By Ghulam Haider
Pelé, the legendary Brazilian virtuoso who rose from barefoot poverty to become one of the greatest and best-known athletes in modern history for his captivating skill and athleticism to become one of football’s greatest players in the history, has died at the age of 82.
The king of the beautiful game breathed his last due to multiple organ failures resulting from the progression of colon cancer associated with his previous medical condition at 3:27 am , read a statement by Sao Paulo’s Albert Einstein hospital , where Pele was undergoing treatment.
The death of the only man to win the World Cup three times as a player was confirmed on his Instagram account.
“Inspiration and love marked the journey of King Pele, who peacefully passed away today,” it read, adding he had “enchanted the world with his genius in sport, stopped a war, carried out social works all over the world and spread what he most believed to be the cure for all our problems: love.”
Pelé, who had a colon tumour removed in 2021, was readmitted to Albert Einstein hospital in São Paulo in November amid deteriorating health. A hospital statement on Thursday confirmed the death of “our dear King of Football” at 3.27pm local time, “due to the failure of multiple organs, a result of the progression of cancer of colon associated with his previous clinical condition.”
A statement from Pelé’s official Instagram page added: “Inspiration and love marked the journey of King Pelé, who peacefully passed away today. On his journey, Edson enchanted the world with his genius in sport, stopped a war, carried out social works all over the world and spread what he most believed to be the cure for all our problems: love. His message today becomes a legacy for future generations. Love, love and love, forever.”
Brazil’s joint all-time record scorer won three World Cups as a player in 1958, 1962 and 1970, over a 14-year international career that included 77 goals in 92 appearances for his country. Nicknamed “the Black Pearl” and “the King”, Pelé was one of only three players to have scored in four World Cups. In 1,363 games, he scored 1,281 goals, at the time of his retirement in 1977 more than twice as many as his nearest challenger.
It was the 1970 World Cup triumph for which he will be best celebrated, the linchpin of a beguiling team that included Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Gérson, Tostão and Rivelino that swept through Mexico, his canary yellow No 10 shirt becoming an icon of the sport.
World Soccer described Brazil’s 1970 winners as “more than a team”, adding: “The Brazilian side that won the 1970 World Cup in such style have become a myth, a team to be held up as the ultimate exponents of the beautiful game.” Pelé was their figurehead and inspiration.
Govt declares three days mourning
Brazil’s government declared three days of mourning and the arch at Wembley Stadium was lit in the colours of Brazil, while icons of sport and heads of state bowed to the man who rose up from childhood poverty to become a legend.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on 23 October 1940, Pelé began his professional career at 15 and made his international debut a year later. In 1999, he was voted player of the century in a poll of Ballon d’Or winners and Time magazine named him as one of 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
In his prime, Pelé’s celebrity was such that he gained audiences with popes and heads of state, his allure so great that when the ill-fated New York Cosmos sought a marquee name to launch a soccer assault on America, Pelé was one of the very few footballers to be recognised by the wider American public in the 1970s.
Pelé previously underwent surgery in November 2012, having a hip replacement at a time when he was struggling to cope with life on the road, and had since suffered a urinary infection after having kidney surgery for the removal of stones.
In recent years Pelé had reduced his personal appearances, including in February 2020 when he did not attend a ceremony to unveil a statue of him representing the 1970 World Cup-winning team because of mobility problems that led to the Brazilian using walkers and wheelchairs in public.
João Saldanha, the coach who helped shape that 1970 side, once said: “Ask me who is the best right-back in Brazil, and I’ll say Pelé. Ask me about the best left-back or midfield man, or the best centre-forward. Always I must say Pelé. If he wants to be goalkeeper, he will be. There is only one Pelé.”
Tributes pore in
Brazil’s president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said: “I had the privilege that younger Brazilians didn’t have: I saw Pele play, live, at Pacaembu and Morumbi. Play, no – I saw Pele give a show.
