He was named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, after Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. If his parents thought he’d be just as brilliant, they weren’t wrong — only that this boy’s gifts weren’t with technology, it was with a ball.
From his birth on Oct. 23, 1940, to his death 82 years later, his name became synonymous with football — or soccer, if that’s how you call it. Pele, as he later came to be known, was the only player to win the World Cup three times after playing in it four times for his country, Brazil. Off-the-field, his legacy stretched far beyond his trophy haul and remarkable goal-scoring record. If football had a face, it had to be Pele’s.
“I was born to play football, just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint,” he famously said once.
The relationship between the man and leather orb he spent a lifetime dribbling, kicking and running after is acknowledged by all, from his children to other “greats” of football.
“Everything that we are, is thanks to you,” Pele’s daughter Kely Nascimento wrote in a post on Instagram, after his death on Nov. 29, 2022 from colon cancer at the age of 82.
“We love you infinitely,” Kely wrote in her post, under an image of her family members holding Pele’s hands. “Rest in peace.”
Former English soccer star Geoff Hurst wrote on Twitter that Pele was “without doubt the best footballer I ever played against (with Bobby Moore being the best footballer I ever played alongside). For me, Pele remains the greatest of all time and I was proud to be on the pitch with him. RIP Pele and thank you.”
Brazil’s incoming President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also took to Twitter, saying “few Brazilians took the name of our country as far as he (Pele) did.”
“As different from Portuguese as the language was, foreigners from the four corners of the planet soon found a way to pronounce the magic word: ‘Pele,’” Lula added.
Even the funeral arranged for him was befitting that of a king: A public wake at the Urbano Caldeira stadium, popularly known as Vila Belmiro and home to Santos football club, in Brazil’s São Paulo state; and a procession through the streets of the city of Santos, including the street where Pelé’s 100-year-old mother, Celeste Arantes, lives.
Brazilian footballer Neymar said Pele “changed everything” about football, which “he turned … into [an] art, into entertainment”.
“He gave a voice to the poor, to black people and especially: He gave visibility to Brazil. Football and Brazil have raised their status, thanks to the King!” Neymar added, referring to the royalty status conferred upon Pele by soccer lovers all over the world.
Portuguese star forward Cristiano Ronaldo also said on Instagram that “‘a mere goodbye’ to the eternal King Pele will never be enough to express the pain that currently engulfs the entire football world.”
Kylian Mbappé of Paris Saint-Germain said of Pelé’s death: “The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten.”
Indeed, Pele was feted by kings to queens and presidents to prime ministers as each wanted to reach out and grab a piece of him. Even the Pope granted him an audience.
He signed a ball for US President Richard Nixon while visiting the White House in 1973.
Pele, in fact, met several US presidents during his lifetime. His celebrity status brought this famous quip from Ronald Reagan in 1986: “My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the President of the United States of America. But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pele is.”
During one of Pele’s US tours in 1975, NFL star Joe Namath exchanged with him the oval-shaped ball that Americans call football, taking the soccer ball instead.
Late-night television host Johnny Carson even got some pointers from Pele on to handle a ball in a 1973 segment of his show.
In 1975, Pele made his debut with the New York Cosmos soccer club, signing on as its star striker for what was then a princely sum of $1.4 million a year. Pele’s signing came two decades before the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994 and the US Multi League Soccer was established in 1996.
Pele got his nickname by accident. His favorite footballer was Bile, a goalkeeper who played with his father at a local club, and the boy had trouble pronouncing it. Bile became Pele.
At 16, Pele made his debut for Brazil’s national team. Less than a year later, he started playing professionally with Brazilian club Santos in 1956. He won Brazil’s first World Cup in 1958 — a feat he repeated in 1962 and 1970. The third victory enabled Brazil to permanently keep that trophy — the Jules Rimet — and a new World Cup trophy was introduced in 1974.
Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich said after losing 1-4 to Brazil in the 1970 World Cup final. “Before the match, I told myself that Pelé was just flesh and bones like the rest of us,” Burgnich said. “Later, I realized I’d been wrong.”
Pele himself told CNN’s Don Riddell: “When we won the World Cup, everybody knew about Brazil. I think this was the most important thing I gave to my country because we were well known after that World Cup.”
Pele married Rosemeri Cholbi in 1966 and had three children with her before they divorced in 1978.
Football aside, Pele also starred in a movie about football during World War II — titled “Escape to Victory — and which co-starred Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.
In his late years, Pelé was an outspoken political voice who championed the poor in Brazil. He served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for many years, promoting peace and support for vulnerable children.
As a child, Pele’s first taste of soccer involved playing barefoot with socks and rags rolled up into a ball – a humble beginning that would grow into a long and fruitful career.
But when he first took up the game, his ambitions were modest.
“My dad was a good football player, he scored a lot of goals,” Pele told CNN in 2015. “His name was Dondinho; I wanted to be like him.
“He was famous in Brazil, in Minas Gerais. He was my role model. I always wanted to be like him, but what happened, to this day, only God can explain.”
As a teenager, Pelé left home and began training with Santos, scoring his first goal for the club side before his 16th birthday. He would go on to score 619 times over 638 appearances for the club, but it is his feats in the iconic yellow jersey of Brazil for which he is best remembered.
The world first got a glimpse of Pelé’s dazzling ability in 1958, when he made his World Cup debut aged 17.
He scored Brazil’s only goal in the country’s quarterfinal victory against Wales, then netted a hat-trick in the semifinal against France and two in the final against host Sweden.
“When Pelé scored the fifth goal in that final, I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding,” said Sweden’s Sigvard Parling.
Exactly how many goals Pele scored during his career is unclear, and his Guinness World Records tally has come under scrutiny with many scored in unofficial matches.
With his larger-than-life personality and extraordinary dribbling skills – a trademark of his game – Pele helped the Cosmos win the North American Soccer League championship in 1977 before officially retiring from football.
He remained in the public eye through endorsement deals and as an outspoken political voice who championed the poor in Brazil. He served as a Goodwill UNICEF ambassador for many years, promoting peace and support for vulnerable children.
Health problems persisted for much of Pelé’s later life. He got around with the support of a walker – an item he was filmed shoving around with disdain in a documentary released last year – and in September 2021, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his right colon.
Debate will inevitably rage about whether Pele is the greatest player of all time – whether it is possible to compare Pele’s achievements to those of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, who have rewritten soccer’s record books over the past 15 years, or to Diego Maradona, the late Argentinian star who captivated the footballing world in the 1980s and 90s.
In 2000, FIFA jointly named Maradona and Pele as Player of the Century, but to some, the outright winner of the award should have been obvious.
There is little doubt, however, that Pele was, and always will be, football’s first global superstar.
“If I pass away one day, I am happy because I tried to do my best,” he told The Talks online magazine. “My sport allowed me to do so much because it’s the biggest sport in the world.”
* Adapted by the neverforget team from CNN’s tribute on Pele
* All pictures, except uncredited “Young Pele”, from CNN’s collection of Pele’s Life in Pictures