Pelé: What made Brazilian legend so great



Born into poverty – he kicked a grapefruit around in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais – Pelé ended his career as arguably the greatest footballer ever.

He was that rarity; like Muhammad Ali, Pelé was a sports star that transcended his sport.

The Brazilian brought joy and creativity to a sport that was often mired in rigidity and personified oh jogo bonito – “the beautiful game.”

“Pele changed everything,” wrote current Brazil international Neymar Jr. after Pelé’s death was announced.

“He turned football into art, into entertainment. He gave a voice to the poor, to black people and above all. He gave visibility to Brazil.”

From dazzling as a 17-year-old in 1958 on his way to his first World Cup success to claiming the Ballon d’Or as a player of the 1970 World Cup when he won a third world title, “Oh Rei” (“The King”) achieved almost everything possible in Brazil’s famous yellow and blue.

And there were goals – lots of them.

Pelé scored 757 goals in 812 official games for club and country. However, there is disagreement about how many goals he has scored in his career. According to Reuters, According to the Brazilian Football Federation and Santos, Pelé scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 games, although FIFA estimates the tally at 1,281 goals in 1,366 games.

But it wasn’t just the phenomenal number of goals he scored. As Neymar suggests, Pele was also a performer on the pitch.

“Even if he didn’t use a brush or pen, he just had a ball at his feet,” says CNN Sport’s Don Riddell.

During the 1958 World Cup, the world first got a glimpse of Pelé.

“When we arrived in Sweden, nobody knew what Brazil was. They know about Argentina…Uruguay. It was a surprise to us,” Pele told CNN in 2016.

At the age of 17 years and seven months, Pelé became the youngest person to play in a World Cup, a record the Brazilian held until Northern Ireland’s Norman Whiteside captured that milestone in 1982.

Nearly 15 years after leaving the world at the 1958 World Cup, Pelé hung up his boots for the Selectionleaving his country the legacy of being the most successful in World Cup history and the most feared team in international football.

Pelé hugs his teammate Vava after scoring the goal to make it 2-1 in the 1958 World Cup final.

Pelé’s crowning achievement for Brazil was at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, a tournament further romanticized for being the first World Cup broadcast in color.

During that tournament, Pelé blazed a trail of technicolor splendor, a blur of yellow and gold, bewitching and bewitching opponents.

His four goals earned him player of the tournament, culminating in an assist to Carlos Alberto’s breathtaking goal in the final against Italy.

“We won the World Cup, and I think in my life in the sport (that was the highlight) no doubt,” Pele said. told CNN.

Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich aptly summed up Pelé’s superhuman genius: “I told myself before the game that he is made of skin and bones, just like everyone else. But I was wrong.”

Pele in action against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final.

Even the moments when Pelé failed to score helped cement his legend status – most notably England goalkeeper Gordon Banks’s incredible blocking of the Brazilian’s powerful header in a group stage match, widely regarded as the greatest save of all time.

“The save was one of the best I’ve ever seen – in real life and in all the thousands of games I’ve seen since then,” Pele wrote. in a Facebook post from 2019 in tribute to Banks after the goalkeeper’s death.

“As a footballer you immediately know how well you hit the ball. I hit that head just like I hoped. Exactly where I wanted it to go. And I was ready to celebrate.

“But then this man, Banks, appeared before my eyes, like some kind of blue ghost.”

Despite playing all but three years of his club career with Brazilian side Santos, Pelé’s dynamism, majesty with the ball and lethality in front of goal saw him become one of football’s first black global stars.

Pelé admitted to CNN in 2015 that he had a strong interest in crossing the Atlantic from Europe, but chose not to do so out of loyalty and “love” for Santos; another reason why he is so loved in his native country.

“It used to be a profession full of love, now it’s just a profession,” says Pelé said.

“There is not that love to play for my club, to play for my country. It is clear that a footballer has to live from the game. It is different from my time.”

His impact as a footballer was so great that Pelé also became the symbol of a new country, according to a recent Neflix documentary.

“To deal with that, I think he created this Pelé character, someone who almost gives up his own identity to essentially become Brazil,” said Ben Nicholas, co-director of the documentary about the Brazilian’s life. told CNN.

In addition to carrying a country’s aspirations on the world stage, the emergence of the Brazilian military in 1964, which showed an interest in football as a tactical and political strategy – particularly targeting the 1970 World Cup as a “government issue” -, according to the Netflix documentary a problem for the apolitical Pelé.

“There’s a very telling line at the end of the movie,” says the documentary’s other director, David Tryhorn, said“where you expect Pele to maybe give us a ‘Pelé-ism’ where he would talk about joy and happiness, but he actually talks about ‘relief’.”

Pelé poses with the World Cup trophy on March 9, 2014 in Paris.

The footballing GOAT debate is one that will last until the end of time – is it Pelé? Or is it Diego Maradona? Or Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

But Brazil’s sheer love and admiration for Pele cannot be matched and goes beyond just being an outstanding footballer to becoming a totem pole for a nation.

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