There is possibly only a handful of people in World football that can justifiably be considered as true footballing legends. Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, better known as Pelé to you and I, is one of them. In fact, many would argue that he is the only legend of our game. The stats don’t lie – they are stacked favourably in his direction. Consider these numbers for a moment, if you will:
Games Played: 1276
Goals Scored: 1201
Astonishing isn’t it? To think a player that only played for two senior clubs and his national team throughout his entire career, was worth an average of 0.94 goals a game. The stats are truly unbelievable – the stuff of fiction, even.
Despite those amazing statistics, goals alone do not a great player make. Take Scotland’s very own Kris Boyd, for example – the moody striker is a true marksman in the penalty box if ever there was one, at least he was in his time in Scotland with Kilmarnock and, more recently, Rangers. However, the rest of his game leaves little to be desired – and the less said about it the better. Before you laugh, I’m in no way trying to compare Mr Boyd to Mr Nascimento, I’m simply highlighting that, to be considered a great player, most would agree that a forward must have more in his locker than simply goals.
Pelé had the goals – that part came as standard – but he had so much more to offer and, being Brazilian, it was easy for him to have a locker bursting with footballing skill and ability. He played with an abundance of creativity and was extremely skilful and strong on the ball. Many opponents struggled to even get near him due to his excellent off the ball running and movement, which seemed to come so naturally to him. His footballing greatness was once highlighted in the 1958 World Cup final when Sweden player, Sigge Parling, later admitted that “after the fifth goal, I felt like applauding.” – the Swede alluding to Pelé’s complete dominance of the game.
Pelé was only 15 when he signed for Santos of Brazil. Before the offer of a professional contract came along he would spend hours practising his football skills out in the streets with a sock stuffed with newspaper, or occasionally with a grapefruit – presumably when his socks were in the washing! It’s humbling to learn that someone who became an icon the world over for his football ability couldn’t even afford a football to play with when growing up – it simply has all the ingredients of a Hollywood feel good movie.
Pelé won the 1958 World Cup with Brazil at the age of 17. Yes, that’s right, you can read that sentence again if you like. While us mere mortals just dreamt of even managing to sign a semi-professional contract at that age, Pelé had already scored a hat-trick in a World Cup semi-final and two goals in the final itself. He remains the youngest player ever to score a goal at a World Cup finals, at 17 years and 239 days.
Despite the astonishing start to his International career, however, Pelé would not play in another World Cup final for the next twelve years – where he appeared in the 1970 show-piece game in Mexico against Italy. This was due to injuries he sustained in group games in the 1962 and 1966 finals in Chile and England respectively. With the latter tournament seeing him subjected to some abysmal tackles against the likes of Bulgaria and Portugal – which culminated in him being badly injured, never to take to the field again on English soil. I guess that’s what happens when you are the greatest player in the World; if they can’t get the ball off you, they’ll just kick you!
Pelé lifted the 1970 World Cup (Jules Rimet Trophy) in Mexico as part of a Brazil team widely regarded as the greatest ever to win the tournament; which included the likes of Jairzinho, Rivelino and Carlos Alberto. This is the game that included the amazing nine pass move that ended with Pelé setting up Carlos Alberto to score the 4th goal against Italy – I’d imagine there’s not a football fan in the World that hasn’t watched this historic piece of footage. Brazil won the game 4-1 and Pelé was elevated to God-like status in the newspapers of England the day after due to his captivating displays in the tournament – the likes of which have never been seen again in subsequent World Cup finals.
The year before the Mexico finals, on November 19th 1969, Pelé scored his 1000th goal at the Maracana Stadium in Brazil. Ironically, this didn’t come from his brilliance during the normal run of play but instead came from the penalty spot. It mattered not, though, as it was still an astonishing 1000 goals scored and the local authorities in the city of Santos decided that, forever more, November 19th would be known as ‘Pelé Day’ to celebrate this amazing feat.
After an unbelievable career with Santos and Brazil, Pelé quit playing football in 1974, before returning a year later to sign for New York Cosmos. Despite being passed his best at that point, he stayed with Cosmos for three years and helped them to win the 1977 NASL Championship in his final season in football. He played for the final time in his career in an exhibition match between Cosmos and Santos at Giants Stadium in New York, where he played a half each for both sides, scoring a direct free-kick against Santos – his last ever goal. The Cosmos number 10 shirt was retired at half-time and presented to Pelé, who subsequently gave it to his father.
Since finishing with football, Pelé has gone on to become an Ambassador for various causes, most notably with the U.N. for Ecology and the Environment. He has also been given numerous awards in his retirement, such as the Gold Medal for outstanding services to sport in 1995, and the title of Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. His only real involvement in football again was when he was employed as a scout by Fulham in 2002 and, more recently, when he was appointed Honorary President of New York Cosmos.
Pelé’s football career spanned 22 years and in that time, if you discount his swansong with New York Cosmos, he was loyal to one football team. Despite approaches from Juventus, Man Utd, Real Madrid and AC Milan to sign him, he never saw the need to leave the team that gave him his chance in football by leaving for Europe. Times have changed, I know. Money talks in a big way in this day and age and player loyalty has sadly become a thing of the past. Who knows how Pelé would have managed in the fast paced leagues of today – I doubt that if he played in Europe he would enjoy such healthy goalscoring escapades, but I’m sure he would still be a force to be reckoned with and probably still the greatest in the World.