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Pele, A Global Icon Who Transcended His Sport


Pele, the Brazilian who has long been considered the greatest footballer of all time, has died at the age of 82.

The legendary figure, a man who transcended his sport and was a global icon, learned that his colon cancer had advanced on December 21 and was told he would be kept in hospital over Christmas – with the iconic forward needing treatment for cardiac and renal dysfunction.

Previously he had been admitted to the hospital on November 30 with swelling all over his body and ‘decompensated heart failure’ before passing away a month on after receiving palliative care.

Pele’s daughter Kely Nascimento wrote on Instagram: ‘We are thanks to you. We love you infinitely. Rest in peace.’

Nascimento, who had posted before Christmas that members of Pele’s family would spend the holiday period in the hospital with him, added three heartbroken emojis.

No details have been made public yet about the funeral, but a vigil will be held at Vila Belmiro in Santos, the city where the great will be buried.

Pele, who had been undergoing treatment for metastatic cancer, went into the Albert Einstein hospital in what was an unscheduled visit after being taken by his wife Marcia Aoki and a carer.

Medical staff at the Einstein confirmed his condition of anasarca (general swelling), an edemigemic syndrome (general edema) and even identified ‘decompensated heart failure’.

It had also been reported that his chemotherapy treatment on his cancer was no longer working, while he was diagnosed with mental confusion upon entering the hospital, where he was restless.

According to reports, the former footballer was reportedly struggling to eat. Medics looked at the likelihood of him having a hepatic encephalopathy – a nervous system disorder brought on by severe liver disease.

His wife implied his hospital visit was only for his standard chemotherapy and check-ups and his daughter Kely Nascimento insisted there was no need need for alarm and that there was ‘no surprise or emergency’ involved with her father being in hospital.

On Christmas Eve, Pele’s daughter posted a moving photo of her father in a hospital bed as they cherish ‘another night together’ as he continued to battle the cancer.

‘We continue to be here, in fight and in faith. Another night together,’ his daughter Kely Nascimento wrote on Instagram, alongside a photo of Pele being hugged in bed. Pelé’s granddaughter Sophia could also be seen in the photo.

Somewhat fittingly, one of the last posts he made on social media was about football. ‘Hello from Brazil! I hope you’re all enjoying watching the games at the World Cup as much as I am,’ he said on November 29. ‘I love fútbol so deeply and I also love it for how it helps and empowers children through fun, teamwork, and creativity.

‘That’s the reason why I started Pelé Foundation and why I’m delighted to announce that we are establishing our first ever Three Hearts Awards, which will recognise a player, non-profit organisation and an inspiration annually, who has had a significant contribution, commitment to philanthropy, and community impact that aids and empowers children through educational, anti-poverty or health efforts.

‘It’s my pleasure to announce this years honorees will be @grassrootsoccer for their leadership in adolescent health over the past 20 years, @cristiano for his excellence on and off the field highlighted by his endless commitment to children’s causes, and @globalempowermentmission for their inspirational work helping Ukrainian refugees.

‘As today is Giving Tuesday, join me in celebrating this year’s honorees for their amazing work using fútbol to change the world!’

He also congratulated Argentina and Lionel Messi on winning the World Cup in Qatar, writing: ‘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. And I couldn’t fail to congratulate Morocco for the incredible campaign. It’s great to see Africa shine. Congratulations Argentina! Certainly Diego is smiling now.’

Pele had been recovering from surgery last year, and although he was readmitted to hospital on several occasions he took to Instagram to inform his fans that he was ‘continuing to smile every day’.

His incredible career is littered with remarkable achievements. Most notably he is the only player to have won three World Cups, having also triumphed with Brazil in 1962 and 1970. He was also one of the first black global sporting icons.

Born and raised in the favelas of Tres Coracoes in Minas Gerais, Edson Arantes do Nascimento – he would become known as Pele at school, apparently because of the way he mispronounced the name of his favourite footballer, Bile – grew up in poverty and taught himself how to play football by kicking around a sock stuffed with newspaper.

Yet he grew into a prodigious talent, starting his club career at Santos, in the state of Sao Paulo, aged just 15. He began playing for Brazil’s national team when he was 16, and went on to score 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, which is recognised as a Guinness World Record, although that figure includes friendly matches.

Pele had struggled with health issues for several years prior to his death.

