Pele was the greatest to ever do it and is revered by millions – the beautiful game will never be the same again
HE was known around the world by a simple nickname he hated.
Revered by millions even with only a passing interest in what he called ‘O Jogo Bonito’… The Beautiful Game.
But those who knew him best did not call him Pele.
For his family and closest friends, Edson Arantes do Nascimento was ‘Dico’.
Indeed, as he recounted in his autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game, Brazil legend Pele DETESTED the name the planet knew him by.
He recalled: “I hated it and it was the cause of many fights at school. From nine or so, I was Pele to everybody but family continued to call me Dico.”
The boy who grew up sleeping on a mattress around the kitchen fire, dodging the rain dripping through the roof, was to become arguably the most famous man on the planet, rivalled only by Muhammad Ali.
A man who met with kings, queens, presidents and Popes.
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Whose mere presence brought about a two-day ceasefire in the Nigerian civil war.
And whose dismissal in a match provoked a riot that saw the authorities rescind the sending off to save the referee from a lynching.
Not to mention those mere 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.
Most important, though, was what he brought to the fans.
The joy of the game. The artistry and beauty of his skill. The ultimate glories.
But Pele’s story started in a constant battle to pay for the meagre resources that kept the family of seven — his mother, father, brother, sister, grandmother and uncle — together.
Dad was Joao, known as Dondinho, whose own career was wrecked by a horror knee injury when Pele was just two.
He continued to play at a far lower level for a pittance, while earning a little extra working part time as a hospital orderly.
Pele – who passed away on Thursday aged 82 – remembered: “Poverty is being robbed of self-respect and self-reliance.
“Poverty is fear. Not fear of death, which is reasonable. But fear of life. A terrible fear.”
Pele’s football talent was his way out. He learned on the streets of Bauru in Sao Paulo state. No rules. No lines. No shoes. And no real footballs.
He explained: “We couldn’t afford a ball, so we’d stuff the largest sock we could find with rags or newspaper, roll it into a ball and tie it with string.”
Pele worked in a boot factory after leaving school at 14 — but Santos scouts spotted him and he left home to begin his career 200 miles away.
In September 1956, he scored on his Santos debut, six weeks shy of his 16th birthday.
Less than two years later, still only 17, Pele made his World Cup debut against the Soviet Union in Brazil’s final group game at the 1958 finals — and set up the clinching second goal for Vava.
Then in the knockout stages, a legend was born.
In the quarter-finals his strike beat Wales, he scored a hat-trick against France in the semis — and then netted twice as Brazil beat hosts Sweden in the final to claim their first world title.
This was the side of Vava, Didi, Nilton Santos and Garrincha. But everybody wanted to talk about the new boy king.
He spent his career on the highest football throne but had to endure disappointments.
Injured in the second game of the 1962 World Cup, he did not feature again as Brazil retained their title.
Four years later in England, he was targeted by assassins in studs in a tournament he later declared “a total unmitigated disaster”.
Injured in the opening win over Bulgaria he then complained: “I don’t get so angry when a defender commits a wild challenge to stop a goal.
“What annoys me is when they take a shot at me when I don’t even have the ball or without any intention of going for the ball.”
Returning for the final group game with Portugal, he was reduced to a hobbling wreck by hatchet man Joao Morais.
The team doctor refused to give Pele a painkilling jab at half-time for fear he would end up injuring his knee so badly he would never play again.
Just Fontaine, the legendary France forward, raged: “I’m disgusted by what they did.
“Those who treat the best player in the world want to destroy the art of football.”
Pele swore he would never play at another World Cup. He was persuaded to think again — but was struggling for form ahead of Mexico 70.
Coach Mario Zagallo insisted he could see “the same brilliant boy of those great days” and promised “Pele is ready”.
He was. More than ready. The first World Cup of the colour TV age was the perfect stage for a world superstar.
This was Pele, who had clocked up his 1,000th goal the previous year, in his prime.
In the win over champions England, he forced Gordon Banks into the Save of the Century — and after the match swapped shirts with Bobby Moore in an iconic image of sportsmanship.
Pele almost scored from inside his own half against Czechoslovakia and wowed fans with an outrageous dummy on the keeper in the semi-final win over Uruguay.
Ahead of facing Pele in the final, Italy’s Roberto Boninsegna said: “Looking at the things he does he must come from another, more advanced planet. Perhaps he’s a Martian!”
Pele set Brazil on their way with a majestic header and laid on the final goal of a 4-1 win with a beautifully weighted pass for Carlos Alberto.
It was the perfect end to the perfect tournament from the perfect team.
Half a century on, that side is still recalled with a smile.
Pele, who played his last game for Brazil the following year, spent most of his club career at Santos — only leaving in 1975 for New York Cosmos in the fledgling North American Soccer League.
He retired in 1977 but the legend lives on and always will.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento to some. Dico to a few. Pele to the rest.
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