The King of Football and Player of the Century | Sunday Observer

The King of Football and Player of the Century

25 September, 2022
Pele at the World Cup in 1958
Pele at the World Cup in 1958

The legendary Brazilian professional footballer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, affectionately known as ‘Pele’ is regarded as one of the greatest football players of all time. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) labelled him “The Greatest.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) named him the “Athlete of the Century,” in 1999. He was awarded the Olympic Order, the highest IOC accolade in 2016 by the IOC President Thomas Bach saying: “In everything he does, both on and off the field, he exemplifies the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect.” Pele and Diego Maradona were joint winners of the “FIFA Player of the Century” in 2000.

Pele began playing for Santos Football Club at 15 and the Brazil National Team at 16. During his international career, he became the only player to win three FIFA World Cups: 1958, 1962 and 1970. He scored 12 World Cup goals and is credited with 10 assists in 14 appearances, including magical 4 goals and 7 assists in 1970 World Cup.

His emergence at the 1958 World Cup, becoming the first black global sporting star was a source of inspiration. He is attributed with connecting the phrase “The Beautiful Game” with football, Pele’s “electrifying play and penchant for spectacular goals” made him a star around the world. During his playing days, Pele was for a period the best-paid athlete in the world.

Averaging almost a goal per game throughout his career, Pele was adept at striking the ball with either foot in addition to anticipating his opponents’ movements on the field. While predominantly a striker, he could also drop deep and take on a playmaking role, providing assists with his vision and passing ability, and he would also use his dribbling skills to go past opponents.

Since retiring in 1977, Pele has been a worldwide ambassador for football. In Brazil, he is hailed as a national hero. In 2000, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) declared Pele as the “World’s Best and Successful Top Division Goal Scorer of All Time.” His goal scoring record is reported by FIFA as 1,281 goals in 1,363 games which is recognized as a Guinness World Record.

Birth, Youth and Family

Pele was born on October 23, 1940, in Tres Coracoes, Minas Gerais, Brazil. His parents were Fluminense footballer Dondinho (born Joao Ramos do Nascimento) and Celeste Arantes. He was the elder of two siblings and was named after the American inventor Thomas Edison but parents decided to call him “Edson.” However, there was a mistake on the birth certificate, leading to show his name as “Edison,” not “Edson.”

Originally nicknamed “Dico” by his family, he was dubbed “Pele” during his school days, because of his pronunciation of the name of his favourite player, local Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Bile, which he misspoke but the more he complained the more it stuck. In his autobiography, Pele stated he had no idea apart from the assertion that the name is derived from that of Bile, and that it is “miracle” in Hebrew.

According to Pele, futsal (indoor football) was a lot quicker than football on the grass and required to think faster because everyone is close to each other in the pitch. Pele credits futsal for helping him, to play with adults at 14. He once ended up ‘Top Scorer’ with 14 or 15 goals and Pele said, “that gave him a lot of confidence.”

In 1956, Pele joined Santos FC, and made his senior debut on September 7, 1956, at 15 against Corinthians Santo Andre, winning 7-1 and scoring his first goal. In 1957, at 16, Pele played for Santos and became the ‘Top Scorer,’ in the league and was called up to the Brazil national team. In 1961, Brazil declared Pele an “official national treasure.”

In 1958, Pele won his first major title Campeonato Paulista for Santos, becoming the ‘Top Scorer’ with 58 goals, a record that still stands. In 1959, he guided Santos to victory in the Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo. In 1960, Pele regained the Campeonato Paulista and won the Taça Brasil, qualifying his club to participate in the prestigious Copa Libertadores.

In 1962, Santos became Copa Libertadores champions with Pele scoring 4 goals. Also, Santos defended the Campeonato Paulista with 37 goals from Pele, the Taca Brasil with 4 goals by Pele and won the Intercontinental Cup with Pele producing a hat-trick.

In 1963, Santos became the first Brazilian team to emerge victorious in Argentine soil, winning Copa Libertadores with Pele scoring 5 goals and followed up winning the Intercontinental Cup and the Taca Brasil.

In 1964, Santos won the Campeonato Paulista, with Pele netting 34 goals, and the Taça Brasil for the fourth consecutive year. Pele regained the Campeonato Paulista in 1967, 1968 and 1969. On November 19, 1969, Pele scored his ‘One Thousandth Goal.’

