New York Daily News: By Filip Bondy – Pele, the transcendent, Brazilian star considered by many the greatest soccer player to ever lace up his cleats, died Thursday. He was 82.
His death, confirmed by his agent Joe Fraga, was a result of multiple organ failure after a battle with colon cancer, per the Sao Paulo medical center where he had been hospitalized for the last month. He was first diagnosed in 2021.
“All that we are is thanks to you,” his daughter Kely Nascimento wrote on Instagram. “We love you endlessly. Rest in peace.”
His feats were legendary, and remain startling, decades later, upon replay. At the 1962 World Cup in Chile, Pele famously dribbled through four Mexican defenders to score a golazo of the highest order. He won three World Cups with Brazil. He scored six goals at the 1958 World Cup and 12 goals in his World Cup career, then became a beloved pioneer for the sport in America by signing on with the Cosmos of the North American Soccer League.
The GOAT debate rages on in soccer, as it does in other sports, but there are really very few contenders at the top. For now, Pele and the two Argentinians, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, stand above all other candidates on most lists.
Nobody understood his own greatness more than Pele himself.
“You cannot make another Michael Jordan, just like you cannot make another Pele,” Pele once said, in an interview with the Daily News.
His was the story of Brazilian futbol, and of the artist. Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born in the small Brazilian interior town of Coracoes, the son of a part-time soccer player. He grew up sharing a two-bedroom house with six other family members, kicking around a grapefruit or sock filled with rags in the streets.
By age 14, he played on his father’s team, Bauru. By 15, in 1955, his father had secured a $75-a-month job for him with the top Brazilian side, Santos, under coach Luiz Alonso Perez. In his first match with Santos, Pele scored four goals and received a $1,000 bonus.
“Pele is not only the greatest player I ever coached,” Perez said, “he is the greatest player anyone ever coached.”
He was never a one-dimensional striker. Pelé was an attacking choreographer, an initiator and finisher of plays. His presence was always essential to Brazil’s chances. In the 1966 World Cup, he scored on an impossible curling free kick against Bulgaria. The Bulgarians then knocked him out of the match, and the tournament, with brutal tackles. Brazil immediately lost all focus and the next match to Hungary. Arguably, England might never have won its only championship if Pele had remained healthy.
He finished with 92 goals in 77 matches with Brazil, and with 1,279 goals overall, for club and country, which remains a record. He was named joint winner, with Maradona, of FIFA’s Player of the Century award.
Pele’s ball control and his breathtaking rushes were made possible by a unique meld of mind and physiology. Tests run by the Brazilians on their superman in 1966 showed that his heart pulsed at a rate of only 56-to-58 beats per minute and that his peripheral vision was 30 percent better than the average athlete.
“Whatever field of endeavor this man entered, physical or mental, he would be a genius,” said Dr. Hilton Gosling, a Brazilian psychologist.
The Brazilians officially declared Pele “a national treasure” and deflected interest from other countries in his services. Italian sides offered $2 million to Santos for a proposed transfer, but the team would not budge. He finally quit international soccer in 1974 at age 34, the undisputed king of his sport. He came back the following year, however, to sign a three-year, $7 million deal with the Cosmos, “to make soccer truly popular in the United States.”
“Today, soccer has arrived in the United States,” he declared, when he signed that contract with the Cosmos. “Spread the word.”
There was much complaining among Brazilians about that signing, but Pele embraced the role of a soccer pioneer and missionary in America. He expressed satisfaction in 1988 when the United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup over Brazil. His presence in America sparked a mammoth, albeit fleeting, surge in interest in the NASL.
His play with the Cosmos was still remarkable, though not near his peak level of performance. Alex Yannis, the late New York Times soccer writer who covered Pele with the Cosmos, called him “the Shakespeare of soccer.”
Pele retired again in 1977, establishing schools and academies back in Brazil. He became a spokesman for MasterCard, a constant presence at World Cups. He was always available for a playful interview with journalists. He knew his vaunted place in history. When a reporter would interview him, Pele would suddenly autograph a photo or publicity material and hand it to the journalist, without such a request.
He was a popular ambassador for the sport throughout the world. Pele was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet with Queen Elizabeth, and was granted a private audience with the Pope in Vatican City. Pope Paul VI told him on that occasion, “Don’t be nervous, my son. I am more nervous than you.”
Among his far-flung accomplishments, Pele is said to have personally achieved a one-day ceasefire in a Nigerian-Biafran war and to have received the French Legion of Honor.
Pele dabbled in music, composing the soundtrack for his own, autobiographical film. He received the International Peace Award. He was a U.N. ambassador for ecology and the environment. But in the ‘90s, he became embroiled in internal bickering within the Brazilian Football Confederation. He charged officials with corruption, alienating Joao Havelange, the former president of FIFA. Havelange’s son-in-law was president of the Brazilian leagues, and Pele was banished from official functions at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Havelange hurt his own ambitions with that action, and Pele eventually regained his status at home and abroad.
In his youth, Pele was the highest-paid soccer player in the world. He was married three times, was reported to have several affairs, and is known to have seven children. In 2021, Pele received chemotherapy for colon cancer. By late 2022, his health reportedly deteriorated and he spent time in a hospital.
Pele loved to talk about virtually any subject, but did not enjoy speaking about the mysterious origin of his nickname. His family called him, “Dico,” but that changed to “Pele” while he was a schoolboy. One story has it that he mispronounced the name of a Vasco da Gama player named Bilé, and that his classmates teased and labeled him with his own distorted speech.
That name may have been intended as an insult at first, but Pele turned it into something entirely different. In Brazil, it meant the king of soccer.
Top Feature Photo: Soccer Legend Pelé visits Olympic Stadium on Sept 2, 2017, in Barcelona, Spain – Xavi Torrent/Getty Images