Remembering the great Pelé

Yesterday, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pelé, passed away in São Paulo at the age of 82 after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Pelé is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soccer players of all time.  His brilliance on the field, often compared to that of an artist, enabled him to transcend the sport and become a global icon.

His record as a sportsman was outstanding.

Pelé won three World Cup tournaments for his country, Brazil, making the country almost synonymous with soccer.  It came to be called "the beautiful game."

He won 10 league titles for his club team in Brazil.  He won the North American Soccer League championship for his soccer club in the U.S.

In his 21-year career, Pelé scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 professional matches.

Pelé was known not only for his prolific goal-scoring, but also for his unique style, presence, grace, and intelligence on the field.

He had an uncanny ability to anticipate opponents' moves and react swiftly to them.  He was also known for his skill of precise passing of the ball, creating links that often led to a goal.

Pelé's unique playing style combined swiftness, ingenuity, physical power, resilience, timing, and athleticism.  His excellent technique, agility, and dribbling skills enabled him to beat opponents with the ball.  He employed a sudden change of direction and other elaborate maneuvers to get past players.

He was also renowned for his bending shots (you can tell what those are in this video below if you don't recognize the term), and he was an accurate free-kick taker and penalty taker.

Pelé's childhood was far from ideal.  He was born in grinding poverty in Tres Coracoes, Brazil on October 23, 1940.  This was at a time when Brazil was plagued by racism and classism.  His parents named him after Thomas Alva Edison; however, a clerical error excised the letter I from his name.

He was compelled to resort to manual labor such as shining shoes to support his financially struggling family and to fund his modest soccer gear. 

In his spare time, he played football in the neighborhood, often kicking around an old sock stuffed with rags or newspapers to serve as a ball.  It was here that his unique style and ability to score goals, at the unlikeliest of moments, was noticed by the famous Brazilian coach, Waldemar de Brito, who had once played for the national team.  De Brito took the 15-year-old under his wing, and soon Pelé played for Santos, the eponymous club of the large Brazilian port city an hour's drive from São Paulo.

After that, it didn't take Pelé a long time to rise to superstardom.

Pelé scored on his debut for Santos and was signed up by the club. 

Next, he was called to play for Brazil.

He began his international career scoring with a goal in a 2-1 defeat by Argentina causing him to become Brazil's youngest goal-scorer at 16, a record that remains unbroken.

As a 17-year-old, he was part of Brazil's 1958 World Cup squad in Sweden.  He scored two spectacular goals during the finals in the 5-2 victory over the host nation, which made him a global sensation.

Pelé played masterfully in subsequent World Cup tournaments.  Brazil held the World Cup again in 1962, and also in 1970.  Ultimately, Pelé played 92 times for Brazil, scoring 77 goals.

Pelé announced his retirement in 1974.

But in 1975, Pelé came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in the fledgling North American Soccer League, signing a three-year $7-million deal.  Soccer wasn't exactly a national sensation in America.  However, Pelé changed that.  Pelé won the North American Soccer League championship for Cosmos.

Pelé was in his mid-30s, which is old by soccer standards, yet he managed to score 37 goals in 64 matches.

His final game in 1977 for Cosmos caused a record attendance at the Meadowlands Stadium.

Throughout his sporting career and beyond, Pelé received numerous awards and recognitions.

Brazil dedicated a postage stamp commemorating Pelé's landmark 1,000th goal in 1969.

Pelé was the recipient of the International Peace Award in 1978.  In 1980 he was named Athlete of the Century by the French sports publication L'Equipe, and he received the same honor in 1999 from the International Olympic Committee

He became FIFA's Player of the 20th century, an award he shared with Diego Maradona.

In 2014, he was given FIFA's first ever Ballon d'Or Prix d'Honneur.  He won the first ever Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented to him by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who said, "To watch him play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full."

Despite his tough childhood, economic hardships, and the fact that he must have suffered discrimination due to his race, Pelé refused to wallow in self-pity or engage in victimhood to elevate his standing.  He rarely talked about racism or his hardships.

Pelé chose to remain apolitical, for which he received criticism.  There were those who thought he could have used his considerable influence to lead a wave of change during the course of turbulent Brazilian politics, which included a dictatorship.

But remaining apolitical enabled him to become an inspirational figure across a nation that had become increasingly polarized by politics.  It led him to be adored and esteemed universally as the King of all Brazilians, both on and off the field.

Despite his attempts to remain apolitical, Pelé was occasionally mired in controversy.  At one stage he was labeled a left-wing antagonist of the Brazilian government and was even investigated.  At another stage, he was attacked for being "conservative" in his views of the Brazilian dictatorship at the time.

Beyond his skill as a sportsman, he also had an acumen for business, causing his overall net worth to rise to more than $100 million, a huge figure, given that it was an earlier era.

Pelé was the first athlete to ever trademark his own name.  He endorsed a variety of brands, including VISA, MasterCard, Puma, and even Viagra.

Pelé also dabbled in films and music.

He most notably starred in Escape to Victory alongside Sir Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone about prisoners of war among the Allied soldiers held in a German prison camp during World War II attempting to stage an escape.

Pelé also recorded many songs, and in 2006, he even released an album in collaboration with the famed Brazilian singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil.  He released a song called "Esperança" ("Hope"), which celebrated the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Pelé remained an ardent promoter of football, which he saw as a vehicle that enabled upward mobility even among the poorest of people.  He also thought of it as a community activity that brought people together.

He was greeted at the White House several times, including by the great Ronald Reagan in 1986, who held his hand out first to the soccer legend and modestly greeted him with: "My name is Ronald Reagan.  I'm the president of the United States of America.  But you don't need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pelé is." 

Staying apolitical, Pelé devoted considerable time in retirement to supporting the United Nations and its work, both as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and as a UNESCO Champion for Sport, from 1994.

He was also appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992.

Andy Warhol was right when remarked that Pelé was among the few who contradicted his "15 minutes of fame" theory, adding that "Pelé will have 15 centuries."

Instead of mourning his passing, we must celebrate his life.  Pelé was and always will be an inspirational figure for all.

Image: Wikipedia, public domain.

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