The death of Pelé (real name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento) earlier this year sent waves of sadness through many a sports aficionado.
You do not have to be a soccer fanatic to appreciate the exquisite talent of this extraordinary sporting performer whose “grace, athleticism and mesmerising moves transfixed players and fans. He orchestrated a fast, fluid style that revolutionised the sport – a samba-like flair that personified his country’s elegance on the field.”
So reported The Globe and Mail in their obituary of a sportsman whose skills transcended the game he dominated and transformed him into a global athletic icon. His record was astonishing. In an equally effusive report, The Economist observed that:
“Apart from anything else, his 1,279 goals in 1,363 matches is a world record that is unlikely to be surpassed. He was the complete player, a team man who often provided the killer pass for others to finish. The Economist quoted the words of Bobby Moore, the England captain who lost to him in the World Cup in 1970: ‘He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch.’”
At 5 ft 8 inches (1.73 metres) Pelé was not particularly tall, though height is not necessarily an advantage in soccer, a game that rewards ball control, positional sense and explosive speed over relatively short distances. And, in the case of a forward, the ability to take shots on goal with both feet.
Though regarded as a gentleman on the pitch, Pelé’s private life was considerably less restrained and disciplined – if three marriages and at least (numbers vary) seven children are anything to go by.
Retirement From the Game Wasn’t the End
After retirement in 1977, Pelé’s post-soccer life took many forms. He was a politician – Brazil’s Extraordinary Minister for Sport – a wealthy businessman, and an ambassador for UNESCO and the United Nations. He had roles in movies, soap operas and even composed songs and recorded CDs of popular Brazilian music.
His origins were humble (his great-grandparents had been enslaved) though unlike his influence as a role model, Muhammad Ali, he was never an activist. But, like Muhammad Ali, he was the embodiment of Black dignity and one of the first Black global superstars.
It has been observed that had he played in the game as it is played now and at the compensation levels superstar soccer players routinely earn, he would have been a billionaire.
Pelé’s Last Hurrah!
Pelé’s retirement game involved an exhibition match in 1977 when his then current team, New York Cosmos played his former Brazilian team, Santos. He played the first half with the Cosmos, scoring on a free kick, then switched sides in the second half to play with Santos.
During the pre-game ceremony, which was watched by such luminaries as Muhammed Ali, Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger, he said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to be here with you in this greatest moment of my life. I want to thank you all, every single one of you. I want to take this opportunity to ask you to pay attention to the young of the world, the children, the kids.”
Beloved By All
The standard-bearer of “the beautiful game”, Pelé was undergoing treatment for colon cancer (since 2021) when he died of multiple organ failure.
Nelson Mandela once said of him, “to watch him play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full.”
That is how he will be remembered.