SAO PAULO – Pelé was simply “The King.” He embraced “the beautiful game” of soccer in his 1958 World Cup debut for Brazil and never really let go.
He won a record three World Cups and was widely regarded as one of his sport's greatest players. His majestic and galvanizing presence set him among the most recognizable figures in the world.
Pelé died Thursday at 82. He had undergone treatment for colon cancer since 2021.
Pelé was among the game’s most prolific scorers and spent nearly two decades enchanting fans and dazzling opponents. His grace, athleticism and moves on soccer’s highest stage transfixed all. He orchestrated a fast, fluid style of play that revolutionized the sport — a flair that personified Brazilian elegance on the field.
He carried his country to soccer’s heights and became a global ambassador for his sport in a journey that began on the streets of Sao Paulo state, where he would kick a sock stuffed with newspapers or rags.
“Pelé changed everything. He transformed football into art, entertainment,” Neymar, a fellow Brazilian soccer player, said on Instagram. “Football and Brazil elevated their standing thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will endure. Pelé is eternal!”
In the conversation about soccer’s greatest player, only the late Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned alongside him.
Different sources, counting different sets of games, list Pelé’s goal totals anywhere between 650 (league matches) to 1,281 (all senior matches, some against low-level competition). When Maradona once interviewed Pelé, he playfully asked the Brazilian how he accumulated so many goals.
The player who would be dubbed “The King” was introduced to the world at 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the youngest player ever at the tournament.
Pelé was the emblem of his country’s World Cup triumph of 1970 in Mexico. He scored in the final and set up Carlos Alberto with a nonchalant pass for the last goal in a 4-1 victory over Italy.
The image of Pelé in a bright-yellow Brazil jersey, with the No. 10 stamped on the back, remains alive with soccer fans everywhere. As does his trademark goal celebration — a leap with a right fist thrust high above his head.
Pelé’s fame was such that in 1967 factions of a civil war in Nigeria agreed to a brief cease-fire so he could play an exhibition match in the country. He was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. When Pelé visited Washington to help popularize the game in North America, it was the U.S. president who stuck out his hand first.
"You don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pelé is,” Ronald Reagan said.
Pelé was Brazil’s first modern Black national hero but rarely spoke about racism in a country where the rich and powerful tend to hail from the white minority.
Opposing fans taunted Pelé with monkey chants at home and all over the world.
“He said that he would never play if he had to stop every time he heard those chants," said Angelica Basthi, one of Pelé’s biographers. "He is key for Black people’s pride in Brazil, but never wanted to be a flagbearer.”
Pelé’s life after soccer took many forms. He was a politician — Brazil’s Extraordinary Minister for Sport — a wealthy businessman, and an ambassador for UNESCO and the United Nations.
He had roles in movies, soap operas and even composed songs and recorded CDs of popular Brazilian music.
Pelé was an ambassador for his sport until his final years but as his health deteriorated his travels and appearances became less frequent. After needing a hip replacement, he started using a cane.
He was often seen in a wheelchair during his final years and did not attend a ceremony to unveil a statue of him representing Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team.
“He gets very shy, he gets very embarrassed," his son Edinho told Globoesporte.com. "He doesn’t want to go out.”
Pelé spent his 80th birthday with a few relatives.
Pelé spent a month hospitalized in 2021 after surgery to remove a tumor from his colon. Pelé said he was ready “to play 90 minutes, plus extra time,” but soon started chemotherapy.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, in the small city of Tres Coracoes in the interior of Minas Gerais state on Oct. 23, 1940, Pelé grew up shining shoes to buy his modest soccer gear. His father was also a player.
Pelé’s talent drew notice when he was 11, and a local professional player brought him to Santos’ youth squads. Despite his youth and 5-foot-8 frame Pelé’ scored against grown men with the same ease he displayed against friends back home. He debuted with the Brazilian club at 15 in 1956, and the club quickly gained worldwide recognition.
The name Pelé came from him mispronouncing the name of a player called Bilé. He later became known simply as ‘O Rei’ – The King.
Pelé went to the 1958 World Cup as a reserve but became a key part for his country’s championship team. His first goal, in which he flicked the ball over the head of a defender and raced around him to volley it home, was voted as one of the best in World Cup history.
“When Pelé scored,” veteran Swedish midfielder Sigge Parling said, “I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding.”
The 1966 World Cup in England — won by the hosts — was a bitter one for Pelé, by then already considered the world’s top player. Brazil was knocked out at the group stage and Pelé, angry at fouls and hard tackles by Portugal, swore it was his last World Cup.
He changed his mind and was rejuvenated in the 1970 World Cup. In a game against England, he struck a header for a certain score, but the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks flipped the ball over the bar in an astonishing move. Pelé likened the save — one of the best in World Cup history — to a “salmon climbing up a waterfall.” Later, he scored the opening goal in the final against Italy, his last World Cup match.
In all, Pelé played 114 matches with Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals — including 77 in official matches. Most of his goals came with Santos, which he led to five national titles, two Copa Libertadores trophies and two club world championships — all in the 1960s.
His run with Santos stretched over three decades until he went into semi-retirement after the 1972 season. Wealthy European clubs tried to sign him, but the Brazilian government intervened to keep him from being sold, declaring him a national treasure.
On the field, Pelé’s energy, vision and imagination drove a gifted Brazilian national team, with intricate passing combinations slicing defenses while leaving room for players to showcase flashy skills.
The fast, fluid style of play exemplified “O Jogo Bonito” — Portuguese for “The Beautiful Game.” And at the center of it all, like a maestro in command of his orchestra, was Pelé. It was his 1977 autobiography, “My Life and the Beautiful Game,” that made the phrase part of soccer’s lexicon.
In 1975, he joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Although he was past his prime at 34 years old, Pelé briefly gave soccer a higher profile in North America before ending his career on Oct. 1, 1977, in an exhibition between the Cosmos and Santos. Among the dignitaries on hand was perhaps the only other athlete whose renown spanned the globe — Muhammad Ali.
Pelé had two daughters out of wedlock and five children from his first two marriages, to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He later married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki.
Azzoni is based in Madrid.