Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, winner of a record three World Cups, has died at the age of 82

SAO PAULO — Pelé, the Brazilian king of soccer who won three world titles and became one of the most powerful sports figures of the last century, died Thursday. He was 82.

The flag bearer of “The Beautiful Game” has been in treatment for colon cancer since 2021. He had been hospitalized with multiple ailments over the past month.

His agent Joe Fraga confirmed his death.

Widely considered one of football’s greatest players, Pelé spent nearly two decades enchanting fans and impressing opponents as the game’s top scorer with Brazilian club Santos and the Brazil national team.

His grace, athleticism and mesmerizing moves enchanted players and fans alike. He orchestrated a fast, flowing style that revolutionized the sport—a samba-like flair that embodied his country’s elegance on the field.

He led Brazil to the height of football and became the world’s ambassador for his sport on a journey that began on the streets of Sao Paulo state, where he kicked a sock stuffed with newspapers or rags.

When talking about the greatest football players, apart from Pelé, only the late Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi are mentioned.

Various sources counting different series of games put Pelé’s total goals between 650 (league games) and 1,281 (all senior games, some against low-level competition).

The player who would later be dubbed ‘The King’ was introduced to the world at the age of 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, becoming the youngest ever player at that tournament. He was carried off the field on the shoulders of his team-mates after scoring twice in Brazil’s 5-2 win over the host nation in the final.

Injury limited him to just two games as Brazil retained the 1962 World Cup title, but Pelé was the landmark of his country’s World Cup triumph in Mexico 1970. He scored in the final and set up Carlos Alberto with a smooth pass to score the last goal in a 4-1 win over Italy.

The image of Pelé in a bright yellow Brazil jersey with the number 10 stamped on the back stays alive with football fans everywhere. As does his trademark goal celebration – a right-fist leap high above his head.

Such was Pelé’s fame that in 1967 factions of a civil war in Nigeria agreed on a brief truce so he could play an exhibition match in the country. He was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. When he visited Washington to help popularize the game in North America, it was the US President who first reached out.

“My name is Ronald Reagan, I am the President of the United States of America,” the host said to his visitor. “But you don’t have to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pele is.”

Pelé was Brazil’s first modern black national hero, but he rarely spoke about racism in a country where the rich and powerful tend to come from a white minority.

Opposing fans taunted Pelé with monkey chants at home and around the world.

“He said that he would never play if he had to stop every time he heard those chants,” said Angelica Bastihi, one of Pelé’s biographers. “He’s the key to black pride in Brazil, but he never wanted to be a flag-bearer.”

Pelé’s life after football took many forms. He was a politician, Brazil’s extraordinary sports minister, a wealthy businessman and ambassador to UNESCO and the United Nations.

He had roles in films, soap operas, and even composed songs and recorded CDs of popular Brazilian music.

As his health deteriorated, his travels and appearances became less frequent. In his final years he was often seen in a wheelchair and did not attend a ceremony unveiling a statue of him representing the 1970 Brazil World Cup team. Pelé spent his 80th birthday in isolation with a few family members in a beach house.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940 in the small town of Tres Coracoes in the interior of Minas Gerais state, Pelé grew up wearing shiny shoes to buy his modest football gear.

Pelé’s talent attracted attention when he was 11 and a local professional player brought him to the Santos youth teams. It didn’t take long for him to make the senior team.

Despite his youth and 5ft 8 height, he scored against grown men with the same ease he displayed against friends back home. He made his debut for the Brazilian club in 1956 at the age of 16 and the club quickly gained worldwide recognition.

The name Pelé came from mispronouncing the name of a player named Bilé.

He competed as a reserve player at the 1958 World Cup but became a key player for his country’s championship team. His first goal, in which he flicked the ball over a defender’s head and sped around them to volley it home before touching the ground, was voted one of the best in World Cup history.

The 1966 World Cup in England – won by the hosts – was bitter for Pelé, who was already considered the world’s best at the time. Brazil were eliminated in the group stage and Pelé, furious at the rough treatment, vowed it would be his last World Cup.

He changed his mind and was rejuvenated at the 1970 World Cup. In a game against England, he scored a header for a certain number of points, but great goalkeeper Gordon Banks flicked the ball over the bar in an amazing move. Pelé likened the parade – one of the best in World Cup history – to a “salmon climbing a waterfall”. He later scored the opening goal in the final against Italy, his last World Cup game.

In total, Pelé played 114 games for Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals, 77 of them in official matches.

His run at Santos spanned three decades until his semi-retirement after the 1972 season. Wealthy European clubs tried to sign him, but the Brazilian government intervened to prevent his sale and declared him a national treasure.

On the field, Pelé’s energy, vision and imagination fueled a gifted Brazil national team with a fast, fluid style of play exemplified by ‘O Jogo Bonito’ – Portuguese for ‘The Beautiful Game’. His autobiography “My life and the beautiful game” published in 1977 made the sentence part of the football lexicon.

In 1975 he joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Although he was 34 and well past his prime, Pelé elevated football to a higher level in North America. He led the Cosmos to the league title in 1977, scoring 64 goals in three seasons.

Pelé ended his career on October 1, 1977 in a show between Cosmos and Santos in front of 77,000 spectators in New Jersey. He played half the game with each club. Among the dignitaries in attendance was perhaps the only other athlete whose fame spanned the globe – Muhammad Ali.

Pelé went through difficult times in his personal life, notably when his son Edinho was arrested for drug-related offences. Pelé had two illegitimate daughters and five children from his first two marriages to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He later married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki.

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https://abc7.com/pele-brazil-soccer-death/12628269/ Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, winner of a record three World Cups, has died at the age of 82

Laura Coffey

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