He had made light of his health problems in an Instagram post following his surgery last September, saying that he had left intensive care, appearing in good spirits while smiling for the camera, and even joking he was now ready to play ’90 minutes and extra time!’
Pele’s public appearances were already being cut before the Covid-19 pandemic and he made few forays outside his house since. He had to use walkers and wheelchairs to move around during recent years, after a failed hip replacement in 2012.

He required surgery on his prostate in 2015, having been admitted to hospital twice in the space of six months.

Such was his influence, Pele was included in Time’s list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, along with the likes of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill.

Even in Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side, which is famed as the greatest team ever to play international football, he is still viewed as the brightest of all the stars. He won the Ballon d’Or, football’s most prestigious annual award for the world’s best player, seven times. In Brazil, he is lauded as a god-like figure, while he remains adored the world over.

The feats over the last decade and more of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have led to many hailing them as the greatest footballers ever, while Maradona is also considered a better player than Pele by a huge number of fans.

But many of the other players considered among the best of all time have hailed Pele as the greatest of them all. Johan Cruyff said Pele ‘was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic’, while German legend Franz Beckenbauer Pele ‘is the greatest player of all time. He reigned supreme for 20 years. There’s no one to compare with him’. Ferenc Puskas said: ‘The greatest player in history was (Alfredo) Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that.’

Pele is also famed for his sportsmanship, with his warm embrace of England captain Bobby Moore following their titanic battle at the 1970 World Cup one of the defining images of his career. Moore once said of him: ‘Pele was the most complete player I’ve ever seen, he had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only five feet and eight inches tall, yet he seemed a giant of an athlete on the pitch. Perfect balance and impossible vision. He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch.’

Including Kely Nascimento and Edinho, Pele had seven known children, although it is claimed that he fathered more. In a Netflix documentary, Pele admitted that he had so many affairs that he had lost count of them and had no idea how many children he had. He married Marcia Aoki in 2016, having been married twice previously.

When his playing career ended in 1977 following a spell at New York Cosmos, where his superstardom helped to kick-start widespread public awareness of soccer in the United States, Pele earned huge sums endorsing products, and also became involved in ambassadorial work, including for UNESCO. He also played a role in helping Rio de Janeiro win the hosting rights for the 2016 Olympics.

But his legacy remains simple and summed up by his enduring nickname: the King.

Obituary By Jeff Powell: Pele was a cut jewel – sharp-edged, glittering and flawless. Brazil’s three-time World Cup winner was perfect in every dimension and stands alone as football’s greatest of all time

For those among us who might be described as vertically challenged, it came as something of a shock to meet the greatest footballer of all time.

Even more so if that happened after you had seen him soar crossbar-high to power the header from which our own Gordon Banks made that phenomenal World Cup save in Mexico 1970.

My first handshake with Edson Arantes do Nascimento came a couple of years after that indelible moment of combined magic.

At the time I was five feet seven and a half inches short – yes, even smaller now – and to my amazement we greeted each other virtually eye-to-eye.

This legend who always looked a giant on the pitch stood just five feet eight inches in his boot studs.

But then the genius otherwise known as Pele was born with the gift to astonish.

Residents of a poverty-stricken barrio in Sao Paulo would stand gawping as a kid from the shanty next door performed miraculous tricks in a dusty street with either a rolled up sock or a grapefruit.

By 15 this boy whose family could not afford a football was conjuring goals from nowhere for the Santos first team.

At 16 he was playing for Brazil and was still only 17 when he scored six goals in four matches at Sweden 1958 to become the youngest ever World Cup winner.

Pele was only just getting started.

By the time he finished he was enshrined as the only player to win three World Cups and the only footballer to score a thousand goals.

Of late it has become rather the fashion for young tyros of my profession to question Pele’s stature as the greatest, to impugn his reputation as nostalgic fantasy, to sneer that he is flattered by statistics.

Yet they are the very young men who urge the modern claims of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo by citing their scoring records, while hardly giving a glance to the only non-Brazilians who have mounted fully arguable challenges to Pele’s eminence. Namely Diego Maradona, Alfredo Di Stefano and Johan Cruyff.

It is in his own land that the argument rages most fiercely. Millions upon millions of Brazilians are divided in their worship between Pele and Garrincha.

There is an emotional tug for Garrincha, the Bohemian romantic whose wizardry on the ball was coupled with a louche lifestyle conducted in the bars, among the people.

Those who vote for Garrincha do so from the heart. They are lovers of artistry.

Those who cast their ballot for Pele do so with their heads. They give the numbers their due value – those statistics are undeniably mountainous – and they are undeterred that their idol was as calculating as the computers needed to compile the data of his phenomenal career.

