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Monday, April 22, 2024

Pele, the “black pearl” who enchanted people all around the globe, is no longer with us

On Thursday in Sao Paulo, Pele, the legendary Brazilian soccer player who climbed from barefoot poverty to become one of the best and most famous sportsmen in modern history, died at the age of 82. He has been in and out of the hospital in recent months after a colon tumour was identified.

Pele, whose actual name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, scored a record 1,281 goals and is the only player to have won the World Cup three times.

Throughout his seven-decade career as a soccer player and ambassador, he captivated popes, presidents, and Hollywood stars with his beautiful skills and winning grin.

Born on October 23, 1940, in the tiny city of Tres Coraces, Minas Gerais, he learned the sport from his father, a semi-skilled player whose potential career was halted by a knee injury.

Several aspects of his boyhood, including the origin of his well-known moniker, are veiled by fiction. As Pele (typically) explained it, he often played goalie in neighbourhood sports, and children began comparing him to a local player called “Bile” – with the letters becoming twisted over time.

Regardless of the truth, he rapidly impressed scouts not as a goalie but as an aggressive forward — a prototype number 10.

He was respected for his range of skills, and more so than any player since, he could do it all: He was two-footed, had great speed and endurance, could head, pass, and control the ball – and of course, he could score goals.

At age 15, he joined Santos and transformed the modest coastal club into one of the most recognisable brands in soccer.

During his 18-year tenure with the club, he won every title in Brazilian soccer as well as two Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, and two Intercontinental Cups, the yearly competition between the best teams in Europe and South America.

A group psychologist deemed the 17-year-old “clearly infantile” and advised against playing him for Brazil’s 1958 World Cup team in Sweden. However, his talent was swiftly recognised by the national group, and he was selected for the squad.

Pele went on to score a hat-trick in the first half of the semi-final against France and two more goals in the final against the host Swedish team, helping Brazil win its first-ever title.

Injuries prevented him from playing in all but two games in the 1962 World Cup, which Brazil won. At the 1970 tournament in Mexico, a 29-year-old Pele won his third championship with a Brazil group that featured Carlos Alberto Torres and Tosto, and is considered by many to be the greatest group ever.

Tarcisio Burgnich, the Italian defender tasked with tracking Pele in the 1970 World Cup, said, “I reminded myself before the game, ‘He’s made of flesh and bones just like everyone else.'”

However, I was mistaken.

Pele first resigned in 1974, but after realising that ill-advised investments had left him penniless, he accepted an offer the following year to play in the nascent North American Soccer League for the then-extraordinary amount of almost $1 million per year.

Even jaded New Yorkers were awed by Pele’s charm. He once shared a table at the renowned Studio 54 nightclub with Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, and Andy Warhol, who called Pele the exception to his statement that everyone will have a quarter-hour of fame.

The artist added, “Pele was one of the few who disproved my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.”

Even in such company, Pele avoided drink and drugs, citing his desire to protect his body and serve as a role model for young people.

However, he acknowledged to some “weaknesses.” His two divorces, several extramarital relationships, and the two children he admitted fathering outside of marriage fuelled views of a distinction between the squeaky-clean business pitchman and the elusive real-life person who preferred to be known as Edson.

On the field, in 1977, Pele led the New York Cosmos to the league title and drew tens of millions of fans to a sport that had previously considered obscure and European.

Years later, when the United States was awarded the right to host the 1994 World Cup, the president of the U.S. soccer organisation cited Pele as the “most crucial” reason.

According to FIFA’s website, Pele scored 1,281 goals in 1,366 games, a remarkable average of 0.94 goals per game. Some of these goals were scored in friendlies or as part of his military duty, but he was as successful in official events, scoring 757 goals in 812 matches.

Pele has recently suffered with a variety of health issues, including hip surgery that left him with persistent pain and difficulty walking unassisted. He made fewer public appearances but remained active on social media.

Pele is survived by six well-known children. A seventh child, whom he did not recognise as his for years, died of cancer in 2006.

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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