Pele believes that his ‘Most Memorable Goal’ was scored at Rua Javari stadium on a Campeonato Paulista match on August 2, 1959. In March 1961, a goal worthy of a commemoration was scored by Pele and a plaque “the most beautiful goal in the history of the Maracana,” was erected.

Pele retired from Brazilian Club Football in 1974, after 19 seasons with Santos. In 1975, he signed with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL), making his debut on June 15, 1975, scoring one goal. He led the Cosmos to the 1977 Soccer Bowl, in his third and final season, with the quarterfinal attracting a US record of 77,891.

On October 1, 1977, Pele closed out his playing career in an exhibition match between the Santos and Cosmos. Pele’s father, Pele’s wife, legendary Muhammad Ali and English footballer Bobby Moore were present. Pele played the first half with the Cosmos, the second with Santos. Pele scored his final goal and the Cosmos retired ‘Number 10.’

Pele married Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi in 1966 and had three children: Kelly Cristina (January 13, 1967), Edson (August 27,1970) and Jennifer (1978). The couple divorced in 1982. In 1994, Pele married Assiria Lemos Seixas. She gave birth on September 28, 1996 to twins Joshua and Celeste and divorced in 2008. Pele also had another daughter, Flavia Kurtz, in an extramarital affair in 1968. Pele married Marcia Aoki, in July 2016.

Professional Career

Pele a prolific goal scorer, was known for his ability to anticipate opponents in the area and finish off chances with an accurate and powerful shot with either foot. Pele was also a hard-working team player, and a complete forward, with exceptional vision and intelligence, who was recognized for his precise passing and ability to link up with teammates and provide them with assists.

Pele’s unique playing style combined speed, creativity, and technical skill with physical power, stamina, and athleticism. His excellent technique, balance, flair, agility, and dribbling skills enabled him to beat opponents with the ball, and frequently saw him use sudden changes of direction to get past players, such as his signature moves, the “drible da vaca” and “little stop.”

Despite his relatively small stature, 1.73 metres (5 ft 8 in), he excelled in the air, due to his heading accuracy, timing, and elevation. Renowned for his bending shots, he was also an accurate free-kick taker, and penalty taker, although he often refrained from taking penalties, stating that he believed it to be a cowardly way to score.

Pele scored his first international goal against Argentina, aged 16 years and 9 months, at Maracana on July 7, 1957, and he remains the youngest goal scorer for Brazil.

Pele appeared at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, wearing his jersey Number 10. His first World Cup match was against the USSR. In the semi-final against France, Brazil was leading 2–1 at halftime, and then Pele scored a hat-trick, becoming the youngest in World Cup history to do so, aged 17 years and 244 days.

On June 29, 1958, in the World Cup final, Pele became the ‘Youngest Player’ and the ‘Youngest Goal Scorer’ at 17 years and 249 days, netting two goals and beating Sweden 5–2. Pele’s first goal where he flicked the ball over a defender before volleying into the corner of the net, was selected as one of the best in the World Cup history. Pele was named the ‘FIFA World Cup Best Young Player,’ and retroactively given the Silver Ball.

Pele was named the Best Player and Top Scorer with 8 goals at 1959 South American Championships. He scored in five of Brazil’s six games, including two goals against Chile and a hat-trick against Paraguay.

The 1962 World Cup in Chile, saw Pele scoring a goal to win against Mexico 2–0 and was injured in the next game with Czechoslovakia. However, Brazil won their second World Cup. The 1966 World Cup in England marked brutal fouls on Pele and Brazil was eliminated after three matches. Pele scored a goal against Bulgaria, to become the first player to score in three successive FIFA World Cups.

The 1970 World Cup in Mexico was expected to be Pele’s last and the Brazil’s squad is often considered to be the greatest football team in history. Brazil beat Czechoslovakia 4-1. In the match against England, Pele nearly scored with a header that was saved by the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks and it was often referred to as the “save of the century.” Brazil won 3–2 against Romania with Pele scoring two goals. In the quarter-final Brazil beat Peru 4–2. In the semi-final, Brazil beat Uruguay 3–1. In the final, Brazil beat Italy 4-1 and Pele was named the ‘World Cup Player of the Tournament.’

