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Leader of a Nation

Pele, King of Futbol
By Gentry Kirby
Special to

"If you would use the word perfect, Pele almost is there. He was the greatest soccer player in the history of this game," says former West German star Franz Beckenbauer on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury.

"Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us," said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. "For those who love soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, generally known as Pele, is a hero."

Pele. A name short in length, but long in significance. There are many stories that explain where the name came from, but none can explain the phenomenon.

It all started in the backwoods of Brazil, where a young boy nicknamed Dico was playing his favorite game better than any of the other neighborhood kids. One day, the other boys started calling him Pele. He didn't know where the name came from, since it had no meaning in Portuguese, but he didn't like it. Dico fought the other kids thinking the name Pele was an insult. No matter. The name stuck.

Pele, the athlete, came out of nowhere as well. In 1958, people turned on the television to watch the first international broadcast of the World Cup. Black and white screens flickered as a skinny 17-year-old, playing with imagination and verve, ran circles around seasoned veterans. By the end of that World Cup, the name Pele had shot across the globe.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Pele traveled the world with his club team Santos and his national team Brazil, entertaining crowds with his magical brand of soccer. He scored 1,281 goals in his 22-year career. But you didn't have to see him to believe in him. His name became a myth that traveled to the far reaches of the world. The world wanted to touch, to witness Pele. Other than Muhammad Ali, no other athlete could rival the magnitude of his popularity.

In Nigeria a two-day truce was declared in the war with Biafra so that both sides could see him play. The Shah of Iran waited three hours at an airport just to speak with Pele. A survey in the early 1970s showed that the name Pele ranked behind only Coca-Cola as the most popular brand in Europe.

Pele's feats on the field only fueled his fame. On Nov. 19, 1969, he scored his 1,000th goal, an unprecedented achievement that was celebrated with gusto in Brazil. But even he had to share the headlines the next day because Americans Conrad and Bean had landed on the moon.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born on Oct. 23, 1940 to Dondinho and Dona Celeste in the impoverished town of Tres Coracoes in the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. Pele's father was a local professional soccer player who held the distinction of scoring five goals with his head in one game.

Pele created his own reputation as a soccer player with the Bauru Athletic Club. His skills were noticed by a former World Cup player, Valdemar de Brito, who took him to Santos, a midlevel club team on the coast of Brazil. In his first full season at Santos, he scored a league-leading 32 goals. Soon afterward, the 17-year-old was selected for Brazil's 1958 World Cup.

Pele missed the first two games of the tournament in Sweden with a knee injury. He made up for lost time by scoring the game-winning goal in the quarterfinals and a hat trick in the semifinals. After Pele's two goals in the final, his teammates lifted the child prodigy onto their shoulders and hoisted their country's first Jules Rimet Trophy.

Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues anointed Pele "the King." Journalist Joao Luiz de Albuquerque talked about the impact of Pele's performance: "He was the light at the end of the tunnel. All the poor said, hey, this guy made it, I can make it. He brought the rest of Brazil with him."

The new king of soccer was feted with record offers from European teams, including a million-dollar bid by Inter Milan of Italy. The extraordinary proposals prompted Brazilian president Janio Quadros to decree Pele a "national treasure."

With its top player's newfound fame, Santos turned into the Harlem Globetrotters of international soccer, with Pele receiving a hefty share of Santos' exhibition fees. He became the world's highest paid team-sport athlete with an annual income estimated at $150,000.

For all of his exploits with Santos in the 1960s, Pele suffered through the 1962 and 1966 World Cups. He sustained a groin injury in a game leading up to the 1962 tournament in Chile. While Pele scored a goal in a 2-0 win over Mexico in the first game, he aggravated the injury in the following contest, against Czechoslovakia, and was sidelined for the rest of the tournament. His replacement, Amarildo, filled in admirably, scoring three goals as Brazil successfully defended its crown.

Pele returned to the world stage in 1966 as Brazil went after an unprecedented third straight World Cup. However, misfortune shadowed him again as an injury limited him to two games. Brazil lost two of three and failed to advance past the first round.

Going into the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, there were questions surrounding Pele's legacy. He spoke about the criticism in Pele: His Life and Times. "I wanted to put to rest once and for all, the idea that I couldn't enter a World Cup series without getting hurt," he wrote.

The king of soccer was true to his word during the three-week competition, scoring four goals and handing out six assists. Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in the final with Pele's opening goal being the country's 100th in World Cup history. Tarcisio Burgnich, the defender who marked Pele in the final, said, "I told myself before the game, he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else. But I was wrong."

Pele was the first to play on three World Cup winners, as Brazil's win secured the right to take the Jules Rimet Trophy home for good.

In 1974, the player nicknamed the Black Pearl played his last game for Santos. He had been planning on retirement but a bad business deal left him $1 million in debt. Top European teams sought to sign the king. But Pele also entertained an offer from the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League.

"It really was ludicrous to think that Pele, the greatest player of all, was going to end up playing for this ridiculous little team in New York drawing 1,500 people," said Clive Toye, the Cosmos general manager. "But I told him don't go to Italy, don't go to Spain, all you can do is win a championship. Come to the U.S. and you can win a country."

In 1975 Pele signed a $2.8-million, three-year contract with the Cosmos. His presence in the NASL helped boost average attendance by almost 80 percent from 1975 (7,597) to 1977 (13,584).

After leading the Cosmos to the league championship in 1977, Pele played his final game. On a somber day at Giants Stadium, Pele, who played one half for the Cosmos and the other half for Santos, scored his final goal. A Brazilian newspaper noted about the atmosphere of the rainy day, "Even the Sky Was Crying."

After Pele retired, he took his energy as an athlete and put it into his career as a global pitchman and ambassador for soccer. He has spent time broadcasting, writing columns, representing products such as Coca-Cola, MasterCard and Viagra, and even dabbling in politics when he became Brazil's Minister of Sport in 1994.

It has been more than a quarter of a century since his last competitive game, and yet Pele cannot visit any country without crowds flocking. When a reporter asked if his fame compared to that of Jesus Christ's, Pele replied, "There are parts of the world where Jesus Christ is not so well known."

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