It speaks volumes for each of them that Brazil never lost a match in which both Pele and Garrincha were in the team.

Yet if you can accept that Maradona is the rational choice as runner-up to Pele in the all-time stakes, then it is easier to put the debate into decisive perspective.

The Hand of God’s divine talent was extravagant, cavalier, flamboyant – and confrontational.

Brazil’s Black Pearl was a perfectly cut jewel. Sharp-edged, glittering, cold to the touch, so consequently the most deadly – and flawless.

Maradona was all passion and drama.

Pele was the essence of economy, the master of football intelligence. Totally two-footed, lightning off the mark, extraordinary in the air. The touch exquisite but never over-indulged. Always to a purpose. Never wasted. Lethal in front of goal. Courageous but also brutal when he was offended by loutish inferiors.
The mutual admiration between himself and Bobby Moore ensured that they engaged in battles of skill, wit and honour. Yet, in one of the first matches I saw Pele play for Brazil, a Uruguayan defender who had been sent out to do a hatchet job on him was last seen leaving the field of play before half-time with his nose spread wide and bloodied across his face.

Of all who have merited elevation to the pantheon, Pele alone was perfect in every dimension.

Countless of his contemporaries have described him as such but perhaps the most convincing testimony came from the intellectual manager who built that 1970 World Cup team into the Greatest XI, only to resign before the tournament after being shot at for his political convictions as he sat at a pavement cafe.

Joao Saldanha was keeping his team selection for an important match close to his chest. So one Brazilian sportswriter sought to glean clues by asking him ‘who is the best goalkeeper in Brazil?’

‘Pele,’ said Saldanha.
‘Well, the best right back?’
And so it went through half the team before Saldanha smiled and said: ‘Look. Pele is the best footballer in the world in any position.’

Those who played with or against him agreed. The young Pele was badly injured just before the 1958 World Cup but members of the squad demanded he be taken to Sweden. He recovered to score those six vital goals, two of them in the final against the host nation. He collapsed at the end of the game from his youthful exertions. When he recovered, one of his opponents, Sigvard Parling, told him: ‘When you scored your second goal I felt like applauding.’

Come 1966, England’s glory and all that, such was Pele’s fame that he was kicked out of the competition in the first round of matches by Bulgaria and Portugal. This time Brazil went with him.

So disgusted was he by that treatment, especially as the harshest of it came from Brazil’s Portuguese blood brothers, that he threatened never to play in a World Cup again. Fortunately, he was coaxed into Mexico 70.

Not only were there more goals for Pele but the man who would be elected Footballer of the Century made the Goal of the Century – the cunningly disguised, perfectly weighted, inch-perfect lay-off into the path of his over-lapping captain Carlos Alberto which culminated in that thunderous cross-shot to climax the final.

Four-one to Brazil. All over for Italy. The original Jules Rimet Trophy won outright.

Tarcisio Burgnich, the Italian arch-defender who had been commissioned to mark Pele, said: ‘Before the final I told myself he was just flesh and bones like the rest of us. I was wrong.’

Cruyff was moved to this tribute: ‘Pele is the only footballer who has surpassed the boundaries of logic.’

The Greatest also made sure that his unique talent was greatly rewarded. As well as accumulating 40 trophies with Santos, Brazil and at the tail-end of his career with New York Cosmos when he and Franz Beckenbauer went to kick-start soccer in America, along with all the individual player of the year, century and millennium awards, he piled up the sponsorship and marketing contracts.

The Brazilians who adored Garrincha tended to frown on Pele’s driven commercialism but he needed to fund a chequered domestic life and support at least five children by different mothers.

Michel Platini, when he was still a wondrous player in his own right and before he became what might be described most kindly as an eccentric president of UEFA, said: ‘There was Pele the footballer and there was Pele the man but when he played football Pele was God.’

While he was unfailingly courteous there was invariably purpose to his charm, with the door to Pele the human being usually remaining tight shut.

Tostao, his strike partner in that immortal 1970 team, observed: ‘He loves being Pele.’

One of the very few times he showed genuine warmth in my company was at a dinner in Rome the night before the 1990 World Cup Final. He arrived slightly late and when he saw Bobby Moore seated at the table his face lit up.

The great old foes – who had exchanged shirts and mutual admiration at the end of their epic duel in the Mexican sun – embraced once again. For several minutes. Then they sat reminiscing long into the small hours, to our fascination.

