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Born: Wednesday 23 October 1940, Três Corações, Brazil
Position: Forward/Attacking Midfielder
When the question of the greatest player of all-time is discussed, few names occur as regularly as that of Brazilian star Pelé. The only player to be a part of three World Cup winning squads, Pelé spent the majority of his club career with Santos where he scored more than 1,000 goals in competitive and friendly matches. He later played a crucial role in the development of the game in the USA when he starred in the North American Soccer League.
Pelé was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Três Corações, in the state of Minas Gerais. Although his birth certificate states that he was born on 21 October 1940, he claimed that to be a mistake and that his real birth date was two days later. Growing up in poverty in São Paulo, he worked in tea shops to earn extra money for his family while learning about football from his father Dondinho, himself a top level player.
Pelé's early experiences of the game involved playing with improvised footballs, before joining the youth teams of Bauru Athletic Club where he won several state youth titles. He earned his famous nickname at school, although he initially disliked it and neither he nor his friends really seemed to know what it meant. At the age of 15 he was spotted by Santos and having signed for the club in 1956, scored on his debut in a friendly against Corinthians de Santo André.
In 18 years with Santos, Pelé became the most famous figure in the world of football thanks to his enormous range of skills. He could score goals with either foot or with his head but also possessed the vision and range of passing to create opportunities for others, often by dropping deeper to create more space for himself and his team-mates. Quick and skilful with the ball at his feet, Pelé also had a reputation for trying audacious and spectacular tricks during games.
His career with Santos began in the deeper role of inside-left, although he could function equally well in a more advanced position. He became a first team regular at just 16, helping the team to finish second in the São Paulo state championship where he finished as leading scorer for the first of an astonishing nine consecutive seasons. He also earned an international debut against Argentina in July 1957, scoring in a 2-1 win.
The following year he was selected for the Brazilian squad to go to the World Cup in Sweden. Recovering from injury, Pelé was initially not in the starting line-up but following requests from his team-mates was selected for the final group game against the Soviet Union, which Brazil won 2-0 to reach the last eight. From that point on, he was one of the stars of the tournament. He scored the only goal of the quarter-final against Wales before adding a hat-trick in a 5-2 semi-final thrashing of France.
Facing hosts Sweden in the final, Brazil came from behind to lead 2-1 before Pelé scored one of the World Cup's great goals, controlling the ball on his chest, flicking it over a defender and volleying home. He headed another goal late on, sealing Brazil's first World Cup win with another 5-2 victory. Overcome with emotion at full-time, the 17-year old who started the finals as a back-up ended as second-highest scorer and was voted second best player in the finals behind team-mate Didi.
Having scored an incredible 58 goals as Santos took the state championship later in 1958, Pelé added eight goals in just six games as Brazil narrowly failed to add the South American Championship to their world title in April 1959. Their hopes had been damaged by letting slip a 2-0 lead to draw with Peru, eventually needing to beat hosts Argentina in their last game to take the title. Despite Pelé's second-half equaliser they could not find a winner and finished second. Success continued at domestic level however, as Santos won the Rio-São Paulo tournament in 1959, before winning the state championship back a year later and retaining it alongside winning the national 'Taça Brasil' competition in 1961.
Expected to be one of the stars of Brazil's defence of the World Cup in Chile in 1962, Pelé scored a stunning solo goal in the win over Mexico, but sadly suffered a bad injury in Brazil's second group game against Czechoslovakia. Ruled out for the rest of the finals, he had to watch on as Brazil won a rematch against the Czechs in the final to retain the cup. Like all non-playing squad members, Pelé did not receive a winners' medal at the time but eventually did in 2007 when all such players were retroactively given the awards.
Shortly after the World Cup, Santos reached the final of the Copa Libertadores against holders Peñarol. Each club had won on the other's ground, forcing a play-off for which Pelé returned from injury and scored twice in a 3-0 win as Santos took the cup for the first time. In the Intercontinental Cup against European champions Benfica, he scored twice in the first leg and added three more in the second as Santos added yet another trophy.
