Born into poverty – he used to kick a grapefruit in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais – Pelé ended his career arguably the greatest football player of all time.
He was that rarity; like Muhammad Ali, Pelé was a sports star, who transcended his sport.
The Brazilian brought joy and creativity to a sport often stuck in rigidity and personified o jogo skipjack – “The beautiful game.”
“Pelé changed everything,” current Brazil international Neymar Jr. wrote after news broke of Pelé’s death.
“He turned football into art, into entertainment. He gave a voice to the poor, to black people and above all. He gave visibility to Brazil.
From dazzling at the age of 17 in 1958 en route to his first World Cup success to winning the Ballon d’Or as a player in the 1970 World Cup as he won a third world title, “O Rei(“The King”) has achieved almost everything possible in the famous yellow and blue of Brazil.
And there were goals – lots of them.
Pele has scored 757 goals in 812 official matches for club and country. However, there is disagreement over the number of goals he has scored in his career. According to Reuters, the Brazilian Football Association and Santos claim that Pele has scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 games, although FIFA puts the number at 1,281 goals in 1,366 games.
But it wasn’t just the phenomenal number of goals he scored. As Neymar suggests, Pelé was also an artist on the pitch.
“Even though he wasn’t using a brush or a pen, but just had a ball at his feet,” says CNN Sport’s Don Riddell.
The world first got a glimpse of Pelé at the 1958 World Cup.
“When we arrived in Sweden, nobody knew what Brazil was. They know Argentina… Uruguay. It was a surprise for us,” Pelé told CNN in 2016.
At the age of 17 years and seven months, Pele became the youngest person to play in a World Cup, a record the Brazilian held until Norman Whiteside of Northern Ireland took the record in 1982.
Almost 15 years after leaving the world in turmoil at the 1958 World Cup, Pelé hung up his boots for the Selectionbequeathing to his nation the most successful legacy in World Cup history and the most feared team in international football.
Pele’s crowning glory for Brazil came at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, a tournament further romanticized by being the first World Cup broadcast in color.
Throughout this tournament, Pelé has drawn a trail of technicolor splendour, a haze of yellow and gold, alluring and bewitching opposing teams.
His four goals earned him Player of the Tournament honours, crowned by an assist on Carlos Alberto’s stunning goal in the final against Italy.
“We won the World Cup, and I think in my sporting life (it was the pinnacle), without a doubt,” Pelé told CNN.
Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich summed up Pelé’s superhuman genius well: “I said to myself before the match, he is made of skin and bones like everyone else. But I was wrong.”
Even the moments when Pele didn’t score helped cement his legendary status – notably England keeper Gordon Banks’ incredible block on the Brazilian’s powerful header in a group game, which is widely regarded as the greatest save all time.
“The save was one of the best I’ve ever seen – in real life and in the thousands of games I’ve watched since,” Pele wrote in a 2019 Facebook post in tribute to Banks after the death of the goalkeeper.
“When you’re a footballer you know straight away how good you hit the ball. I hit that header exactly as I had hoped. Exactly where I wanted it to go. And I was ready to celebrate.
“But then this man, Banks, appeared to my eyes, like some kind of blue ghost.”
Despite playing all but three years of his club career with Brazilian side Santos, Pele’s drive, ball majesty and lethality in front of goal helped him become one of the earliest stars world football championships.
Pelé admitted to CNN in 2015 that he had a lot of interest from Europe to cross the Atlantic, but chose not to do so out of loyalty and “love” for Santos; yet another reason why he is so beloved in his homeland.
“In the past it was a loving profession, now it’s just a profession,” Pelé said.
“There is not this love to play for my club, to play for my country. Obviously, a footballer must live from the game. It is different from my time.
Such has been his impact as a football player, Pele has also become the symbol of a new country, according to a recent Neflix documentary.
“To deal with that, I think he creates this character of Pelé, someone who almost kind of gives up his own identity to essentially become Brazil,” documentary co-director Ben Nicholas told CNN. on the life of the Brazilian.
As well as shouldering the burden of a country’s aspirations on the world stage, the rise of the Brazilian military in 1964 which showed interest in football as a tactical and political strategy – in particular, targeting the 1970 World Cup as a “government issue” – presented a problem for the apolitical Pelé, according to the Netflix documentary.
“There’s a really telling line at the end of the movie,” said the documentary’s other director, David Tryhorn, “where you expect Pelé to give us maybe a ‘Pele-ism,’ where he would speak of joy and happiness, but he actually speaks of “relief”.
The GOAT football debate will rage until the end of time – is it Pelé? Or is it Diego Maradona? Or Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
But Brazil’s pure love and adoration for Pelé is unmatched and goes beyond being an excellent footballer, but a totem for a nation.