The mask was a smiling one but this was a rare occasion when it revealed his truth. Pele was profoundly sentimental about the game at which he was supreme.

He saw a number of big matches at Wembley but never played there. It was an omission he regretted.

So one afternoon during a visit to London – some years after his retirement in 1977 – he went quietly to the empty old stadium. In his now-customary suit and tie, he walked the length of the hallowed turf and gently rolled a ball into the net with his Gucci shoes.

History had been served. Not just by 1,282 goals in 1,366 league, cup, international, tour and friendly matches. Not only by the clinical majesty of his play but by his abiding respect for the game he christened beautiful and played with majesty.

What more did the world have any right to ask of an immortal legend of the one global game? He whose passing is being mourned now with such fevered reverence in his land where football is the abiding religion.

Pele’s life off the field was just as colourful as his famous Brazil kit – he had seven children, many affairs, mixed with Presidents, acted in films, and even smashed the taboo around Viagra

Adam Shergold Commissioned to produce a portrait of Pele in 1977, the artist Andy Warhol quipped: ‘Pele was one of the few who contradicted my theory: Instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.’

It nicely sums up the adulation for the footballer widely considered the greatest to ever take the field, and who the world now mourns following his death at the age of 82.

Pele was regarded by his contemporaries as the very best but esteem for the Brazilian extended well beyond the stadium and into the realms of sport, politics and popular culture.

Nobody can remember with absolute certainty how Edson Arantes do Nascimento became contracted into just Pele but those four letters commanded recognition and respect in all four corners of the globe.

Once a reporter asked Pele if his fame was comparable to that of Jesus Christ, to which he replied: ‘There are parts of the world where Jesus Christ is not so well known.’

A career of relentless goalscoring began aged 15. By 17, Pele was a World Cup winner. He would inspire Brazil to two more triumphs, in 1962 and 1970.

By the end of it all, he had amassed 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, which is recognised as a Guinness World Record – though disputed by many because it includes friendly matches.

But Pele’s life away from the pitch was just as colourful as Brazil’s famous yellow shirts. He married three times – the last when he was 75 – and he also had many affairs. He has at least seven children by different mothers.
Some have suggested Pele tarnished the purity of his footballing legacy through commercialism – he promoted everything from Coca-Cola to Viagra – but though he was among the best-paid athletes of his era, his income compares poorly to the eye-watering earning potential of sports stars today.

His final years were dogged by health problems and unsuccessful hip operations left him unable to get about without the aid of a wheelchair. In September 2021, he underwent surgery to remove a tumour from his colon.

Michel Platini, the renowned former player, noted the difference between Pele’s on and off-field lives. ‘There was Pele the footballer and there was Pele the man but when he played football Pele was God.’

Pele the boy grew up in grinding poverty in the favelas of Tres Coracoes, the son of footballer Joao Ramos do Nascimento (nicknamed Dondinho) and Celeste Arantes.

He was named after the American inventor Thomas Edison but without the ‘i’ – yet the nickname the world knew him by may have come from the boy’s inability to pronounce the name of local Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Bile, although Pele never corroborated the story.
Adopting footballing genes from his father, Pele usually played in the streets with a sock stuffed with newspapers and bound with string, or with a grapefruit. A real football was out the question.

Such was his natural talent, Pele’s youth team coach was proclaiming to the directors of prominent club Santos that the 15-year-old would become ‘the greatest football player in the world’.

He was the league’s highest goalscorer at just 16 and would score a grand total of 643 goals in 659 matches for Santos, his club for 18 years until 1974 as they dominated Brazilian domestic football.

This was the record number of goals scored for a single club until Lionel Messi surpassed it with his 644th for Barcelona in December last year.

But it was Pele’s feats for Brazil at the World Cup, beaming into more and more homes with the spread of television, that brought him to global attention and acclaim.

Aged just 17, he arrived at the 1958 tournament in Sweden nursing a knee injury but his team-mates insisted he be picked for the team.

At the time, he was the youngest to feature at a World Cup and would score twice in the final as Brazil beat the hosts Sweden 5-2.

Such were his exertions, Pele passed out at the final whistle and had to be revived by team-mate Garrincha before bursting into tears of joy.

Pele suffered an injury during Brazil’s successful title defence in 1962, missing most of the games, and in England in 1966 was kicked from pillar to post as they exited after the group stage.

He was reluctant to commit to the 1970 campaign but Brazil boasted an excellent team and Pele was truly the jewel in their crown.

