The world has lost the face of football. The King has passed. A 17-year-old Brazilian became a global sensation at the World Cup in 1958, changing the tournament —and the sport — forever. Alongside his incredible success with Brazil and Santos, Pelé was honored with FIFA's Player of the Century Award in 2000, with an impressive seven Ballon d'Or wins (in the old format of the award).
Pelé Remains the Greatest Footballer of All Time. There Is No Debate.
For Brazil fans, Pelé's position as the greatest footballer of all time is undisputed. This question has been debated frequently — and fervently by the modern world. In recent times, it seems to be a neck-and-neck contest between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Older fans might clamor for the genius of Maradona or Cruyff. The field, however, clears quickly, and decisively, in favor of Pelé.
Pelé was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on 23 October, 1940 in Três Corações, Minas Gerais, Brazil. The son of Fluminense footballer, Dondinho (born João Ramos do Nascimento) and Celeste Arantes. Young Edson loved watching his father play. Dondinho, was a talented forward, but he suffered a knee injury that never quite healed and was usually playing through pain in a time when rehabilitation was not so prominent in sports.
Young Pelé grew up in poverty and used to polish shoes to help contribute to the family income. When Brazil lost in the final of the 1950 men’s World Cup — the first time they’d ever hosted the tournament — Edson saw his father cry for the first time. He went to his bedroom, kneeled before a picture of Jesus on the wall and wept, asking Jesus why Brazil was being punished.
He then started in the youth soccer program at Bauru, where his father had recently retired. The boy showed great interest for, and talent in, football. An 11-year-old Pelé caught the eye of Waldemar de Brito, a premier player of the nation.
Brito is said to have presented Pelé to skeptical directors at Santos, boldly stating that Pelé would be the greatest soccer player in the world. Pelé proved himself to Santos when, at the age of 16, he scored a goal in his very first team match, against Corinthians FC.
The world began to pay attention when a 17-year-old Pelé scored a whopping 6 goals during the 1958 World Cup, thereby leading the Brazil National Team to victory. Brazil won its first World Cup that year. He still is the youngest player to win the trophy.
Pelé went on to win three World Cups. He became the first black global sports superstar and the most famous human being on the planet, while becoming the best-paid athlete in the world. Brazil declared its star player a national treasure, thereby barring Pelé from playing for any non-Brazilian club or corporation.
Pelé was a vision on the field, with his agile 5 ft. 8 inches frame swiftly running across the arena, both feet expertly dribbling the ball. Besides being hailed for his extraordinary control of the ball and powerful kicks, Pelé also commanded admiration for his powerful head shots.
Pelé was in his prime between 1958–1970. Football was different then and the ball was considerably heavier compared to today. The quality of the pitches and clothing were nowhere near as advanced as they are today.
Two other factors were important: offside laws were more stringent during his time and red and yellow cards were only introduced in the 1970 World Cup! Liberal hacking of forwards was the norm during Pelé’s career. The disgusting fouls he received against Portugal in the 1966 World Cup is one of football’s ugliest scenes. The brutal attacks caused him to hobble through most of the match, as substitutions were not allowed at that time. The conditions were different and even difficult to play in when compared to today.
Pelé’s popularity was such that in 1975, that his $7M deal to play for the New York Cosmos made him the highest paid athlete in the world, after he came out of retirement to sign for them. His fame was catapulted in part by a trifecta of the times: TV, Pelé and Brazil — it all came together perfectly on the world’s biggest stage, to create a revenue model with global impact through football. A model that would provide endless and exponential growth.
Without Pelé, football would likely not have scaled to the heights that it did, and certainly not when it did or as quickly. Pelé was instrumental to the rise of football into the global sport that we know today. His astronomical fame and universal appeal helped popularize the sport across the globe. To the world, he invented all the dribbles, fakes and shots.
His three-time World Cup-winning feat, out of four World Cup appearances, is unlikely to be matched. Pelé scored a Guinness World Record 1279 goals in 1363 games, also collecting the following personal records and accolades along the way:
- Youngest winner of a World Cup
- Youngest scorer in World Cup — at age 17
- Top scorer of Brazil National Football Team — which, given their abundance of attacking riches speaks for itself
- One of only three people to have scored in four World Cup events
- Most assists in the World Cup, in an individual edition and overall
- Scoring twice in the Final (1958) aged 17, when in most countries people of that age are considered too young to drive or vote! (It would take another 60 years for Kylian Mbappe (2018) to become the first teenager to score in a World Cup Final since Pelé, although he was nearly two years older and only scored once.)
- Pelé scored a total of 1,283 first-class goals, including 77 for Brazil
- He won three World Cups, two World Club Championships and nine Sao Paulo State Championships
- He was voted athlete of the century by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1999
- In 1997, Pelé was given an honorary British Knighthood
- Brazil never lost a game when Pelé and the legendary Garrincha played together
Pele's dummy on Ladislao Mazurkiewicz - see our special editorial here
Our Favorite Quotes
“I sometimes feel as though football was invented for this magical player.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
"How do you spell Pelé?" The Times of London once declared, "G-O-D."
“Pelé was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.” — Johan Cruyff
“This debate about the player of the century is absurd. There’s only one possible answer: Pelé.“ — Zico
"Pelé doesn't die. Pelé will never die. Pelé is going to go on forever." — Pelé
“I was born to play football, just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint.“ — Pelé
We are certainly not alone in our eternal affection for a man who embodied the sport we play and love. Pelé is the original TENLEGEND. He defined the number. He is football.
Join us in celebrating Pelé,
Be a TENLEGEND™.
Terrific little vignettes . Thank you!