Brazilian soccer icon Pele, widely regarded as the game’s greatest player whose magic on the pitch helped popularize it as «the beautiful game,» died on Thursday after a year-long battle with cancer. His daughter confirmed the death on Instagram.
“Everything we are is thanks to you. We love you infinitely. Rest in peace». wrote Kely Nascimento.
Pele was 82 years old.
The Brazilian legend, whose real name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, helped his country win the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970 and remains the national team’s leading scorer with 77 goals in 92 games.
Brazil’s current superstar, Neymar, tied it in the World Cup in Qatar 2022scoring his 77th goal in 124 matches.
Pelé became the youngest goalscorer in the World Cup in 1958 when he scored against Wales at the age of 17 years and 239 days, when the tournament was held in Stockholm. His record still stands and, to date, he remains the only player under the age of 18 to have scored in a World Cup.
He would also help Brazil to triumph in the 1962 tournament in Chile and, after injury sidelined him four years later in England, he shone at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
Speaking to soccer’s governing body, FIFA, for Pele’s 80th birthday tribute, Tarcisio Burgnich, an Italian defender in that year’s final, admitted he had struggled against the Brazilian star.
“I told myself before the game: ‘He’s made of skin and bones like everyone else,’” he said. «But I was wrong.»
Pelé’s name and his dominance on the pitch came to represent the sport itself.
While the game is known to North Americans as «soccer» and to most of the world as «soccer,» virtually everyone agrees that it is «the beautiful game» – either «oh nice game» to Brazilians and Portuguese.
While the exact origins of that phrase can be debated, its popularization dates back to the 1977 biography «Pele, My Life and the Beautiful Game» of Pelé and Robert L. Fish.
Born into poverty in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais on October 23, 1940, Pelé honed his skills playing with a grapefruit before signing with Brazilian team Santos at age 15.
He would go on to have great success with the team, winning over 20 major titles, before signing with the New York Cosmos in the fledgling North American Soccer League in 1975.
Pelé and the Cosmos played a key role in building the profile and popularity of the sport in the United States before he wrapped up his professional career in 1977.
The glamorous Cosmos, led by aging stars like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, won Soccer Bowl ’77 and along the way drew some of the largest crowds to ever see a soccer game on American soil.
Pelé’s Cosmos defeated the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in a playoff game before 77,691 fans at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It was the largest crowd to ever see a NASL game.
The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes that Pelé scored the most goals during a specified period with 1,279 in 1,363 games between September 7, 1956 and October 1, 1977.
Such was his acclaim that Pelé transcended the world of sport, becoming a recognizable figure even to those who did not follow the game. He rubbed shoulders with boxers like Muhammad Ali, Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger and pop artist Andy Warhol, who created a portrait of him.
«Pele was one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries,» Warhol said.
Pelé was also a regular visitor to the White House, receiving invitations from Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.
In 1986, when Reagan invited Pelé to a state dinner in honor of Brazilian President José Sarney, he said: “My name is Ronald Reagan, I am the president of the United States of America. But you don’t have to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pelé is”.
After his soccer career ended, Pele starred in several films, including «Escape to Victory,» starring Sylvester Stallone and British actor Michael Caine, and several documentaries about his life.
But he was perhaps best known for his work as ambassador to the United Nations in which he campaigned against the aggressive marketing of infant formula and on environmental issues, among other causes.
In 1999, he was recognized as one of Time magazine’s «100 People of the Century.»
A supporter of various charities throughout his life, in 2018 he created the Pelé Foundation to help underprivileged children.
Married three times, Pelé confessed in a 2021 Netflix documentary named after him that he had so many adventures that he didn’t even know how many children he had.
His seven known children include Sandra Machado, whom he refused to acknowledge even after a court-ordered DNA test proved she was his daughter. She would go on to write the book «The Daughter the King Didn’t Want», before dying in 2006 at age 42.
Five other children: Kelly, 55; Edinho, 51; Jennifer, 43; and the 25-year-old twins Joshua and Celeste came from his first two marriages to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Lemos Seixas. His daughter Flavia Kurtz, 53, was born to Lenita Kurtz in 1968.
In 2016, Pelé married his third wife, Marcia Cibele Aoki, whom he described as his «ultimate love» on social media.
Pelé underwent surgery to remove a colon tumor in September 2021 and has been admitted to the Albert Einstein hospital in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo every month since.
The hospital said he was admitted late last month to regulate medication for an infection.