Pele: Exit of a legend at 82

Blueprint Whatsapp

The global football family was on Thursday December 29, 2022 plunged into a mourning mood following the news of the death of the world’s acclaimed football icon, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pele. 

He passed on in a Sao Paulo hospital, Brazil, at 82 after succumbing to colon cancer that triggered off a multiple organ failure.

Arguably the best football player of his generation, the Brazilian legend came to limelight at the age of 17 when he featured at the 1958 World Cup Finals staged in Sweden. 

He was invited from Bauru FC in Brazil to join the national team at the age of 15, and he helped his country over a period of two years to qualify for the Sweden tournament.

His maiden appearance was full of emotions and drama. In his autobiography published in 1977, he recalled his maiden appearance in the team fully kitted in Brazilian colours and warming up for the match against Wales in the quarter-finals.

Because he was so young, the crowd mistook him for the coach’s son who would soon give way for the 11 players, despite wearing the No. 10 jersey. But the young lad turned out to be part of the starting 11, scoring a decisive goal. And to prove that the feat was not a fluke, the soccer prodigy turned in a hat-trick against France in the semi-finals, thus contributing to the 5 – 2 victory. 

He also appeared on the scoresheet in a 5 – 2 demolition of the host country to win his first World Cup medal.

The King of Sweden was so impressed with the incredible courage and skills of the kid player destined to become a soccer king that he came down from the stand to give him a handshake.

Back home, Pele had become a hot cake and virtually all the club owners fell over themselves to sign him but he settled for Santos FC which he made famous. 

He dominated the Brazilian league and inspired his club to win five cup championships in a row between 1961 and 1965. 

He helped Santos FC to clinch the Copa Libertadores (South American Champions League) in 1962 and 1963 as well as the 1962 Intercontinental Cup, beating the legendary Eusebio’s Benfica by 5 – 2; Pele raked in a hat-trick.

By the next World Cup Finals held in Chile in 1962, the legendary Pele had been polished and transformed into a one-man demolition squad. 

His appearance in jersey No.10 was like rolling 10 soccer stars into one player! In the opening match against Mexico, he assisted the first goal and scored the second. Unfortunately, he was forced off the pitch by a groin injury against Czechoslovakia.

But Brazil eventually won the Cup for the second time in a row.

His third appearance at the world stage was at the 1966 Tournament staged in England. A fully mature Pele was ready again to take on the rest of the world. In their first match against Bulgaria, the defenders conspired to stop him. 

He was brutally fouled severally until he was taken out of the team. In the second match against Portugal, the defenders continued where the Bulgarians left off, conspiring to take him out of the game by cruel tackles. A Pele-less Brazil was sent out in the quarter-finals by 3 – 1.

Pele’s final World Cup appearance was in Mexico in 1970. The final match of the tournament against Italy has remained the most memorable in the World Cup history: the Brazilian attacking forwards against the ultra-defensive Italian pack. 

But the Samba boys showed their masterclass, beating the Azzuris by 4 – 1 in what a commentator described as “the destruction of the destroyers”. By that victory, Brazil retained the Jules Rimet Cup for keeps being the third time. Pele thus became the only player to win the World Cup thrice at 29.

It is worthy of note that the Brazilian government forbade its icon from playing club football outside Brazil, regarding him as a national asset. The decision was backed by an act of parliament. On retirement from international football, he moved over to the United States playing for the New York Cosmos where he ended his professional career as “an ambassador for football”. 

His movement to the United States came with another drama. Pele was reluctant and it took a diplomatic pressure from the US Government on the Brazilian Government to get him to relocate.

Pele was adjudged as a complete footballer, solid on the ground and majestic in the air with the ability to trade with the ball, using both feet brilliantly. In his club career with Santos between 1956 and 1974, he made a total of 605 appearances and scored 589 goals. 

He capped them with 37 goals in 64 appearances for the New York Cosmos, winning the US Championship in 1977. He made 92 appearances for Brazil and banged in 77 goals. 

He hit the back of the net more than 1,281 times in all competitions.

He was voted by FIFA as the Player of the Century (1999), FIFA World Cup Golden Ball (1970) and South American Footballer of the Year (1973).

Despite his exploits in football, Pele never ventured into coaching.

Rather, he organised coaching clinics in several countries across the globe. 

During one of his visits to Nigeria where he played an exhibition match featuring with the Green Eagles teams A and B at the National Stadium, Lagos, he was caught up in the coup that toppled Gen. Yakubu Gowon in 1975. 

But the airport was opened for the Brazilian icon to fly back to his country. Six years earlier, during the Civil War, he led Santos FC of Sao Paulo to Nigeria to play against the Green Eagles and a ceasefire was observed to watch him play.

Between 1995 and 1998, he served Brazil as Sports Minister.

He has also had two failed marriages and was with his third wife and children when he died.

One significant influence Pele and the beauty of Samba football had on Nigerian soccer followers was that most of them adopted the Latin American nation as their home country. They fiercely supported it at every World Cup Finals until Nigeria appeared at the global stage for the first time at the USA ’94.

In recent years, Pele had suffered some health challenges associated with old age but he fought the ailment on the hospital bed. Were it on the pitch, the legend would have subdued the killer disease.  Pele continued to inspire numerous footballers across the globe despite retiring some decades ago, as evidenced by the desire of many to wear the number 10 jersey which he was known with.

Tributes have begun to pour in like a torrent from across the globe, extolling his exploits and contributions to the Beautiful Game as dubbed by him. He will be sorely missed by all that came to know him as the apotheosis or demigod of football. The world may not see another Pele again.  

Blueprint joins the global community in commiserating with Brazil, his family and friends over the sad loss. May his beautiful soul rest in peace, Amen.