Pele, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, is to football (soccer), as Muhammad Ali is to boxing, Mario Andretti to motor sports, Tom Brady to American Football, Neil Armstrong to space, Patton to WW2, Albert Einstein to physics, Michael Jordan to basketball, Gary Sobers to cricket, Tiger Woods to golf, Usain Bolt to sprinting, Serena Williams to lawn tennis, and other heroes. Or what Thomas Edison is to science, the icon he was named after. These are all worthy icons, who transcend human achievement and life, each in his own domain.
Who is an icon? An “icon” is much more known than a celebrity, and is accorded to someone who leaves an indelible mark on media’s history, commanding strong significance, as well as achievement and reverence. They are persons who are unusually well known, and who people look up to, icons who, like Michel Platini, one of the greatest footballers of all time, and a player who would know, said, that “to play like Pele is to play like God.” Or as Pele settled this issue as to who was a greater soccer player, with another worthy contender, Diego Maradona, “But I score with right, left and head. And you not.”
One of the greatest players of all time and accorded “the greatest” by FIFA, Pele was in the highest tier of the successful and popular sports figures of the 20th century. He is the only player to win three FIFA World Cups: 1958, 1962 and 1970. In 1999, he was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and was included in the Time list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. In 2000, he was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) and was one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the Century. His 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, which includes friendlies, is recognized as a Guinness World Record.
Fittingly, Pele has a street named after him-Rua Edson Arantes do Nascimento in the city of Três Corações in Minas Gerais state in Brazil, where he was born in 1940. A statue of him is also prominently placed in a plaza near the city’s downtown. “The King of Football” (O Rei do Futebol), “The King Pelé” (O Rei Pelé) or simply “The King” (O Rei) is how he is known by. In 2014, the city of Santos inaugurated the Museu Pelé, or Pelé Museum, a display of 2,400 pieces collection of priceless Pele memorabilia, which cost approximately cost $22 million and was so large it had to be housed in a 19th-century mansion.
Among his contemporaries, Dutch star Johan Cruyff, who played against him, stated, “Pele was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.” Carlos Alberto Torres Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning captain, reiterated, “His great secret was improvisation. Those things he did were in one moment. He had an extraordinary perception of the game,” while a mesmerized Tostão, his strike partner at the 1970 World Cup echoed, “Pelé was the greatest- he was simply flawless. And off the pitch he is always smiling and upbeat. You never see him bad-tempered. He loves being Pele.”
His Brazilian teammate Clodoaldo confirmed the adulation he witnessed, “In some countries, they wanted to touch him, in some they wanted to kiss him. In others they even kissed the ground he walked on.” Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany’s 1974 World Cup-winning captain, and a great player in his own right, said, “Pele is the greatest player of all time. He reigned supreme for 20 years. There’s no one to compare with him.”
Pele’s greatness and uniqueness lay in the fact that he was the world’s first black sports icon, and weaved an aura of mystique and bewilderment. After the semifinal against France in 1958, in which a teenage 17-year-old Pele scored a hat trick in a 5-2 Brazil win, the French goalkeeper, reeling from Pele’s glorious skills, lamented, “I would rather play against 10 Germans than one Brazilian (Pele).”
After all, who else but Pele could have stopped a Civil War in Nigeria for two days in 1969, so both fighting sides could watch him play, at an exhibition match? These sagas of immortality, coupled with his humble beginnings from being born in a slum, and reared on dirt fields in Brazil, playing barefoot with a soccer ball made of rags, accredits him Biblical relevance to the King and Savior of the World who was similarly born in humble beginnings, a manger.
Pele’s early footballs were made of stuffing a sock with old newspapers held together with strings. Even grapefruits were used. Pele, the oldest of two children, supplemented his parent’s inadequate income by working in tea shops, and cleaning shoes at the local train station, until 1956. When his youth coach took him to Santos for a tryout at age 15, his world, and soccer, changed dramatically, so much so, that, at his death, NASA marked “the passing of the legendary Pele, known to many as the king of the “beautiful game.” This image of a spiral galaxy in the constellation Sculptor shows the colors of Brazil.”
His greatness lay to a large extent in his adeptness at dribbling the ball as if it was attached by an invisible string to his boots, explosively striking the ball with either foot, his speed and the uncanny ability to turn, accelerate and decelerate on a dime, all in a second, in addition to anticipating his opponents’ movements on the field, moves ahead, like a chess grandmaster. Much taller opponents marveled at how he defied gravity, and his jump and hang time were the highest and longest, enabling him to be the last to head the ball wherever he pleased. Little wonder he averaged almost a goal per game throughout his career.
Pele was a unique athlete. Medical tests revealed that his heart used to beat 56 to 58 times a minute, rather than the average 90 to 95 times a minute. His aerobic capacity was such that he could repeat a ‘great effort within 45 to 60 seconds’ and his peripheral vision was 30 per cent greater than an average athlete.
In the early 1970s, medical experts studied Pele’s body structure-the parallel feet, and the strong bones in his heels which helped his speed and acted as shock absorbers after a jump or a kick. For weeks, the New York Times added, they examined him, attached wires to his head for readings and measured his muscles before declaring: “Whatever this man might have decided to do in any physical or mental endeavor, he would have been a genius.”
Brazilian soccer star Neymar said, “Pele changed everything. He turned football into art, into entertainment. He gave a voice to the poor, to black people and especially. Gave visibility to Brazil. Football and Brazil have raised their status thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will remain. Pele is ETERNAL!!”
Another great, Cristiano Ronaldo, said, “A mere ‘goodbye’ to the eternal King Pele will never be enough to express the pain that currently embraces the entire world of football. An inspiration for so many millions, a reference from yesterday, today, forever. The affection he always showed for me was reciprocal in every moment we shared, even from a distance. He will never be forgotten and his memory will last forever in each of us football lovers. Rest in peace, King Pele. His legacy transcends generations. And that’s how he will live on. Today and always, we will celebrate you.”
On 1 June, 2022, Pelé published an open letter to the President of Russia Vladimir Putin on his Instagram account, in which he made a public plea to stop the “evil” and “unjustified” 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, an act that raises his profile even higher.
Pele sparked the growth of interest and participation in soccer in the United States by playing for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League late in his career, and must be credited for the popularity and development of the sport in the USA. His legacy extends to the entire world, who treasure human endeavor and excellence in whatever form.
These stars will fade away into legend and myth, but never die. And someday people will speak of these humans and their accomplishments and be met with skepticism for who would believe that such men and women really existed. RIP, and Thank You for the memories, King Pele. Rest assured that, because you will never be forgotten, your immortality will reign supreme in your field, and you are never really gone.