Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in 1940, in Minas Gerais, Brazil, Edson popularly known by billions as Pelé grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Bauru, São Paulo, Brazil. His parents named him Edison after the famous American inventor, Thomas Edison. His father, João Ramos do Nascimento known as ‘Dondinho’ was a semi-professional footballer who played for Fluminense and Atlético Mineiro and his mother Maria Celeste Arant, was a maid.
Football was not Pelé’s childhood dream. As a child, his dream was to become a pilot. He had always wanted to be a pilot but his dream was cut short after an incident of a plane crash that occurred close to his home, killing all passengers onboard including the pilot. The incident left the young Pele with no choice but to let go of his dream of becoming a pilot. He then took football as his career, a decision which was not welcomed by his mother who gave him all the support to become a professional pilot. But as destiny would have it, football was Pelé’s fate.
Before he gained popularity and success, the ‘football god’ had a necessitous upbringing. As the first child to his parents, Pelé had to work really hard to create the path he had and the lifestyle he enjoyed before his death. Before the start of his dazzling and fruitful footballing career, Pele would visit Bauru Athletic Club on match days to clean the boots of the club’s footballers so he could earn extra money. He did this for a period of time until one day his father, Dondinho, who was a famous footballer at the time, taught him how to play football and became his first football coach.
HIS FATHER – A ROLE MODEL AND MENTOR TO PELE
Pele’s father, Dodinho played as an attacking centre forward. He was a mentor, friend and coach to his son, Pelé. In 2015 in an interview with CNN, Pele said: “My dad was a good football player, he scored a lot of goals. His name was Dondinho; I wanted to be like him. He was famous in Brazil. He was my role model. I always wanted to be like him, but what happened, to this day, only God can explain.” His father played for a number of local clubs during his playing years in Brazil. Although he was a famous footballer in Brazil, Dodinho made little from playing football. Back then, football was among the least-paid careers in the world, thus footballers in Brazil at that time were among the poorest in the country. Dodinho had to retire early from playing football due to the need to make more money from other jobs so he could afford to take care of his family. His father scored a club career 839 goals in 775 games and 19 goals in 6 games for Brazil. He once scored five goals with his head in one match – a record still yet to be broken. His father died at the age of 89.
HOW DID HE GET THE NAME PELE?
Growing up, he had two nicknames; ‘Dico and Pele’. Dico was given to him by his parents which means ‘Son of a Warrior’, whilst Pele was given to him in school by his colleagues. The latter became a household name in football. From childhood to his death, Pele was always seen smiling. Young Pele always had time for his friends and he was always happy – he was the fun type to be around. Even when his friends mocked him, he cared less and would always respond with a smile. But, that did not last long. There was a fan of local goalkeeper Bile who played for Vasco da Gama in the local league in Brazil. As much as he loved Bile, Pele had trouble pronouncing his favourite goalkeeper’s name. Instead of ‘Bile,’ he would pronounce it as ‘Pile’. He was mocked for this and his friends started to call him “Pelé” in reference to ‘Pile’; a name that would become so popular among billions of people.
Even though he (Pelé) was not happy with the name Pelé, he had no choice but to accept it in good faith. In 2019, he spoke to Tuttosport, the three-time World Cup winner said: “I had a happy childhood. My name is Edson, then they started calling me Pelé. I didn’t like it, I started arguing with everyone. I was a Thomas Edison fan. What is Pele? Thomas Edison is important!”
Pelé himself said in an interview in 1999 that he had a fight in school and was given a two-day suspension because he didn’t like the name. He said: “It was not a nickname I wanted as a child. My family called me Dico, my mates in the street called me Edson. When they started to call me Pelé I didn’t want them to. I thought it was a rubbish name. Now you even see it in the Bible. In Hebrew Pele means miracle. A theologian discovered this and then told me. Which means it’s there in the Bible. Back then when someone said, “Hey, Pele,” I would shout back and get angry. On one occasion I punched a classmate because of it and earned a two-day suspension. This, predictably, did not have the desired effect. Other kids realised it annoyed me and so they started calling me Pele even more. Then I realised that it wasn’t up to me what I’m called. Now I love the name – but back then it wound me up no end.”
THE MAKING OF LEGEND
Unlike many football stars today, Pele could not afford a proper start to football. As a kid, he would usually play with either a sock stuffed with newspaper, tied with a string or a grapefruit. Little did he know he would become football’s most iconic star. At Bauru, he attended school for a short period of time and did many odd jobs until his adolescence. He started to play football for a local youth team in Bauru until the age of 15 when he was transferred to Brazil’s most successful football club, Santos, where he later became a club icon and legend.
RISE TO STARDOM
At 15, Pelé was signed for Santos FC, Brazil’s biggest club and one of the most decorated clubs in football history. He scored four goals on his league debut in a match against FC Corinthians on September 7, 1956. Two years later, at the age of 17, he was called to play for the Brazil national team at the 1958 FIFA World Cup. At 17, he became the youngest player ever to win the World Cup, netting two incredible goals in the final against Sweden, the host country.
Over the course of his 18-year career with Santos, Pelé became inextricably linked to both the white team’s number 10 jersey and the yellow of the Brazilian national team. While Pelé was a player at Santos, the club team won multiple Brazilian state and national titles as well as two global club championships in 1962 and 1963. He won three FIFA World Cup with Brazil, making him the only footballer dead or alive to win three World Cups.
Santos FC routinely travelled the world in front of large crowds during what has been referred to as Pelé’s reign. There were tributes to this Black Brazilian across Asia, Africa, and Europe. In 1962, the Brazilian Congress labelled the 22-year-old player a “non-exportable national treasure” out of fear that such adoration may lead to bids for him to play for clubs in wealthier nations.
Pelé participated in four World Cups with the Brazilian national team, helping the team to a historic three championships between 1958 and 1970. Following his retirement from Santos in 1974, Pelé was persuaded to return to the game by a multimillion-dollar offer to play for the New York Cosmos in a North American league’s effort to introduce soccer to the United States. He took his second and last retirement in October 1977.
In 1969, he scored his 1,000th goal, which he dedicated to the “children of Brazil,” while playing in Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana Stadium. Every year November 19 Santos FC celebrates the anniversary of Pele’s 1,000th goal. He played in 1362 games and scored 1279 goals; a record yet to be broken. He scored a record 92 career hat-tricks; scored four goals in 31 games consecutively; five goals in six games consecutively; and scored eight goals in one match. He is Brazil’s second-all-time highest goal scorer at the World Cup with 12 goals.
LEGACY AND INFLUENCE GLOBALLY
Pelé was named by FIFA as the player of the 20th century and is regarded by many as the most complete football player in the game’s history. His legacy stretches outside football. He was the first Black man to appear on the cover of Life Magazine, and even now, he is unarguably one of the most well-known people in the world. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) named him athlete of the century in 1999. In 1999, Pele was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Some have asserted that Pelé would win the presidency if he ever decided to run for office due to his enormous popularity in Brazil. Pelé was named Minister of Sports in 1993 by President Cardoso. Far beyond Brazil and athletics, Pelé’s reputation spread worldwide.
Prior to a game with other football legends Diego Maradona and Michel Platini on May 23, 1988, in France, Pelé served as both a speaker and an anti-drug campaign advocate. After retiring from football at the age of 37, he utilized his notoriety to promote environmental and ecological causes at the UN. The Brazilian Legend served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and a United Nations Ambassador, fighting corruption in Brazil and promoting environmental protection.
He contributed to bringing attention to the abuses occurring in South Africa under Apartheid. Pele was denied access to the old Johannesburg airport terminal on a visit to South Africa in the 1960s as a result of the discriminatory laws in place at the time. This scared him, and he made the promise that he would never return to South Africa until Nelson Mandela was freed. Pele had the chance to meet Mandela in March 1995, just after he was chosen to serve as the country’s first democratic president.
During the Biafran war in Nigeria, Santos FC toured Africa to play friendly games and give Africans the opportunity to watch their brother, Pele, play live in front of them. As an Afro-Brazillian and the greatest black footballer of all time, Pelé and his team, Santos FC arrived in Nigeria for a friendly match against the Super Eagles of Nigeria. His visit to Nigeria prompted the Nigerian Government and Biafran Rebels to a 48-hour ceasefire so they could watch him play.
At the age of 82, Pelé passed away after a long battle with colon cancer. He was recognized as a prolific goal scorer who had the ability to read opponents in the area and finish with either foot, using accuracy and power to finish chances. His legacy lives on.