Here is a chapter from my book Planet Football – a set of profiles of great players
Pele: Planet Football
Pele, possibly the greatest player in the history of football, was born on October 23 1940. During a career lasting more than twenty years, Pele made vital contributions as Brazil won the World Cup three times, and also played a major role in the success of his two clubs, Santos and New York Cosmos. Pele was a prolific goalscorer, a player of incredible skill and imagination, who harnessed these individual qualities to the needs of the teams he was a member of, while always displaying great sportsmanship.
The man who was to become known throughout the world by the nickname Pele was given the full name Edson Arantes do Nascimento at his birth, which took place at Tres Coracoes, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Pele was born into a poor family, but found a way out of poverty through football, being inspired by his father Dondinho, a professional footballer who struggled to earn the money that his ability merited. Having shown prodigious potential, Pele was signed by Santos, a club based in the city of that name, within the state of Sao Paulo. In 1956, at the age of only fifteen. Pele scored the first goal of his professional career on his debut, as Santos beat Corinthians of Santo Andre (as opposed to the better known Corinthians club, based at Sao Paulo) 7-1. In the following year he gained a place in Brazil’s national team, scoring in his debut, which was a 2-1 defeat against Argentina on July 7. Three days later Brazil beat Argentina 2-0, with Pele again among the goalscorers. These two matches comprised the 1957 edition of the Roca Cup, a contest between Argentina and Brazil played at intervals between 1914 and 1976.
As a seventeen year-old, Pele helped Brazil win the 1958 World Cup, scoring six goals in his four appearances in the finals. After missing Brazil’s first two matches, Pele played in a 2-0 win against the Soviet Union. In the Quarter Finals, Pele scored the only goal of a match against Wales, following which a hat trick helped Brazil beat France 5-2 in the Semi Finals. Pele then scored two goals in the 5-2 win against Sweden, the host nation, in the Final. In 1959 Pele was the leading scorer in the Copa America, with eight goals in six matches, but Brazil finished as runners-up to the hosts Argentina. Surprisingly this was the sole occasion on which Pele played in the competition.
Brazil successfully defended the World Cup at the 1962 finals, staged in Chile, but Pele’s role was limited. He scored a brilliant solo goal in the 2-0 win against Mexico, but tore a thigh muscle – unleashing a long-range shot which hit a post – in the goalless draw with Czechoslovakia in the next match. Pele was unable to take any further part in the tournament, while Garrincha emerged as Brazil’s star player. Brazil met Czechoslovakia again in the Final, winning 3-1. In 2007 Pele was retrospectively awarded a 1962 World Cup winners’ medal, as FIFA recognised players who had been part of winning squads without previously receiving the relevant medal.
Pele helped Santos become Brazil’s leading club side during the 1960s, as they won various competitions in the fragmented domestic game. A cup competition that brought together the leading teams from the regional leagues served as an effective national championship, and Santos won the trophy each year from 1961 to 1965. Santos went on to win the Copa Libertadores in 1962, defeating Penarol in the Final. This in turn led to participation in the World Club Championship later that year. In the first leg, Santos beat Benfica 3-2, at the Maracana, in Rio de Janeiro, with Pele scoring twice. Santos thrashed Benfica 5-2 in the return match, over in Lisbon, with Pele scoring a hat track – he later wrote “the match was the best game of my career”. Santos also completed a treble success, as champions of Brazil, South America, and the world in 1963. After beating Boca Juniors in the Libertadores Final, Santos met Milan for the world title. Santos lost 4-2 at the San Siro, won by the same score at home, and took the play-off, in Rio, with a single goal victory. Pele scored twice in the first leg against Milan, but missed the remaining two matches due to an injury.
Brazil took an ageing team to England for the 1966 World Cup finals. They started with a 2-0 win against Bulgaria, in which Pele scored, but persistent physical challenges by the opposition left him with an injury. This caused Pele to miss the next game, in which Brazil were beaten 3-1 by Hungary. Brazil lost by the same scoreline against Portugal, causing their elimination from the tournament, with Pele suffering a brutal double foul by Morais, which left him as a passenger. Understandably aggrieved, Pele threatened not to play in the next World Cup.
Away from the football pitch, Pele had married Rosemeri Cholbi in February 1966. Pele and Rosemeri were to have three children, Kelly Cristina, born in 1967, Edson in 1970, and Jennifer in 1978. The couple separated shortly after the birth of Jennifer, and were soon divorced, as Rosemeri felt the strain of bringing up children while Pele was often away from home. Pele married for a second time in 1994, his new bride being Assiria Lemos Seixas. Two years later, Pele and Assiria became the parents of twins, named Joshua and Celeste. Pele is also the father of two daughters by other women, the children being Sandra Machado and Flavia Kurtz, who were born in 1964 and 1968 respectively.
In 1968 Santos won a new competition, played on a league basis, to become Brazilian champions for a sixth time. During 1968 and 1969 Santos competed in the Recopa Intercontinental, a tournament that brought together the clubs which had won the World Club Championship since its inception in 1960. Santos reached the Final, and beat Internazionale 1-0 in the first leg, at Milan, following which the Italian club declined to fulfil a second leg. Three years on from the 1966 finals, Pele returned to World Cup football. During August 1969 Pele appeared in each of Brazil’s qualifying matches in the 1970 competition, scoring six goals as they chalked up six straight wins. In November 1969 Pele scored the one thousandth goal of his career, in a match for Santos. Pele eventually amassed a career total of 1,283 goals in first class football, a total surpassed by only one other player, Arthur Friedenreich, another Brazilian.