Both the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup were successfully retained in 1963, with Pelé hitting a late winner in the second leg of the Libertadores final against Boca Juniors after Santos had already won the first match. They also won back-to-back Rio-São Paulo Tournaments in 1963 and 1964 and consecutive state titles in 1964 and 1965, the first of those including an amazing 11-0 win over Botafogo in which Pelé scored a career-high eight goals himself. By 1965, Santos had also won the Taça Brasil for five years in a row.
In 1966, Brazil travelled to England to try to become the first team to win three World Cups but after the disappointment of 1962, Pelé suffered further injury heartbreak. He opened the scoring in the 2-0 win over Bulgaria but repeated fouls caused an injury which kept him out of the defeat to Hungary in Brazil's second match. He was brought back for the vital game against Portugal, but was far from fully fit and again subjected to vicious treatment from opposing defenders. Reduced to a passenger, he saw Brazil lose 3-1 and crash out of the finals.
Pelé did not appear in the national team again for two years, eventually returning to play a part in the 1970 qualifying campaign in which he scored six goals to help Brazil reach the World Cup in Mexico. Success at club level continued to come as well, as Santos won three more state titles from 1967 to 1969 and the new national 'Torneio Roberto Gomes Pedrosa' in 1968. In November 1969, his penalty against Vasco da Gama took his total in all matches to 1,000.
His fourth World Cup in 1970 gave Pelé perhaps his finest hour as he was named the tournament's best player. He produced several spectacular moments in the finals including near-misses from the half-way line against Czechoslovakia and having dummied the ball past the goalkeeper against Uruguay. When he did score against Czechoslovkia, he became the second player to find the net in four World Cups, following West Germany's Uwe Seeler by a matter of minutes.
Pelé scored twice more against Romania as Brazil won their group with three wins out of three, before setting up vital goals in the wins over Peru and Uruguay which took his team through to the final. There, he opened the scoring against Italy with a header, becoming only the second man to score in two finals. Although Italy levelled, they were eventually overwhelmed as Brazil won 4-1, Pelé playing a part in two more of the goals including the spectacular finale from Carlos Alberto.
Having helped his country to a third world title, Pelé's international career wound down as he played just four more times for Brazil. He finished with 92 caps at international level and 77 goals, still a Brazilian record and one of the highest totals of all-time. Having won eight of the previous ten São Paulo state titles, in the early 1970s Pelé's Santos team began to decline. For several years they dropped out of contention, but returned to form in 1973.
With Pelé finishing as the league's top scorer for the 11th time in his career and being named South American Player of the Year, Santos were declared joint champions alongside Portuguesa after an incorrectly conducted penalty shoot-out in the deciding match. That proved to be his last major honour with Santos, as he left following the 1974 season having scored 643 goals in 656 competitive games. His loyalty to the club had seen him turn down many offers to play in Europe during his 18 years at Santos.
Pelé's next move took him to the USA to play for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. Despite being past his best, the three years he spent in the USA helped bring both the league and the sport as a whole to a much wider audience. After two years of rising crowds but no success, the Cosmos signed German legend Franz Beckenbauer to play alongside Pelé and were rewarded with the 1977 Soccer Bowl championship.
Shortly afterwards, Pelé retired from football just before his 37th birthday. In total he scored 1,281 in 1,363 games, which many consider the highest total of all-time although debate rages about which games should be counted. Since retirement he has remained one of the game's most well known figures, working as an ambassador for football, for Brazil and for the UN. He also served as Minister of Sport in Brazil.
In addition to the numerous awards he won during his playing career, he received many more at the close of the 20th century as numerous organisations named him the greatest player of the past 100 years. Alongside Diego Maradona, he was jointly named as Player of the Century by FIFA. In 2010, his association with the New York Cosmos was revived when he was made honourary president of the relaunched club.
References (all accessed 6 December 2012):
- Published on Thursday, 06 December 2012 00:36