Pele’s death made the front pages of news outlets around the world. In his home country of Brazil, his 24-hour wake at his home soccer stadium drew an estimated 230,000 people, an amount generally reserved for beloved heads of state. It was quite an end for a soccer prodigy from Santos named Edson Arantes do Nascimento from a tiny rural town in Minas Gerais. Pele was and is the global face of soccer. He was 82. The cause was cancer, which he’d fought for several years.
His accomplishments on the soccer pitch are unsurpassed, with such highlights as leading Brazil to three World Cup wins (1958, 1962 and 1970), the first when he was 17. His club team Santos won 10 league championships. He is often cited as the inspiration for what Brazilians call “o jogo bonito” (the beautiful game), which is still the country’s famed style of play.
While stylish to watch, Pele’s skill set was peerless, executing pinpoint passes, possessing an impossible level of ball control and having an unwavering ability to attack. Others who played him often said there were no weaknesses to his game. He scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 professional matches, including 77 goals for the Brazilian national team. Countless signature scores led his team to victory, and he was the top scorer in Brazil nearly every year of his career.
In Brazil, Pele was the first Black man to gain universal recognition from all classes of Brazilian society, but he was a global phenomenon. In 1967, Pele’s appearance with Santos in Nigeria prompted a cease-fire to a civil war raging in that country.
The Brazilian government passed a resolution in 1961 that labeled Pele a non-exportable Brazilian treasure to keep Pele playing on his home turf rather than in Europe. However, he subsequently came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos for three years, leading his team to a title in the North American Soccer League in 1977.
Some criticized Pele’s sunny optimism, but he maintained it throughout his career and beyond, even when encountering personal setbacks. Before his final match in 1977, a friendly competition between the Cosmos and Santos, Pele took the microphone, flanked by his father and Muhammad Ali, exhorting 75,000 soccer fans at Giant Stadium. “Say with me three times now,” he declared, “for the kids: Love! Love! Love!” He played one half for each team.
His presence in New York jump-started professional soccer in the U.S., but the league went under in 1985. It nonetheless laid the groundwork for soccer in the U.S., taking root with kids, schools and colleges. Building this audience ultimately laid the groundwork for the well-established league we have today.
There will never be another
Soccer is a team sport where even the stars need a supporting cast. Pele certainly had that, but he was a singular presence. He showed us the positive impact sports could have and how they can transcend physical prowess to become a thing of beauty. Ted Lasso’s Dani Rojas is fond of saying, “Football is life.” Pele was a global folk hero who epitomized that sentiment in his play, disposition and life.