This week in history: Birth of Pelé


The greatest and most famous soccer player in history, Brazil’s Pelé revolutionized the game with his electrifying, creative, and athletic style of play. He was such an appealing player that he transcended national boundaries in a sport that is almost synonymous with nationalism. Pelé became a global ambassador of the sport, bringing increased attention to soccer in many countries, especially the United States. Even in his seventies, he attracted attention to soccer, as he did at the 2014 World Cup in his native country of Brazil.

In October 1940, in the poor town of Tres Coracoes in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, soccer player Dondinho and his wife Celeste Nascimento gave birth to their first child. They christened him Edson Arantes de Nascimento. Two years later another son, Zoca, was born (he was briefly a pro soccer player before becoming a lawyer). His parents couldn’t afford to buy Edson a soccer ball, so his father took an old sock and stuffed it with rags, and the child would run shoeless through the streets and kick the sock. When Edson was six, his family moved to the larger town of Bauru, a railroad junction in southern Brazil. He often skipped school to practice soccer in the fields. To try to earn money for a soccer ball, Edson shined shoes and sold roasted peanuts outside movie theaters. With his friends, he formed a team called the Shoeless Ones. They played barefooted soccer — which later became known as “pelada,” after Pelé — on the streets or vacant lots. Pelé developed many of his feints and unorthodox dribbling maneuvers playing these rough-and-tumble street games.

Pelé left school for good after fourth grade, expelled when the head schoolmaster caught him playing soccer during the school day. He took a job as a cobbler’s apprentice for $2 a day. His family called him Dico, but his friends bestowed the nickname Pelé, which means nothing in Portuguese or any other language. At first he resisted the name because he thought it was an insult, but then he embraced it. In pickup games around Bauru Pelé was often the youngest player.

At age 11, Pelé was discovered by Waldemar de Brito, one of Brazil’s top players. De Brito took him under his wing and trained him in secret. When Pelé was 12, de Brito placed him on the local junior club, Baquinho. Pelé danced home the day he got his own uniform, because finally he was a real soccer player like his father. “It may not seem such a big deal to some, but to me it was one of the thrills of my life,” Pelé later revealed to biographer Joe Marcus. He scored many goals for Baquinho, using both his feet and his head to drive balls into the net. Pelé’s scoring, dribbling and passing skills made him the talk of Brazilian junior soccer.

When Pelé was 15, de Brito brought him to the directors of Santos, a top club team, and told them, “This boy will be the greatest soccer player in the world.” In an exhibition game on September 7, 1956, Pelé entered the game in the second half for Santos and within a few minutes scored his first goal as a professional. He began earning about $60 a month playing for Santos. In his second season Pelé became a starter on the team and started scoring from everywhere on the field. He was the top scorer in the league and became a national hero by scoring three goals in a game pitting the top players from Santos and another Brazilian club against the Belenenses club from Portugal. Late in 1957, Pelé was picked for the National Team

In 1958, between playing on Santos and on the national team, Pelé scored 87 goals and assisted on at least another 100. He also brought Brazil glory. Though soccer was a national obsession in Brazil, the country had never won a World Cup. At 17, Pelé was the youngest player in the World Cup tournament and a virtual unknown.…In the semifinal game, Pelé was the sparkplug of the team. After France scored a game-tying goal early in the first half, he snatched the ball out of the net and raced upfield, yelling at his teammates to get going. Pelé went on to score three goals in Brazil’s victory, a feat which made him famous worldwide. In the final game, he scored two goals and Brazil won the World Cup for the first time by beating Sweden, 5-2. One of his goals became legendary: he caught a long pass by trapping it in his chest, sent it into the air with his left foot without letting it touch the ground, flipped it over his shoulder, and then pivoted and kicked the ball while it was still in the air.

While Pelé was on the team, Santos won 11 league championships. In 1960, he slipped to 78 goals because he was constantly being double- and triple-teamed by defenders. Pelé was happy just to pass the ball off to teammates, making Santos even more successful. In 1961 he scored 110 goals. Pelé scored more than 400 goals before he turned 20 years old.

Pelé wore uniform number 10 and played left inside forward. With his agility, speed and incredible ball-handling skills, he revolutionized soccer, instigating a creative, all-out attack that became the Brazilian style and was much more exciting for casual fans than the traditional defense-oriented game. During Pelé’s career, he scored five goals or more in a game on six occasions, scored four goals in 30 games, and had 92 games with three goals. Three times he scored more than 100 goals in a season….

The first soccer player to become a millionaire, Pelé was overwhelmed with offers to make personal appearances and sign business deals, but he refused to endorse cigarettes or liquor. “I know that I have influence on youngsters and I don’t feel that I want them to think if I should endorse these products I want them to use them,” he said.

In 1969, Pelé bowed to pressure and agreed to play in the World Cup in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1970. Brazil won every game, beating Italy in the finals, and Pelé became the first person ever to play on three World Cup champions.

With his global notoriety and interest in humanitarian causes, Pelé became a freelance goodwill ambassador….Heeding his father’s advice, Pelé decided to retire while he was still a top player. In 1971, he retired from the national team, playing his 111th and last game for Brazil on July 18, even though the Brazilian government kept trying to persaude him to play in the 1974 World Cup. Pelé later said he quit playing partly to protest human rights abuses by Brazil’s military government. His 97 goals in international matches were an all-time record.

Several European teams tried to talk him into playing for them. Instead, Pelé, who was facing some financial problems, eventually agreed to play for the North American Soccer League (NASL), signing a contract with the New York Cosmos for at least $4.5 million for three years, plus incentives. In the off season, Pelé learned English and studied business management, invested in real estate, and gave soccer clinics. He also received many offers to coach in Europe and Brazil, “but there’s no way I can stand on the side of the field,” he admitted to Time magazine.

Pelé’s entrance into the struggling NASL boosted Americans’ interest in soccer. Within two years, players registered in the U.S. Soccer Federation increased from slightly over 100,000 to nearly 400,000. NASL attendance soared, and by 1977 a Cosmos playoff match drew 77,000 fans. Pelé retired again after that season, playing a final exhibition game before 75,000 fans broadcast to 38 nations. In a speech before the game, Pelé pleaded for the world’s children and made everyone shout in the stadium after him: “Love! Love! Love!” The game pitted Cosmos against Santos, with Pelé playing for the Cosmos and scoring a goal in the first half, and then playing the second half for Santos…After leaving Brazil, Pelé wasn’t always popular in his native country.

Few athletes in any sport commanded global notoriety like Pelé. In the twentieth century, Pelé’s only athletic rival for worldwide fame was boxer Muhammad Ali. He was the most exciting and productive soccer player in history, and he brought the game vastly increased attention, especially in countries such as the United States that were not already soccer-crazy. Pelé also epitomized joy in sport, because he showed emotion openly on the field and was never aloof or distant. He was loved, admired, and respected worldwide, and his genuine honesty and humility made him an appealing role model.

Source Citation: “Pelé.” Notable Sports Figures. Ed. Dana R. Barnes. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Biography in Context. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.



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