Thousands of fans across Brazil paid their final respects to Pelé as one of football’s all-time greats was laid to rest at the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos yesterday. Considered to be the greatest athlete of the last century, the 82-year-old leaves behind a rich legacy that impacted the sport in every aspect, associating football with the phrase ‘The Beautiful Game’. With Diego Maradona’s death earlier in 2020, two of the greatest players to ever grace the game have now passed into memory.
As the world of football continues to mourn the Brazilian superstar, here’s a look at his legacy on and off the field:
Style of Play
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, is often labelled the greatest player in the history of football. A forward who was adept at using either foot to strike the ball, Pelé’s ability to anticipate his opponent’s moves was widely admired from the early days of his career. He had a knack for his accuracy and precision while passing the ball to his teammates and striking goals despite his relatively small stature.
Pelé averaged almost a goal per game throughout his career, soring 1,279 goals in 1,363 fixtures. That statistic is a testament to Pelé’s abilities on the field as the superstar often refused to take penalties – he considered them “a cowardly way” to score. While the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are often criticised for contributing little to the overall team dynamic, Pelé was a charismatic team player, leading the team from the front.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Pelé to the sport is his sportsmanship on and off the field. Unlike the modern stars who give undue importance to celebrations after every goal, Pelé was humble and down-to-earth, giving football a new direction as ‘the beautiful game’. This led to his role as the sport’s ambassador across continents, tying together social causes with the game. After his retirement, Pelé continued to be active in public life, championing both the sport and social initiatives that received universal acceptance.
Lifelong Association with Santos FC
Pelé joined Santos FC at the age of 15, where he would continue to play throughout his senior career. The youngster was touted as the future superstar of the club right from the start – with Pelé becoming the league’s top scorer in 1957 – at the age of 16. With Brazil’s victory in the 1958 FIFA World Cup, Pelé became an international superstar, but he refused to move away from the club.
From 1956 to 1974, Pelé won 26 titles with Santos FC, including two Copa Libertadores titles and two Intercontinental Cup titles. He scored 643 goals with the club – a record that was recently broken by Lionel Messi with Barcelona. Pelé was the key to making Santos FC the most dominant club in the sport for more than two decades. Santos became the first ‘global club’, attracting fans from around the world with a display of passion and energy in the stadium.
Pelé retired from Brazilian domestic football in 1974 but decided to play for the New York Cosmos in the 1975 season. The signing was one of the key moments for the game in the United States, as it attracted thousands of new fans to the game. He led the New York Cosmos to a Soccer Bowl title in 1977, securing his legacy in the country.
To close out his rich and eventful career, Pelé played for both Santos and New York Cosmos in an exhibition game at the Giants Stadium, with millions of fans tuning in to watch the match. Pelé scored a 30-yard free-kick to finish his career. As the rain started pouring in the second half, a Brazilian newspaper wrote the famous headline: “Even the sky was crying” as Pelé retired.
Three World Cups with Brazil
Pelé’s legacy with the Brazilian national team was unparalleled. Pelé is the youngest goalscorer for Brazil – scoring against Argentina on his international debut at the age of 16 years and nine months. The 1958 World Cup was the finest tournament in Pelé’s career, where he became the youngest player to score in a World Cup final – a record that stands even today. Pelé received the Silver Ball award for his performance in the tournament.
While Pelé was not a part of the World Cup final in 1962 owing to an injury, he retrospectively received the winner’s medal. The 1966 World Cup turned out to be one of the biggest upsets in the history of football, with Brazil getting eliminated in the first round despite boasting world-famous players.
Pelé initially refused to play in the 1970 World Cup with Brazil but acquiesced to the team’s requests in the end. The tournament would turn out to be the greatest achievement for Pelé, as he would become the only player to win three World Cups. Pelé was responsible for 53% of Brazil’s goals in the tournament, earning him the Golden Ball award. With 92 goals in 77 fixtures, Pelé retired as Brazil’s all-time top scorer.
When India Fell In Love With Pelé
Pelé came to Kolkata in 1977 as a part of the New York Cosmos side to play a friendly match against Mohun Bagan. The football-crazy people of the eastern Indian city embraced football’s superstar like one of their own, with thousands of people gathering on the streets of Kolkata to get a glimpse of Pelé. The Eden Gardens stadium was filled to the brim despite the pouring rain.
Mohun Bagan players put on their best performance on the field, holding the visitors to a 2-2 draw that gave ample entertainment to the fans of the sport. This was Pelé’s penultimate game – he would retire only a week later from the sport. When Pelé once again visited Kolkata in 2015 as a chief guest of the Subroto Cup, the love for the star from the fans was evident all over the streets of Kolkata.
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