“Because when he got the ball he always did something special, which often ended up in a goal.”
Former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff wrote: “Thank you for the joy you gave the Brazilian people and the people of the world. No one has been a king so loved.”
The worlds of sport, politics and popular culture for a figure who epitomized Brazil’s dominance of the beautiful game.
The government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who leaves office on Sunday, declared three days of mourning, and said in a statement that Pele was “a great citizen and patriot, raising the name of Brazil wherever he went.”
Bolsonaro’s successor, President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, wrote on Twitter that “few Brazilians carried the name of our country as far as he did.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said Pele’s legacy would live forever. “The game. The king. Eternity,” Macron tweeted.
Pele had been undergoing chemotherapy since he had a tumor removed from his colon in September 2021.
He also had difficulty walking unaided since an unsuccessful hip operation in 2012. In February 2020, on the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, his son Edinho said Pele’s ailing physical state had left him depressed.
On Monday, a 24-hour wake will be held for Pele in the center of the field at the stadium of Santos, his hometown club where he started playing as a teenager and quickly rose to fame.
The next day, a procession carrying his coffin will pass through the streets of Santos, passing the neighborhood where his 100-year-old mother lives, and ending at the Ecumenical Memorial Necropolis cemetery, where he will be buried in a private ceremony.
‘What is possible’
U.S. President Joe Biden said on his Twitter that Pele’s rise from humble beginnings to soccer legend was a story of “what is possible.”
Pele, whose given name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, joined Santos in 1956 and turned the small coastal club into one of the most famous names in football.
He took home three World Cup winner’s medals, the first time as a 17-year-old in Sweden in 1958, the second in Chile four years later – even though he missed most of the tournament through injury – and the third in Mexico in 1970, when he led what is considered to be one of the greatest sides ever to play the game.
He retired from Santos in 1974 but a year later made a surprise comeback by signing a lucrative deal to join the New York Cosmos in the then nascent North American Soccer League.
In a glorious 21-year career he scored between 1,281 and 1,283 goals, depending on how matches are counted.
Pele, though, transcended soccer, like no player before or since, and he became one of the first global icons of the 20th century.
With his winning smile and an aw-shucks humility that charmed legions of fans, he was better known than many Hollywood stars, popes or presidents – many if not most of whom he met during a six-decade-long career as player and corporate pitchman.
“I am sad, but I am also proud to be Brazilian, to be from Pele’s country, a guy who was a great athlete,” said Ciro Campos, a 49-year-old biologist in Rio de Janeiro. “And also off the field, he was a cool person, not an arrogant athlete.”
Pele credited his one-of-a-kind mix of talent, creative genius and technical skill to a youth spent playing pick-up games in small-town Brazil, often using grapefruit or wadded-up rags because his family could not afford a real ball.
Pele was named “Athlete of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee, co-“Football Player of the Century” by world soccer body FIFA, and a “national treasure” by Brazil’s government.
His celebrity was often overwhelming. Grown adults broke down crying in his presence with regularity. When he was a player, souvenir-seeking fans rushed the field following games and tore off his shorts, socks and even underwear.
His house in Brazil was less than a mile from a beach, but he didn’t go there for some two decades because of fear of crowds.
Yet even in unguarded moments among friends, he rarely complained. He believed that his talent was a divine gift, and he spoke movingly about how soccer allowed him to travel the world, bring cheer to cancer patients and survivors of wars and famine, and provide for a family that, growing up, often did not know the source of their next meal.
“God gave me this ability for one reason: To make people happy,” he said during a 2013 interview with Reuters. “No matter what I did, I tried not to forget that.”
Brazil’s CBF soccer federation said “Pele was much more than the greatest sportsman of all time… The King of Soccer was the ultimate exponent of a victorious Brazil.”
Kylian Mbappé, the French star many view as the current best soccer player in the world, also offered his condolences.
“The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten,” he wrote on Twitter. “RIP KING.”