Pele’s last international match was on July 18, 1971, against Yugoslavia in Rio de Janeiro. With Pele playing, the Brazilian record was 67 wins, 14 draws and 11 losses. Pele was inducted to the American National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1992.

Records, Awards and Honours

His career records: Most Goals for Brazil - 77; Most goals for Santos - 643; Most goals in the Intercontinental Cup - 7; Most hat-tricks in world football - 92; Most career goals in world football - 1,283; Most assists provided in FIFA World Cup history - 10; Most assists provided in a single FIFA World Cup - 6; Most assists provided in FIFA World Cup Finals - 3; Most goals in FIFA World Cup Finals - 3 (shared) ; Most goals in a calendar year - 127.

All along his career and in his retirement, Pele received several individual awards for becoming the Top Scorer: Campeonato Paulista - 1957-1965, 1969, 1973; Ballon d’Or - 1958-1961, 1963, 1964, 1970; Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A - 1961, 1963, 1964; Intercontinental Cup - 1962, 1963; Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo - 1963; Copa Libertadores - 1965.

Besides, he was awarded: BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year - 1970; Bola de Prata - 1970; South American Footballer of the Year - 1973; Citizen of the World, by the United Nations - 1977; FIFA Order of Merit - 1984; Football Player of the Century - 1999; TIME: One of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century - 1999; Athlete of the Century, by Reuters - 1999; Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award - 2000; FIFA Centennial Award - 2004; FIFA 100 Greatest Living Footballers - 2004; BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award - 2005; Best Brazilian Player of the Century, by the IFFHS - 2006; Greatest Football Player to have Ever Played the Game, by Golden Foot - 2012; FWA Tribute Award – 2018.

Also, his teams were awarded: IFFHS All-time Men’s Dream Team - 2021; IFFHS South America Men’s Team of All Time - 2021; The NASL All-Star team - 1975-1977; Winner of France Football’s World Cup Top-100 1930–1990; World Team of the 20th Century - 1998.

The decorations bestowed on him: Knight of the Order of Rio Branco in 1967; Commander of the Order of Rio Branco in 1969; The Order of Champions in 1978; The FIFA Order in 1984; The Order of Merit of South America in 1984; The National Order of Merit (Brazil) in 1991; The Cross of the Order of the Republic of Hungary in 1994; Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (honorary knighthood) in 1997; The Olympic Order in 2016.


Pele always stood out for his charismatic leadership and sportsmanship on the pitch. His warm embrace of Bobby Moore following the Brazil vs England game at the 1970 World Cup is viewed as the embodiment of sportsmanship. Pele also earned a reputation for often being a decisive player for his teams, due to his tendency to score crucial goals in important matches.

Pele is one of the most lauded in the history and has been frequently ranked the best player ever. Presenting Pele, the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award, Nelson Mandela said, “To watch him play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full.”

During his playing days, Pele was for a period the highest-paid athlete in the world. He was known as “The Black Pearl,” “The King of Football,” “The King Pele” or simply “The King.” In 2014, the Pele Museum displaying 2,400 pieces of Pele memorabilia was inaugurated in Santos.

In 2014, Pele was awarded the first ever FIFA Ballon d’Or Prix d’Honneur for his contributions to world football. In 2009, Pele assisted the bid for Rio 2016 Olympics and attended the closing ceremony of London 2012 Olympics. In 2020, Pele was named in the Ballon d’Or Dream Team, a greatest all-time XI.

Pele is one of the most successful goal-scorers in the world, scoring 538 league goals, a total of 775 in 840 official games and a tally of 1,301 goals in 1,390 appearances during his professional senior career. In 1995, he was awarded Brazil’s gold medal for outstanding services to the sport.

In 1992, Pele was appointed a UN Ambassador for Ecology and the Environment and in 1994, as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. In 1995, the Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso appointed Pele as Extraordinary Minister for Sport.

Pele published several autobiographies, starred in documentary films, and composed musical pieces, including the soundtrack for the film Pele in 1977. He appeared in the 1981 film Escape to Victory. In 2007, Pele opened an exhibition displaying the original hand-written rules of football to mark the 150th anniversary of the Sheffield FC.

In 2010, Pele was introduced as the Honorary President of a revived New York Cosmos. In 2012, Pele received an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh for “significant contribution to humanitarian and environmental causes, as well as his sporting achievements.”

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He has a PhD, MPhil, and double MSc. His email is [email protected])