No single word carries greater connotations of the beautiful game than Pelé.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but known around the world as Pelé, the greatest player of his generation has died after a battle with colon cancer and a respiratory infection in São Paulo. He was 82.

Hailed by many in Brazil as “O Rei” (“The King”), and by FIFA as “The Greatest”, Pelé left an indelible mark on world sport with an incredible facility for scoring goals on the biggest stage.

The true number of goals Pelé scored — officially 1,279 from 1,363 games — may be questioned.

But whether that number is exact or not, his status as one of the most iconic and potent strikers of all time is unmatched.

Pele as seen from behind points wearing the Brazil yellow number 10 shirt
Pelé made the number 10 shirt for Brazil his own.(Getty Images: S&G/PA Images)

His role in shaping the cultural identity of Brazil as one of the sport’s first truly global superstars is immeasurable.

For many, Pelé came to define football. And as a result, he cemented Brazil’s association with the sport.

Pelé led the affirmation that Brazil should be idolised as a beacon of footballing excellence, his exploits at three World Cups helping a nation struggling with what poet Nelson Rodrigues called a “mongrel complex” to develop its sense of self on the world stage.

It was a feat that led to him being revered by all.

“I was never one for idols. That said, I’m a good Brazilian and so it’s only inevitable I look up to Pelé,” 1994 World Cup winner Romário said.

“He’s like a God to us — well, he is to me, anyway.

“I think instead of calling the game football, we should call it, Pelé.”

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Football’s greatest icon

Pele holds his hand up to Bobby Moore's face, both are smiling and shirtless
Pelé and England’s Bobby Moore swap shirts in Mexico.(Getty Images: MSI/Mirrorpix)

There is no more grating topic than which player is the greatest of all time, but there is no denying that Pelé was one of the best players to ever grace a football pitch.

“The greatest player in history was [Alfredo] Di Stéfano,” said Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskás of his former Real Madrid teammate, with one caveat.

“I refuse to classify Pelé as a player. He was above that.”

Former Brazil star Dunga told FIFA that Pelé was “a myth … a myth you can’t discuss. Pelé did things that are not human.”

Dutch legend Johan Cruyff said he simply “surpassed the boundaries of logic.”

Blessed with a mesmeric touch with feet, head, chest and thighs, incredible balance, pace, and a leap that belied his relatively slight 173-centimetre frame, Pelé was a player who had it all.

His record of 77 official goals for the Brazilian national team was only equalled at this year’s World Cup by Neymar Jr.

For much of his career, most Brazilian football fans only knew Pelé through listening to radio commentary of his exploits on the pitch.

It was the advent of television, timed to coincide with his World Cup exploits, that ensured the world saw him at the peak of his powers, winning three of the four World Cups he played in to enshrine his legacy.

When shown on colour at the 1970 World Cup, Pelé was elevated onto a different plain, the vibrancy of Brazil’s iconic yellow shirts cutting swathes through their opponents in glorious technicolour.

Pele runs with his arms up with a player on the ground beside him
Pelé scored the opening goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final at the Azteca.(Reuters: Action Images/Sporting Pictures)

Before Pelé was included in Brazil’s 1958 World Cup squad as a 17-year-old, his coach at Santos, Lula, told reporters he could “no longer be compared to anyone else because he possesses all the qualities of the ideal football player”.

And he showed it too, racking up honours with Santos and Brazil at a rate that has been unsurpassed throughout history.

The child genius, thrust into a man’s game aged just 15, was the complete player as a teenager — and only got better with age. 

“He was such a talented player with great control and vision,” England great Sir Bobby Charlton recalled.

Even Diego Maradona, the greatest of his era, described him as an “awesome player”.

Pelé was named a joint FIFA player of the century with the Argentine legend, a man so diametrically opposed to him away from the pitch.

Their poetic brilliance with the ball and the number 10 on their shirts was their only common ground.

From the favelas to national icon

Pele smiles at the camera
Pelé, one of the greatest football players the world has ever seen, dead aged 82.(Getty Images: S&G/PA Images)

Pelé’s path to sporting immortality started the same way as many other South American footballers of his generation.

Born in poverty in the provincial town of Três Coroções, the young Pelé played shoeless on gravel pitches with a makeshift collection of rags to use as a ball.

