Pele made football the greatest sport in the world

EAn encounter about twenty years ago, an audience with “O Rei”, the king, as they called him. Radiant and springy, he comes through the door as if the athleticism that used to make him jump almost a meter high when heading the ball was immortal. He greets his interlocutor charmingly, a global ambassador of good football. At the time, Brazil was on the ground, having lost six games in the World Cup qualifiers, so that Pelé eventually substituted himself for the “Seleção” – at least while he was sleeping.

“I dreamed I was in the game,” he says, demonstrating some of the body tricks he used to fool defenders in his heyday. Then, relieved like someone waking up from a nightmare, he throws his eyes to the sky. Luckily, he notes, Brazil have enough strikers. And is right. Thanks to eight goals from Ronaldo, two of them in the final against Germany, Brazil became world champions in 2002.

Now he is dead, football’s first global star, the first in his career to change the perception and reach of the game globally. At 17, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who was given the inscrutable childhood name of Pelé, was a child prodigy in black-and-white newsreel snippets – and at 31, a sun-yellow shirted Seleção live from Mexico superhero who bounced like springs when he headed the ball and became world champion for the third time, unique to this day.

The man and his trophy: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, called Pelé (1940-2022), world champion in 1958, 1962 and 1970

picture series

The life of Pele

“Hopefully you can play football in heaven too!”

In the late 1950s, the world of football was ready for its first real world star, a player who was known all over the world and whose exploits you didn’t have to imagine yourself because, as was usual before, you only knew them from hearsay, but could see with my own eyes. The conditions for this were created by the internationalization of the game and the gradual spread of television. What football lacked to become the greatest sport in the world was someone like Pele.

Curtain up: Pelé stormed the big stage at the 1958 World Cup at the age of 17.

Curtain up: Pelé stormed the big stage at the 1958 World Cup at the age of 17.

Bild: picture-alliance/ dpa

Then the 1958 World Cup, live on black and white television, became the big stage for the 17-year-old boy, the son of a badly paid second division professional. In the three knockout games leading up to the World Cup title, Brazil’s first, he scored six goals, including one of the finest in World Cup history in the 5-2 final against Sweden – stopped with his chest over the Opponent lobbed, then volleyed into the net. The day after, he obediently stood in line at the phone booth next to the training camp to tell his father at home what he had long known from the radio broadcast: “We won.”


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