Pele, Brazil's sublimely skilled star who charmed the world, dead at 82

Pele, Brazil's sublimely skilled star who charmed the world, dead at 82
Pele, Brazil's sublimely skilled star who charmed the world, dead at 82
Pele, Brazil's sublimely skilled star who charmed the world, dead at 82
Pele, the magical Brazilian football star who rose from barefoot poverty to become one of the greatest and best-known athletes in modern history, died at the age of 82, his daughter said on Instagram on Thursday.

He had been in and out of the hospital in recent months. Sao Paulo's Albert Einstein hospital, where Pele was undergoing treatment, said he died at 3:27 p.m. "due to multiple organ failures resulting from the progression of colon cancer associated with his previous medical condition."

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."

Pele had been undergoing chemotherapy since he had a tumour 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.


Pele, whose given name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, scored a world record 1,281 goals, and is the only player ever to win the World Cup three times.

With sublime skills and a winning smile, he helped make soccer the world's most popular sport and he charmed popes, presidents and Hollywood stars in a seven-decade career as a player and ambassador for the sport.

Born on October 23rd, 1940, in the small Minas Gerais town of Tres Coracoes, or 'Three Hearts', Edson Arantes do Nascimento learned the game from his father, a semi-professional player whose promising career was derailed by a knee injury.

Several aspects of his youth are obscured by myth, including the origin of his famous nickname. As Pele (sometimes) told it, he often played as a goalkeeper in neighbourhood games, and kids began comparing him to a local player named 'Bile' - and the letters got twisted over the years.

Whatever the truth, he was soon dazzling scouts not as a goalkeeper but as an attacking forward - a prototype number 10.

He was respected for his range of talents, and more so than any player since, he could do it all: He was two-footed, had tremendous pace and stamina, he could head, pass, tackle - and of course, he could score goals.

He joined Santos at the age of 15 and turned the small coastal club into one of the most famous names in football.

Over a glittering 18-year spell at the club, he won every honour in Brazilian football as well as two Copa Libertadores - the South American equivalent of the Champions League - and two Intercontinental Cups, the annual tournament held between the best teams in Europe and South America.

His talent was soon recognized by the national team and he was chosen for the Brazil squad heading to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden - although a team psychologist called the then 17-year-old "obviously infantile" and advised against playing him.

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

Injuries kept him out of all but two games in the 1962 Cup, which Brazil won. At the 1970 tournament in Mexico, a now fully mature 29-year-old Pele won the title for a third time with a Brazil side that included other stars such as Carlos Alberto Torres and Tostao and is considered by many to be the greatest team ever.

"I told myself before the game, 'He's made of skin and bones just like everyone else'," said Tarcisio Burgnich, the Italian defender charged with marking Pele in the 1970 final.

"But I was wrong."


US 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.

In addition to a host of regional and national titles, Pele won two Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, and two Intercontinental Cups, the annual tournament held between the best teams in Europe and South America.

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 football, 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 Football was the ultimate exponent of a victorious Brazil."

Kylian Mbappé, the French star many view as the current best football 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."


Pele initially retired in 1974 but after finding that ill-advised investments had left him broke he accepted an offer the following year to play in the fledgling North American Soccer League for the then-astonishing sum of about $1 million a year.

Pele's charisma dazzled even hardened New Yorkers. He hobnobbed with celebrities and once shared a table at the famed Studio 54 nightclub with Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Andy Warhol - who called Pele the exception to his saying that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame.

"Pele was one of the few who contradicted my theory: Instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries," the artist said.

Even in such company, Pele stayed away from alcohol and drugs, saying he needed to protect his body and serve as a role model for kids.

He admitted to other "weaknesses," though. His two divorces, numerous affairs, and the two children he acknowledged fathering outside of marriage fueled perceptions of a gap between the squeaky-clean corporate pitchman and the elusive real-life person who preferred to be called Edson.

On the field, Pele led the New York Cosmos to the league championship in 1977 and attracted millions of fans to a sport that had previously seemed inaccessible and European.

Years later, when the United States won the right to host the 1994 World Cup, the head of the US soccer federation called Pele the "most important" reason why.

Pele's 1,281 goals in 1,366 games, as tabulated by FIFA's website, came at a startling rate of 0.94 per match. Some of those were friendlies or came in games played as part of his military service, but he was just as prolific in official tournaments, with 757 goals in 812 games.

Pele had suffered from a series of health issues in recent years, including hip surgery that left him with recurring pain and trouble walking unaided. He reduced his public appearances but remained active on social media.

Pele is survived by six known children. A seventh, whom he didn't recognize as his own for years, died of cancer in 2006.