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The Life And Times Of Football’s First Global Star..


Friday December 30, 2022

Pele gallops forward in the 1970 World Cup final
Pele gallops forward in the 1970 World Cup final

From a Rivelino cross, Pele rose majestically to head past Italy goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi in the 1970 World Cup final.

The goal gave Brazil an 18th minute lead at Mexico City’s magnificent Aztec Stadium.

Italy were ultimately brushed aside 4-1 as Brazil won the Jules Rimet Trophy for the third time.

Television’s first colour World Cup greatly enhanced the magic. In a team full of stars, Pele shone brightest.

Born in October 1940, the son of Celeste Arantes and Fluminense footballer Dondinho, Edson Arantes do Nascimento was nicknamed Pele as a young boy.

Stories vary over the origins of the name. Claims that an Irish priest saw the young boy and commented: “buachaill ag imirt peile”, have long since been discounted.

A football talent emerged early, according to legend he was taught to play the game by his father, using largely makeshift homemade balls.

As a 15-year-old he signed his first professional contract with Santos in 1956. It began an association with the club that ran until 1974.

Three months shy of his 17th birthday, Pele made his Brazil debut and scored in a 2-1 defeat to Argentina.

Despite his inexperience he played a central role in Brazil’s first World Cup win in 1958. His goal was decisive as Brazil beat Wales at the quarter-finals stage. It was merely a taste of what was to come.

In the 5-2 semi-final win over France, Pele scored a hat-trick. Two more goals followed in the 5-2 win over host nation Sweden.

For one so young, these were truly remarkable feats. A star was born, after what was a life-changing experience .

Reportedly Manchester United and Real Madrid were among the leading European clubs interested in signing the teenage sensation.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, his development continued and the goals kept on coming. Rumours of an impending move to Europe intensified.

Things got serious in 1961, with Inter Milan believed to have tabled a transfer bid of $1m.

Player power was clearly not what is now and Brazil’s president Janio Quadros declared Pele a national treasure, ending the possibility of a move away from Santos.

In Brazil’s 1962 successful defence of the World Cup ,Pele only played a minor role. He scored the second goal in a 2-0 win over Mexico, but an injury sustained in the next group game against Czechoslovakia ended his involvement.

Four years later in England, injury struck again. The most famous number 10 in football was subjected to particularly crude treatment in the games against Bulgaria and Portugal. Brazil exited at the group stage. Incensed at the manner in which he had been targeted, a distraught Pele vowed never to play in another World Cup.

Three years on, after initially refusing an approach from the Brazilian Football Confederation, he returned to the national team. Six goals in six World Cup qualifiers helped secure Brazil’s place in Mexico.

When the tournament came around, a 29-year-old Pele was at his peak and his impact was immense. The four goals he scored may have left him six behind leading scorer Gerd Muller, but he was central to so many iconic moments, including the shot from the halfway line that drifted narrowly wide against Czechoslovakia, the powerful header against England which produced a miracle save from Gordon Banks, the audacious dummy in the semi-final win over Uruguay, and the nonchalant lay-off for Carlos Alberto’s glorious goal in the final.

Jairzinho may have scored in every Brazil game, but his was Pele’s World Cup. In that three-week period he came to represent all that was magical and exotic about the World Cup.

This Brazilian team had a style and panache of its own. For FIFA, the majesty in which Brazil, orchestrated by Pele, won the tournament, elevated the World Cup to new heights. When we think of Pele, most think primarily of World Cup 1970 Pele.

Fast forward to a February afternoon in 1972, when Pele played his one and only game on Irish soil (footage below).

An estimated crowd of 30,000 packed into Dalymount Park as a combined Bohemians/Drumcondra selection played the touring Santos team. The star attraction was not at his best, but did it really matter?

Those in attendance were privileged to see the great man in the flesh. For the record, Santos won 3-2, and a somewhat jaded Pele was not among the goalscorers.

Approaching his 37th birthday , after two years at New York Cosmos, the curtain finally came down on his playing career.

New Jersey’s Giant’s Stadium was the venue for a game between Cosmos and Santos, and it was more of an event than a game. Muhammad Ali was among those in attendance, before a crowd of 77,000.

Playing one half for each side, Pele signed off with a goal. He left the field drenched, after a torrential second-half rain shower. “Even the sky was crying”, a Brazilian newspaper proclaimed the next day.

Tasked with winning over a sceptical US sporting public to the joys of “soccer”, his contribution was significant, so was his Cosmos contract.

Definitive statistics on Pele’s goalscoring record are unreliable. Claims of well over 1,200 goals scored, include those bagged in friendly and exhibition matches for club and country.

Santos spent many years touring Europe and cashing in on their prized asset. In many instances, the quality of opposition was questionable.

Despite a reluctance to take penalties throughout his career – he famously described it as “a cowardly way to score” – his 1,000th goal came from the spot. Over 100,000 were inside the Maracana Stadium for a club game between Vasco da Gama and Santos.

Several chances had come and gone before Santos won a second-half penalty, somewhat on the soft side, after Pele was fouled. The stage was set. Carlos Alberto stepped aside, and with his team-mates on the halfway line, Pele successfully dispatched the penalty. Cue pandemonium.

Pele kissed the ball after collecting it in the net. As fans and TV crews invaded the pitch, 1,000 balloons were released to mark the occasion. He replaced his ripped shirt with a fresh one, with 1,000 on the back.

After an emotional and lengthy lap of honour he was substituted. While the official goal records are more modest, the numbers remain staggering.

Not surprisingly, given his global profile, Pele was in high demand post-football. There was a notable appearance alongside Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine in the much-loved 1981 film Escape to Victory.

He famously fronted a campaign for erectile disfunction awareness and earned millions with various corporate and commercial endorsements. Charitable and ambassadorial roles also kept his diary full and the Pele foundation was founded in 2018.

While the archive from his playing days is rich, it’s not extensive. Categorising his attributes as a player, compared to the modern greats, is difficult.

Blessed with exceptional technique and game awareness he had to ability to score and assist with both feet. For a relatively small forward at 5’8″, he was strong in the air. There was also an abundance of speed and creativity.

Married three times, Pele admitted he was unaware of how many children he had fathered. In a candid Netflix documentary in 2021 he addressed several issues in his private life, including his affairs.

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