His father, Dondinho, a former player with Fluminense, and ex-Brazil international Waldemar de Brito, coach of local side AC Bauru — where Pelé moved with his family as a child — recognised his talent from an early age, promoting him to the senior side aged just 15.

He was taken to trial with São Paulo giants Santos as a 16-year-old, starting a playing relationship that would last over 1,200 games over 17 years, almost his entire professional career.

Santos fans hold up a banner saying VIVA O REI
Santos fans continue to honour Pelé.(Getty Images: Ricardo Moreira)

He started, as you might expect, with a goal off the bench.

Pelé’s arrival at Santos coincided with the general rise of the club which, off the back of 58 goals from Pelé, won the Campeonato Paulista — the São Paulo state league — for the first time in 20 years. Brazil was still three years away from hosting a true national league competition, but when that was inaugurated, Santos and Pelé won that too.

Pelé helped Santos to 10 Paulista titles between 1958 and 1973 to go with six national Serié A crowns and two Copa Libertadores, the South American version of the Champions League.

Some have since questioned whether Pelé needed to play in Europe to be considered one of the greats, but that is a lazy, ill-advised assumption, discounting the extraordinary strength of South American football at the time.

Pele runs towards the ball
Pelé scored mountains of goals for Santos throughout his career.(Getty Images: Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated)

Santos proved their class by beating Benfica to win the 1962 Intercontinental Club Cup, removing any doubt among the uneducated.

Pelé scored five goals in that 8-4 aggregate victory, which led to a national holiday being declared in Brazil.

It’s not that there was no interest from Europe: Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United and Inter Milan were all suitors.

Internazionale were to get closest, even managing to sign Pelé in 1958, only to be forced to tear up the contract after an outcry at home.

Brazilian president Jânio Quadros even went as far as to declare Pelé a national treasure to prevent any future attempts to deport his extraordinary talent.

Pelé spent his entire club career with Santos, bar a three-year stint with the New York Cosmos in quasi-retirement, as he eschewed the lure of big-money moves to Europe.

The World Cup king

Pele is lifted and looks up at the world cup trophy
Pelé held the Jules Rimet trophy up three times in his career.(Getty Image: Horstmüller/ullstein bild)

Pelé’s greatest impact on world football may be his role in establishing the mythology of Brazilian footballers as vehicles of flair and flamboyance.

Pelé was just 17 at his first World Cup, the 1958 tournament in Sweden, scoring six goals in total for the Seleção, including two in the final.

By having such a huge impact at the world’s biggest tournament, Pelé became synonymous with the World Cup. 

It was the first of back-to-back World Cup titles for Brazil that established the country as a true footballing nation and made O Jogo Bonito — the beautiful game — part of the sport’s global lexicon.

In the 1958 final, when Brazil beat Sweden 5-2, Pelé scored one of the great World Cup goals.

In the 90th minute, Pelé controlled a ball played from inside the Brazil half on his chest and, in one motion, let it drop and backheeled it to a teammate, only to then race into the penalty area to receive the cross.

Diving away from the ball’s flight, Pelé headed it inside the near post, sparking scenes of delirium that appeared to overwhelm the young star into fainting.

“After [Pelé’s] goal, even I wanted to cheer for him.” bullish Sweden defender Sigge Parling told FIFA, remembering that extraordinary second goal.

He was picked up and paraded in front of a Swedish crowd that had incredibly turned on its own players, so in awe of what it was witnessing.

Pele is hugged by a teammate
Pelé (centre) was overwhelmed after scoring the final goal in Brazil’s thrashing of Sweden in 1958.(Getty Images: Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho)

A brutal examination by some practitioners of the worst of the era’s tackling techniques limited Pelé to just two games in 1962 through injury as Brazil retained its title, and the same issue stymied the Brazilians’ quest for a third straight title in England in 1966.

However, normal service was resumed with a stunning triumph in 1970, when Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in the final.

Pelé again led the line with more sumptuous performances in Brazil’s famous yellow shirt, which occurred in front of a worldwide audience for the first time via colour television, helping affirm a global idolisation of the team that remains to this day.

“I told myself before the game, ‘He’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else’,” Italy defender Tarcisio Burgnich said after that final. 

“But I was wrong.”