Pele reached the peak of his career at the 1970 World Cup finals, staged in Mexico. Brazil began with a 4-1 win against Czechoslovakia, in which Pele scored once. Prior to his goal, Pele came close to a remarkable feat, as he received the ball in the centre circle and, seeing Ivo Victor, the Czech goalkeeper, standing well off his goal-line, lofted the ball from fifty yards out towards goal. Victor scrambled back, with little chance of reaching the ball, but Pele’s brilliance was not rewarded, with the shot travelling just wide. In the next match, Brazil beat England 1-0, but Gordon Banks denied a headed effort from Pele with an amazing save. The game was a great contest, symbolised by an embrace between Pele and Bobby Moore after the final whistle. Pele scored twice in a 3-2 victory against Romania. A 4-2 win against Peru in the Quarter Finals was followed by a 3-1 defeat of Uruguay in the Semi Finals. Pele did not find the target in either of those matches, but again went close with a memorable effort. In the match with Uruguay, Pele and Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, the opposing goalkeeper, were both chasing the ball, Pele ran to the left of his opponent on the edge of the penalty area, while allowing the ball to run to the right. Pele then changed direction, caught up with the ball, and shot from a narrow angle. The ball rolled across the goalmouth, out of the reach of retreating Uruguayans, but also just wide of the far post.
Pele opened the scoring in the Final, with a header, as Brazil beat Italy 4-1 to win the World Cup for the third time in four competitions. This was Pele’s twelfth goal in the World Cup finals, twelve years after his arrival on this stage, in Sweden. Four minutes from the end of the 1970 Final, Brazil climaxed their display with an immaculate goal. Tostao intercepted the ball near the Brazilian penalty area, and fed Wilson Piazza, who started a quick interchange of passes which saw the ball move to Clodoaldo, Pele, Gerson, and back to Clodoaldo, who then weaved past four Italians. Clodoaldo then stroked the ball to Rivelino, who in turn sent a long pass down the left wing to Jairzinho. The latter moved inside to lay the ball off to Pele, who pushed it into the path of Carlos Alberto, and he met the ball just inside the penalty area, with a thundering shot past Enrico Albertosi, the Italian goalkeeper.
In 2006 Carlos Alberto was given a trophy by FIFA, who had decided this was the most beautiful goal ever scored in the World Cup. In the same year, Pele explained (in his autobiography) that Brazil tried several times in the match to take advantage of “the avenue”, this being space freed on their right wing when Giacinto Facchetti, the Italian left back, followed as Jairzinho moved away from his normal position on the right wing. When Pele received the ball from Jairzinho, who was being tracked by Facchetti, “since I knew Carlos Alberto would be coming in on his own, I passed to him. We had practised the move, and it worked perfectly, Carlos Alberto driving the ball past Albertosi like a thunderbolt”. Although Pele does not mention it, film of the goal shows Tostao gesturing to Pele that he could pass to Carlos Alberto. Pele recalled that he and Carlos Alberto established a friendship playing together at Santos: “We had a synchronicity, and that was most delightfully demonstrated in that final World Cup goal”.
Pele retired from international football in 1971, having scored a national record of 77 goals in 92 appearances for Brazil. He remained a first choice player for Santos until he left the club in 1974 – sixteen years after his arrival. Lured to the USA by the excitement of the new North American Soccer League, Pele ended his career with New York Cosmos, playing for them from 1975 to 1977. New York Cosmos won the NASL in 1977, at which point Pele retired. A farewell match was staged between New York Cosmos and Santos, in which Pele played one half for each team, scoring for Cosmos, who won 2-1. The 75,000 crowd included Andy Warhol, who remarked “Pele is one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of fifteen minutes of fame he will have fifteen centuries”.
Since ending his playing days, Pele has continued enthusiastic involvement with football, and remained an influential figure. The description of football as “the beautiful game” is a phrase coined by Pele, featuring in an autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game, published in 1977. Four years later, Pele featured alongside various footballers, including Bobby Moore, plus actors, in the football fantasy film Escape to Victory. Pele never played at Wembley, but was guest of honour for the Football League Centenary match, staged at the stadium, during 1987. Twenty years later, in 2007, Pele was also guest of honour at a match between Sheffield FC, a non-league team, and Internazionale, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the formation of Sheffield, recognised by FIFA as the oldest football club in the world. The game was staged at Brammall Lane, home of Sheffield United, with Internazionale winning 5-2. In between these events, Pele received an honorary British knighthood, presented to him by Elizabeth II in 1997. Having been appointed a United Nations ambassador for ecology and the environment in 1992, Pele took on the role of Minister for Sport in the Brazilian government, serving in this post from 1995 to 1998, and overseeing a law that countered football corruption. Commercial ventures have included advertising campaigns for Mastercard and Viagra, the latter combined with Pele drawing attention to the issues surrounding erectile dysfunction. Amidst some controversy, Pele and Diego Maradona were jointly winners of the FIFA Player of the Century award in 2000. Maradona won an Internet vote of supporters, while Pele was selected by FIFA members. Twenty nine years after the publication of My Life and the Beautiful Game, there followed Pele: The Autobiography, which appeared in 2006, a year in which Pele and Claudia Schiffer paraded the trophy at the World Cup opening ceremony, in Munich. In the Preface to his new book, Pele wrote of his passion for football, and the way in which the game had made him a happy man. The Preface had a sub-title, with a phrase reflecting the unity of a game in which Pele has given so much to people around the world: “Planet Football”.