Pelé, the Brazilian soccer icon who brought the World Cup trophy to his home country three times, becoming an international superstar and the highest-paid team athlete in the world at the time, has died. He was 82.
“I want to thank Pelé. We know who he is and who he will always be. We need icons like him,” Maradona said at a friendly exhibition match in 2016. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on Oct. 23, 1940, he was almost exclusively known as Pelé a nickname he supposedly earned about after he mispronounced another footballer’s name.
Pelé’s health had been deteriorating as he aged. Doctors at Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo said in late December that he was receiving “elevated care” related to “kidney and cardiac dysfunctions” stemming from the cancer he had been fighting for more than a year. He also had a respiratory infection, and his family said he would be staying in the hospital over the Christmas holiday.
He and Argentine star Diego Maradona, who was younger than Pelé and played after his retirement, have often been discussed as the greatest players of all time even being jointly named the “player of the century” by FIFA in 2000. Despite the competition, the two struck up a friendship before Maradona died in 2020 after years of trading jabs.
Pelé joined the Santos Football Club in Brazil in 1956 at age 15 as an inside forward. The club won the São Paulo league championships and, in 1962 and 1963, both the Libertadores Cup and the Intercontinental Club Cup.
Pelé tore a muscle at the next World Cup tournament in 1962 and had to sit out after the second match, but the Brazilian national team prevailed and picked up back-to-back titles. Brazil lost in the first round at the next World Cup, in 1966, after Pelé and others suffered injuries.
The forward, who operated as a second striker, made his international debut just a year after joining Santos, in 1957, and played at the World Cup the following year at age 17 the youngest player ever. He picked up a hat trick in the semifinal against France and scored two goals in the championship game against the 1958 tournament host, Sweden.
After bursting onto the world stage and dazzling with his ability to land difficult shots in the net, Brazil declared that Pelé was a “national treasure,” a move to prevent him from being scooped up by wealthier European teams. Instead, Santos went on an international tour to give fans a chance to see the star.
He considered retiring from international play, but made a triumphant return in 1970 to win it all once again. Pelé closed out his World Cup career netting 12 goals in 14 games and remains the only soccer player to win the trophy three times. Pelé retired from Santos in 1974 after scoring a mind-boggling 643 goals in 659 games.
He was coaxed out of retirement a year later to join his second-ever team, the New York Cosmos. At 34, he signed a three-year $7 million deal to play for the U.S. team, which The New York Times reported at the time made him the highest-paid team athlete in the world. He ended up playing for the Cosmos for two years, helping them win the North American Soccer League trophy, and he was widely credited with increasing popularity in the sport in the United States.
“In simple terms, Pele made soccer cool,” Shep Messing, a goalkeeper for the Cosmos, told ESPN 40 years after that last game. “Mick Jagger, Elton John, Robert Redford at the games. Muhammad Ali, he was there on the field for that final game, and at that time, the two most recognizable people on the planet were the two of them.”
He used his platform after soccer to support charitable works and try to improve the lives of Brazil’s poor. He became a UNESCO global ambassador in 1994 and served as a minister for sport in Brazil. He also published several autobiographies that went on to become best-sellers and starred in documentary films about his life.
His last-ever game was an exhibition match between Santos and the Cosmos. He played the first half with the Cosmos and the second half with his beloved Santos. When the time expired, his teammates lifted the emotional Pelé onto their shoulders and paraded him around the field.
Pelé scored more than 1,000 goals in the course of his career, earning a Guinness World Record. FIFA named him the “greatest of all time” in 2012 and the International Olympic Committee named him the “athlete of the century” in 1999.