Pelé, one of the best football players in history, died Thursday afternoon at the Albert Einstein hospital in the city of São Paulo at the age of 82. After hearing the news, the Argentine footballing world bid farewell to one of Latin America’s greatest popular idols.
Social networks were overflowing with tributes. Major Argentine teams like Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing and Independiente, as well as the Argentine Football Association, and top Argentine players like Lionel Messi, Ángel Di Maria, Kun Aguero and Gabriel Batistuta, all said goodbye to one of the greatest exponents of the jogo bonito through their social media accounts.
One of the most notable athletes of the 20th century, Pelé was born in 1940 as Edson Arantes do Nascimento, and began his love affair with football as a small child in the town of Bauru. He overcame extreme poverty to become a player for FC Santos, where he played as an inside forward, at only 15 years of age. Only one year later, he began his tenure on the national team. There, he went on to win three World Cups (Sweden 1958, Chile 1962 and Mexico 1970) with 77 goals in 92 games.
Other major team trophies garnered by Pelé include nine league championships with Santos as well as the Libertadores Cup and the Intercontinental Club Cup. Over his entire career, which concluded in 1977 with the New York Cosmos, he scored almost one goal per game, landing him a place in The Guinness Book of World Records.
Known by the nickname O Rei (The King) Pele’s style of play was marked by powerful and accurate kicks resulting in breathtaking goals, precise passing, a marked mental toughness, as well as a preternatural ability to anticipate his rival’s moves. He attributed much of these abilities to his playing futsal before his professional debut. On those smaller pitches, competing as a young boy with adults, he learned valuable lessons in footwork and dribbling the ball in tight spaces.
As a professional he donned the mystical number 10, designated to a team’s strongest attacker and playmaker. Other players, now in the pantheon of the sport to have used this number include Diego Armando Maradona, Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Francesco Totti, and the latest World Cup champion, Lionel Messi himself.
Pelé popularized the phrase o jogo bonito (the beautiful game) to describe the world’s most popular sport. His autobiography, published in 1977, was titled: My Life and the Beautiful Game. In 1999, Time magazine recognized Pelé as one of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century. Among his other accolades, confirming his status as one of the greatest players ever, if not the greatest, he was awarded the International Federation of Football History’s World Player of the Century, as well as FIFA’s Player of the Century. These recognitions for his illustrious career also included his designation of The Athlete of the Century by the French sports magazine, L’Equipe and also from the International Olympic Committee.
Following his inimitable football career, Pelé became a worldwide ambassador of the sport, penned bestselling autobiographies, and also composed musical scores –as well as acted– in films such as 1981’s Victory, in which he starred alongside Sylvester Stallone and Michael Cane.
Last December 5th, with the 2022 World Cup in full swing, Pelé posted a photo of himself at 18 years of age, walking with his father. He wrote a message for the Brazilian team, “In 1958, I walked the streets thinking about fulfilling the promise I made to my father. I know that today many have made similar promises and are also going in search of their first World Cup. I’ll be watching the game from the hospital and I’ll be rooting for each one of you. Good luck!”
At the conclusion of the tournament, he acknowledged Argentina and its captain, Messi, stating on social media: “Today, football continues to tell its story, as always, in an enthralling way. Messi winning his first World Cup, as his trajectory deserved. My dear friend Mbappé, scoring four goals in a final. What a gift it was to watch this spectacle to the future of our sport…Congratulations Argentina! Certainly Diego is smiling now.”
Once Diego Maradona’s professional career was over, the never ending debate about who was the better player was never resolved. Or rather, each country never wavered in stating that their own hero was the best of all time.
O Rei is survived by his third wife, Marcia Aoki, and his six living children.