A Tribute to Pelé: History's Most Significant Footballer and Quite Possibly, its Greatest
Updated: Nov 25
Prologue: Beyond his flair and freedom on the field, Pele’s brand was undeniably larger than the game itself. At a time when African and Caribbean nations were excluded from participating in the FIFA World Cup, Pelé culturally integrated football by leading a Brazilian team with four black players to Europe to win the 1958 tournament in Sweden. He had changed the game forever. Every kid in every village on every playground around the world who ever dribbled a football, coconut, carton, or can, pretended to be Pelé - an imagination of skill and grace. Pelé was ‘ball, and ‘ball was Pelé. This is my tribute to one of the best to ever take the field.
The Four Letters That Defined a Legend
Very few outside his native Brazil knew his real name, yet he had the most recognizable name in the world. Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, was named after the American inventor Thomas Edison, just after electricity had been introduced to his hometown in Brazil. A healthy debate about the greatest soccer player of all time will understandably go on, but there’s very little dispute about Pelé's outsized contribution to the growth and commercial success of the sport. In 2014 an American investment banking firm appraised the Pelé brand (basically, his name) at $3 Million (USD), and today, billion-dollar sponsorships and media rights deals are the norms for the game's signature events.
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” - Pelé
The Brazilian Team's Cultural Impact at the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden
The 1958 World Cup, held in Sweden, was the first to be televised around the world. The impact of the cultural ascendency of the Brazilian team at that tournament is inextricably linked to its biggest star. For starters, Brazil integrated the World Cup by bringing four (4) black players to the tournament, including Pelé, for the first time in Europe.
At the time, the Federation of International Football Association, FIFA, the governing body of global football, only accepted membership from independent nations, which meant most of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, still under colonial rule, were excluded from the World Cup. As a result, black players at the FIFA World Cup often represented their colonizing countries, if they even made the team at all. At the 1966 World Cup in England, Eusebio was awarded the golden boot as the tournament’s most outstanding player representing Portugal, even though he was actually from the Southeast African nation of Mozambique.
The success of the Brazilian team ushered in the era of diversity to the World Cup, and consequently, attracted a new and sizable fan base from parts of the world like Africa and the Caribbean who saw in the Brazilian team, talented players who looked a lot like them. A seventeen-year-old Pelé would lead Brazil to its first of five World Cups titles, easily beating host nation Sweden in the final. To date, no other non-European team has won the World Cup when played in Europe.
“The ambition should always be to play an elegant game.” – Pelé
Pele's Influence on The Growth of FIFA As a Global Institution
In 1970, Brazil won its third world cup in four editions (1958,1962), making Pelé the first, and only three-time winner in the tournament’s history. That year’s tournament was the first to be televised in color, which equated success with the iconic blue and gold of the Brazilian team. But just as noteworthy, is the impact Pelé had on elevating FIFA’s premier property to unprecedented levels. As an organization today, FIFA currently has more affiliated member countries (205), than the United Nations (193), and quite frankly, offers a much more powerful platform.
Consider this. A few days before the final match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup between Argentina and France, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requested FIFA allow him to make a televised speech in support of his country’s war efforts against Russia. Though FIFA quietly declined this request, Zelensky understood the power of the FIFA platform to deliver a global audience of 4 billion people hearing his plea. The only other platform that can even approach those numbers, is the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games. Nothing else comes close.
To be clear, Pelé is not singularly responsible for FIFA’s subsequent growth, however, his grace on the field, paired with global appeal stretching into the most remote of villages on the planet, calcified its foundation and influence as prominent as any global institution, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the aforementioned United Nations among others.
The Politics of Brazil Declaring Pelé a National Treasure
When considering national treasures, certain images come to mind. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Statue of Liberty in the United States, and the Great Wall of China among others –and in Brazil, there was, well, Pelé. Following his sensational performance in Sweden, the world’s biggest clubs – Inter Milan, Manchester United, Juventus, and Real Madrid – among others, made serious inquiries with his Brazilian club side Santos, about a possible transfer to Europe. In a 2005 interview with FourFourTwo Magazine, Pelé revealed that Juventus Chairman Gianni Agnelli had personally offered him a stake in Fiat to join the club. Though Santos and Pelé rebuffed the offers at the time, the Brazilian government would not be taking any chances.
In 1961, President Jânio Quadros, feared a departure for Europe by the hugely popular Pelé would effectively end his Presidency. He initiated a bill, which was quickly passed into law, declaring Pelé a national asset. This meant Pelé, in a twist of irony, was confined to playing in Brazil for Brazilian clubs only, restricting him from considering more lucrative offers from much larger, well-resourced European clubs.
There are some that question the wisdom and motivation for the law, but as it were, Pelé himself would say over the years, that leaving his Santos football club never crossed his mind. In 1975, Pelé would sign with the New York Cosmos of the defunct North American Soccer League, though it was four years after retiring from the Brazilian national team. The question of fairness still lingers, for which we may never have an answer.
Pelé - An Unrivaled Legacy
“Pelé doesn’t die. Pelé will never die. Pelé is going to go on forever.” – Pelé
When Pelé traveled outside his country, he would, by default, be automatically granted an audience with that country’s President, Prime Minister, King, or Queen if he wanted it – and the privilege to host him would absolutely be theirs. Such was the power, reach, and respectability of the Pelé brand.
Yet beyond the glory, there were issues. His accolades on the pitch have been well chronicled, but so too were his struggles off it. Allegations of extramarital affairs and unacknowledged children (Pelé has seven known kids with four women), would continue to dog him well into his final years. It was reported that his son, Edinho, had widely publicized run-ins with the law, which included jail time and supervised house arrest. These frailties exposed an all too human side of a man who spent seven decades in the public glare, and like anyone else, was clearly not infallible.
This brings us back to the debate about the greatest footballer of all time. Pelé himself has leaned into this narrative, boldly claiming that crown in a way few can. The conversation itself is nuanced, but the numbers are not.
Pelé holds the record for most goals scored in a career, with 1,279, with 92 hat tricks to his name. He is the only man to win three World Cups, and the youngest player to ever score in one. He popularized the bicycle kick and scored eight goals in his career using it. The French Magazine l’equipe named him Athlete of the Century and the International Olympic Committee also named him its Athlete of the Century (despite his never being an Olympian) and FIFA named him Player of the Century in 2000. He set the standard for the #10 shirt in soccer, now reserved for the team’s best player. The BBC named him as the second most significant sportsperson of the century, behind only Muhammad Ali. And the list goes on.
In staying away from declarative absolutes, I'll take a hard pass on the debate of the greatest player of all time. However, a lifetime of unmatched achievement renders a verdict that is neither opaque nor ambiguous. The facts tell us with undeniable clarity, that no one did it better, either on the field or off than Edson Arantes Do Nascimento.
- Idy Uyoe
Follow me on Twitter: @idysports, or send me an email to engage - firstname.lastname@example.org