The global brand of Pelé

Pele holds the world cup trophy
Pelé is synonymous with the World Cup as a three-time winner.(Getty Images: Alessandro Sabattini)

Pelé was a stunningly prolific goalscorer. Even if the mathematics used to calculate his “official” total may not stand up to scrutiny, his profligacy took on a life of its own.

Santos looked to profit from Pelé’s celebrity with hundreds of friendly matches around the world — including a 1972 trip to Sydney, where Santos drew 2-2 with the Socceroos at Moore Park in front of 31,755 people.

Those friendlies were important financially but were just as important socially.

In 1969, Santos toured Nigeria, then in the grips of a brutal civil war — which halted for 48 hours to allow Pelé and Santos to play twice against the Nigerian national team.

That was also the year that Brazil had become obsessed with Pelé scoring his 1,000th career goal, O Milesimo.

Pelé raises his arms as seen from behind raised above a crowd of people
Scenes at the Maracanã were wild when Pelé scored his 1,000th goal.(Getty Images: Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos)

To understand the impact it had on the public consciousness in Brazil, you need look no further than what it displaced from the front page the day after he scored it.

While most press around the world on November 20, 1969 had coverage of the Apollo 12 Moon landing, in Brazil that news was shared with the events that took place at the Maracanã the previous afternoon, as Pelé slotted home from the penalty spot against Vasco de Gama.

In a country obsessed with football, Pelé transcended the sport, featuring as the subject of songs and poetry and appearing in telenovelas and movies, including the domestic flick Os Trombadinhas and, later, Escape to Victory.

Pele talks to Sylvester Stallone
Escape to Victory, when Pelé starred alongside Sylvester Stallone, is one of the great films about football.(Getty Images: John Bryson)

Pelé knew his value and, unusually for the time, had acquired an agent and manager by the late 60s to ensure he could maximise his earning potential, even trademarking his name.

His stardom was such that he was even credited with revitalising the North American Soccer League when signing for the New York Cosmos in 1975.

Pelé’s three years at the Cosmos, for which he was paid $US4 million, helped reinvigorate the league and saw him play matches in front of sold-out crowds across the country.

Pele scores for the New York Cosmos
Pelé played out the last three years of his career with the New York Cosmos.(Getty Images: George Tiedemann/Sports Illustrated)

When he retired in 1977, the Brazilian press said even the sky cried, as torrential rain fell on a friendly between the Cosmos and Santos.

The league never recovered, limping on until being disbanded in 1984.

‘Honoured but ultimately distant’

Pelé is not beyond criticism.

In a 2021 eponymous Netflix documentary, he recounted how his various affairs contributed to the failure of his first marriage, to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi.

He was also criticised for remaining largely apolitical during a time of deep upheaval in Brazilian politics.

Pele smiles wearing a suit
Pelé is one of the most recognisable names in world sport.(Getty Images: Mike Egerton/EMPICS)

During the 1970 World Cup, Brazil was run by a military dictatorship under president General Emílio Garrastazu Médici.

Pelé said in his documentary that he felt only “relief” when Brazil won the title in 1970 as opposed to any joy, such was the pressure being put on the team back home.

It was during that time when the military junta used torture and killings to crush protests, and that same government used Pelé’s image to help promote a unified country.

Pelé went on to become his country’s extraordinary minister for sport in 1994, attempting in part to rein in the chaotic state of the finances of the nation’s domestic football clubs, and remained a figurehead for Brazilian football right up until his death.

A banner is held by Brazil players with Pele written on it and an image of his face
Brazil’s current crop of players honoured Pelé in Qatar upon news of his hospitalisation.(Getty Images: Hector Vivas/FIFA)

His legacy will be that of Brazil’s favourite son.

But football historian David Goldblatt, in his footballing opus The Ball is Round, noted that even Pelé’s nickname carried a degree of detachment.

“Pelé was O Rei — ‘The King’, honoured but ultimately distant, of another world,” he wrote.

“The King was and is revered but [Pelé’s 1960’s contemporary] Garrincha was loved.”

Whether Brazil loved its king or simply stood back in awe, his contribution to both the nation and the global game can never be forgotten.

Pele pats Garrincha on the chest as both look off to the distance
Santos’s Pelé and Botofogo’s Garrincha were polar opposites, but both were two of the best players the world had ever seen.(Getty Images: Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos)