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Pele - Footballing Legend

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Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, is recognised by football fans all over the world as perhaps the greatest player ever. He is the only player to hold three World Cup winner's medals, and he scored in two World Cup finals 12 years apart. His astonishing skills thrilled fans in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and he is one of the main reasons why the Brazilian World Cup-winning team of 1970 is still regarded with reverence, all these years later.

The Kick-off

Pelé was born on 23 October, 1940, in Tres Corações, Brazil, to João Ramos do Nascimento and his wife Celeste. Professional football ran in the family: João Ramos do Nascimento was a striker for the Brazilian first division club Fluminese, where he was nicknamed Dondinho.

When Pelé was a child, the do Nascimentos moved to Baurú, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, and it was there that Pelé first began to play football. He acquired the nickname Pelé at the age of nine. Most Brazilian footballers are known by nicknames, but Pelé himself has admitted that he has no idea how his famous name was coined. The word Pelé has no meaning in his native language, Portuguese.

When Pelé was 11, his prodigious natural footballing talent was spotted by former Brazilian international Waldemar de Brito.

In 1956, following a trial arranged by de Brito, Pelé signed for Santos, a leading Brazilian club based in São Paulo. He would remain with Santos for 18 years, until his first retirement in 1974.

Pelé was still only 15 when he made his debut for Santos' first team in a match against FC Corinthians on 7 September, 1956. It was a winning start: Pelé scored Santos' sixth goal in a 7-1 win.

Pelé soon won a regular place in the Santos first team, and his performances for them earned him a call-up to the Brazilian national team. On 7 July, 1957, Pelé made his international debut for Brazil in a game against Argentina. This time, it wasn't a winning start: Brazil lost 2-1. But Pelé scored Brazil's goal, and he became a regular member of the national team.

The Star of Sweden

At the age of 17, Pelé was selected to join the Brazilian squad for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. He was carrying a slight injury as the tournament began, and initially the Brazilian coach Vincente Feola was reluctant to put the teenager in his team. It was largely as a result of pressure from Pelé's team-mates that Pirilo was persuaded to put the youngster in the team for Brazil's third game of the World Cup finals, against the USSR.

Pelé played well in Brazil's 2-0 win over the Soviet team, and retained his place in the team for the quarter-final match against Wales. It was a close encounter, and Pelé proved to be the difference between the two teams, scoring the only goal of the game.

That win earned Brazil a semi-final meeting with France - and in that game, Pelé was simply amazing. France had no answer to the young star's speed, skill and intelligence, and he scored three of Brazil's goals in a 5-2 win.

Brazil met the hosts, Sweden, in the final - and again, Pelé was the star of the show. He scored a breathtaking goal by delicately chipping the ball over a defender from point-blank range, nipping past the hapless defender, then hitting the ball on the volley as it fell. Not content with that, Pelé scored a second goal with a glancing header. Brazil won the final comfortably, with 5-2 again the margin of victory - and it was obvious to all that a major new star had arrived in world soccer.

The Goal Machine

Over the next few years, Pelé established himself as one of the greatest soccer strikers of all time. His supreme ball control, his pace and his powerful, accurate finishing demoralised defences. His goal-scoring statistics are amazing. In 1959, he scored an incredible 127 goals. In 1961, he scored 110 times.

With this phenomenal goal machine on their side, Santos could hardly fail to carry off trophy after trophy. They won the Copa Libertadores1 in 1961 and 1962, and triumphed in the World Club Championship in 1962 and 1963. Pelé's reputation grew and grew. He was sometimes nicknamed 'The Black Pearl', and sometimes simply 'O rei' - the king.

Sadly, the 1962 World Cup in Chile proved to be a personal disappointment for Pelé. The tournament started well enough for him, when he scored one of Brazil's goals in a 3-1 win over Mexico. But after ten minutes of Brazil's second game, against Czechoslovakia, Pelé pulled a muscle, and the injury ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. Pelé did at least have the consolation of watching his team go on to retain their world title. Brazil met Czechoslovakia again in the final, and came back from behind to win the game 3-1.

The 1966 World Cup in England was an even worse experience for Pelé - so much so that, for a long time after the tournament, he said that he never wanted to play international football again.

Once again, the first game went well, with a goal for Pelé in a 2-0 win over Bulgaria. But Pelé was now so feared that opponents were prepared to try stop him by any means necessary. He received plenty of rough treatment in the game against Bulgaria, and in Brazil's subsequent 3-1 defeat against Hungary.

The third match, against Portugal, was worse still for Pelé and Brazil. After being scythed down by a dreadful tackle, Pelé had to be carried off the field. Brazil suffered another 3-1 defeat, and were eliminated from the tournament.

Throughout the 1960s, Pelé enjoyed constant success at club level. Santos totally dominated the São Paulo state league, winning the championship in eight years out of ten from 1960 to 1969. They won the Brazilian Cup five years in succession from 1961 to 1965, and again in 1967 and 1968. Pelé continued to score goals at a prodigious rate throughout the decade. On one occasion, playing for Santos against Botafago in 1964, he scored eight goals in a single game. On 19 December, 1969, at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, he scored his 1000th goal in senior football, playing for Santos against Vasco da Gama.

But during the 1960s, Pelé never really had the chance to show what he could do on the biggest football stage of them all: the World Cup.

Magic in Mexico

After his bitter experiences in England in 1966, Pelé needed some persuasion before he finally agreed to take part in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Football fans everywhere were to be delighted that he made that decision.

In Mexico, Pelé was at his astounding best. What's more, he was part of a phenomenal Brazilian team, co-starring such outstanding talents as Jairzinho, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto and Tostao. That team thrilled the world with a succession of dazzling displays of creative, positive, free-scoring football.

Pelé scored in Brazil's opening match, in which they crushed Czechoslovakia 4-1. In the same game, he almost got a second goal with an audacious long-range shot from inside the Brazilian half of the field that caught the Czech 'keeper Ivo Viktor off his line and dropped just wide of the goal. A single strike from Jairzinho was enough to beat England 1-0 in Brazil's next match - although that game is best remembered for a goal that Pelé was denied. A powerful downward header from Pelé was kept out of the England net by an astonishing save by Gordon Banks that is still talked about as one of the greatest feats of goalkeeping ever.

Brazil then won a close game against Romania 3-2, with Pelé scoring twice. Peru were beaten 4-2 in the quarter-finals, setting up an all-South American semi-final between Brazil and Uruguay. Brazil won the game 3-1, and Pelé almost scored with another outrageous piece of skill when he stepped over the ball to allow it to run past the Uruguayan goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, then ran around the other side of the 'keeper to collect the ball, before sending his shot fractionally wide.

Brazil met Italy in the final at the Azteca Stadium, Mexico City, on 21 June, 1970. Before the game, the final was widely viewed as a clash of footballing cultures: the cavalier, exciting Brazilians versus the more pragmatic, negative Italians. There was some justification for this: the Italians had won their first-round group by beating Sweden 1-0 and drawing 0-0 with Uruguay and Israel. But once through to the knock-out stage of the competition, the Italians had become more positive, and had been scoring goals as freely as Brazil. They'd beaten Mexico 4-1 in the quarter-final, with Luigi Riva scoring twice. They'd then been involved in a classic semi-final against West Germany, eventually edging through 4-3, with five of the goals coming in a highly dramatic half-hour of extra time. The scene was set for a fascinating final; and the game certainly lived up to expectations.

In the 18th minute, Pelé rose majestically in the Italian penalty area to head the ball precisely into the bottom left-hand corner of the Italian net, thus scoring Brazil's 100th World Cup goal. Roberto Boninsegna equalised for Italy after 37 minutes, and the scores were level at half-time. But the Brazilians then swept Italy aside with a devastating second half performance. Goals from Gerson, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto gave Brazil a 4-1 victory, and ecstatic fans carried Pelé from the pitch. Brazil captain Carlos Alberto was presented with the Jules Rimet Cup - which was now Brazil's to keep for all time2, because they'd won the trophy three times, with Pelé involved in all three triumphant campaigns.

Pelé's personal performance was summed up by a headline in the London-based newspaper The Sunday Times the day after the final: 'How do you spell Pelé? G-O-D'.

Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich was assigned to try to mark Pelé in the final. Afterwards, he ruefully remarked: 'I told myself before the game, "He's made of skin and bones just like everyone else" - but I was wrong'.

Pelé himself was typically modest:

It was a special feeling to score with my head. My father once scored five headers in one match - that's one record I've never been able to beat.

Extra Time

After the 1970 World Cup Final, Pelé again announced his retirement from international football, and this time he didn't change his mind. But he continued at club level with Santos, winning another São Paulo state championship with them in 1973.

Pelé played his last game for Santos on 3 October, 1974. Santos won the game 2-0 against Ponte Preta. But the key moment came in the 21st minute. Pelé suddenly picked up the ball with both hands, knelt in the middle of the pitch and raised his arms. For a moment the crowd wondered what on earth was going on - but soon it was understood that Pelé was dramatically signalling the end of his playing career.

As it turned out, however, it wasn't really the end of Pelé the phenomenal player. In 1975, Pelé was persuaded to come out of retirement, go to the United States, and play in the North American Soccer League3 for New York Cosmos. He played in three NASL seasons for Cosmos before finally retiring from playing for good in 1977, ending his career on a high as Cosmos were crowned champion club of the USA.

The Greatest?

Is Pelé the greatest footballer of all time? It's impossible to be certain, because answering the question involves comparing players who performed in different eras and under very different circumstances.

However, most football fans would probably agree that Pelé's only serious rival for the title is the troubled Argentinian star of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Diego Maradona. Certainly, this was the view that football's world governing body FIFA took in 2000, when they decided to present a Player of the Century award. Votes conducted via FIFA's magazine, their website and a specially-nominated grand jury produced different decisions from the different sources, and FIFA eventually decided to give both men awards.

Maradona's supporters argue that Pelé played in an easier era, when defences were less well-organised and media pressure was far less intense, and that Pelé was helped by being part of some exceptionally gifted teams. While all that is certainly true, the fact remains that Pelé's career statistics and achievements are amazing and unequalled.

Pelé scored a total of 1281 goals in 1363 games. 97 of those goals came in his 92 appearances for Brazil. He is still Brazil's all-time leading scorer, and his achievement in collecting three World Cup winner's medals is still unique.

In 1999, a poll conducted by the Reuters news agency named Pelé as the greatest sports personality of the 20th Century, ahead of other great icons like Muhammad Ali and Carl Lewis. Pelé was also named as Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 - despite the fact that he never took part in the Olympics.

Ambassador for Football

Pelé has retained close links with football since retiring as a player. He is a member of FIFA's Football Committee, a body largely consisting of distinguished former players and devoted to proposing new ideas to improve the game.

In the mid-1990s Pelé became Brazil's Minister for Sport, and pushed through controversial reforms aimed at fighting corruption and giving players greater freedom of movement. The reforms finally became law in 2001, and became known as 'Pelé's Law'.

Pelé has also supported the campaign against the international traffic in young players, a trade he has described as 'most dangerous' and compared to the slave trade.

In November 2001, Pelé joined FIFA president Sepp Blatter, American women's football star Brandi Chastain and film star Roger Moore at the launch of 'Say Yes For Children', a joint venture between FIFA and UNICEF, linked to the 2002 World Cup and aimed at protecting children from war and poverty, fighting HIV/AIDS and promoting education for all.

Long after his retirement as a player, Pelé remains a great ambassador for football. He still represents all that's best about the world's favourite sport, just as he did when he was a player.

1The South American equivalent of the European Cup.2Unfortunately, the trophy was subsequently stolen and never recovered. The Brazilian FA now exhibits a replica of the missing trophy.3A now-defunct United States national league that existed from 1968 to 1985.

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