With colour TV in many living rooms, fans were mesmerised by Pele and his yellow-shirted colleagues as satellites beamed the games from Mexico around the world.

In the group-stage meeting with England, Pele was famously denied by the ‘save of the century’ by Gordon Banks having shouted ‘goal’ as the ball left his head.

The ‘team of the century’ duly went all the way with Carlos Alberto scoring ‘the goal of the century’ from Pele’s blind pass in a 4-1 win over Italy in the final.

At various points in his career, Pele was courted by prominent European clubs such as Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Juventus and Manchester United but he stayed with Santos even if they regularly toured Europe to capitalise on his fame.
After two years of semi-retirement, he signed for the New York Cosmos in 1975 and played in the North American Soccer League (NASL).

For a country supposedly uninterested in ‘soccer’, it was surprising that Pele was injured amid a crush of hysteric fans at a public appearance in Boston shortly after his arrival and had to be carried off on a stretcher.

Pele’s fame made him a household name even in the States with Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter among the Presidents to grant him an audience at the White House.

His presence helped launch the game in the United States and persuaded other legends like George Best, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff to play there.

Good friends Muhammad Ali and Bobby Moore attended the final game of his career in 1977, an exhibition match between the Cosmos and Santos. As rain fell over the stadium in the second-half, one Brazilian newspaper wrote: ‘Even the sky was crying.’

It has been estimated that Pele’s annual income during his playing career was around $150,000 with his wealth significantly boosted by the $2.8million, three-year contract at New York in the twilight of his playing days.

But after retirement, he still accepted countless lucrative commercial endorsements – whether through need or choice – and was estimated to have raked in $14m by doing so.

His appearances in adverts to promote Viagra on behalf of Pfizer surprised many people but Pele, while insisting he never used the drug himself, said he wanted to smash the taboo around erectile dysfunction.

As early as 1981, he was promoting his own soccer video game on the Atari console, while he’s since plugged Visa in Hong Kong, MasterCard in Germany, Subway in the United States and Coca-Cola everywhere.

There have been various authorised films and documentaries about his life, while his starring role in the 1981 film Escape to Victory alongside Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone made the tale about a football team of Allied prisoners breaking out of Nazi Germany a favourite.

A guitar player who would serenade and entertain his team-mates, Pele released singles and albums of his own music. A recent track was entitled ‘Listen To The Old Man’.

He dabbled in politics, serving as Brazil’s sports minister between 1995 and 1998, and had also been an ambassador for UNESCO and UNICEF as well as a UN ambassador for ecology and the environment.

It hasn’t always been smooth. There was a corruption row with Brazilian football administrator Ricardo Teixeira over TV rights for the 1994 World Cup after Pele’s own broadcasting company was snubbed. Pele was duly banned from the World Cup draw in Las Vegas by FIFA president Joao Havelange.

But awards and accolades fell upon Pele like confetti, from an honorary knighthood bestowed by the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1997 to a place on Time magazine’s top 100 most important people of the 20th century list.

All this came against the backdrop of a chequered love life. He married first wife Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi in 1966 and they had two daughters – Kelly and Jennifer – and a son, Edson.

The son, known as Edinho, was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment on money laundering and drug trafficking charges in 2014 but this was reduced to 12 years and 10 months on appeal.

Pele visited his son several times in jail having insisted when Edinho was first arrested that ‘there is not a shred of evidence’ against him.

His first marriage ended in 1982 and Pele was romantically linked with the TV presenter Xuxa, just 17 when they started dating, for several years.

But in April 1994, he married the psychologist and gospel singer Assiria Lemos Seixas, who gave birth to twins Joshua and Celeste in 1996.

They divorced in 2008 and the 75-year-old Pele married for the third time in July 2016 to Marcia Aoki, 41, a Japanese-Brazilian importer of medical equipment.

Pele has at least two more children from affairs. He refused to submit to DNA tests to prove he was the father to Sandra Machado, born to an affair with housemaid Anizia Machado in 1964. Sandra won the right to use Pele’s surname Nascimento in 1996 after a five-year legal battle.

He did recognise Flavia Kurtz as his daughter after an extramarital affair with journalist Lenita Kurtz in 1968.

‘I was a normal youth and had many adventures,’ Pele once explained in an interview.

It is for Pele’s adventures on the football field he will be fondly remembered by the generation fortunate enough to see ‘The King’ in action, and subsequent ones who consider his name synonymous with ‘the beautiful game’.

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