 1977. The Cosmos defeated the Seattle Sounders 2-1 to win Soccer Bowl ’77 in Portland. In an emotional send-off match in October of that year at Giants Stadium, Pelé wore the uniforms for the two clubs he played for in a friendly between the Cosmos and Santos. He retired having scored a whopping total of 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.
After hanging up his playing boots, Pelé became an ambassador for UNICEF, the UN, and in his native Brazil. He has received many accolades and awards for his humanitarian efforts. Many of the playing records he set nearly fifty years ago still stand today. With Santos, Pelé became a key contributor to the Peixe’s ten Paulista state championships, six Brazilian league titles, two Copa Libertadores and International Cups, and five consecutive Taca Brasil (Brazilian Cup) titles from 1961 to 1965. He and Argentine legend Diego Maradona were both FIFA’s Player of the 20th Century in 1999. Now at 75 years old, Pelé leaves behind a timeless legacy shined further by his love of O jogo bonito, the beautiful game.