✕ CLOSE Online Special City News Entrepreneurship Environment Factcheck Everything Woman Home Front Islamic Forum Life Xtra Property Travel & Leisure Viewpoint Vox Pop Women In Business Art and Ideas Bookshelf Labour Law Letters

There was only one Pelé

Edson Arantes Do Nascimento — the man, the legend—better known around the world as Pelé, has finally passed on at the old age of 82.…

Edson Arantes Do Nascimento — the man, the legend—better known around the world as Pelé, has finally passed on at the old age of 82. He transitioned at the Israelita Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo, where he had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer. The news of his death has now travelled far and wide, with world leaders, athletes and celebrities paying glowing tributes to the sport icon.

Many years ago, Pelé was just a small boy from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. His glorious rise from humble beginnings due to his extraordinary exploits in the beautiful round leather game was nothing short of meteoric. The now legendary tale of how he won Brazil its first World Cup title in 1958 as a teenager is one of the most iconic eras in football. Pelé would later go on to win two more of the old Jules Rimet trophies for his country in 1962 and 1970. Till date, he is the only footballer in the history of the sport to have won the coveted title a whooping three times, and also has a world record of 1,281 goals; deservedly, he was named FIFA’s Player of the Century in 2000.

There’s no gainsaying the fact that a documentation of football’s history is incomplete without acknowledging the sterling role that players like Pelé had in revolutionising the game to be what it is today. There are many attributes that separate ordinary players from the ones of great repute, but what endeared Pelé the most to football fans all over the world—especially the older generation, transcended his dazzling skills and goalscoring prowess. This is because off the pitch, Pelé’s greatness shone through in how easy he blended in with the commoners. Nowadays, many of the biggest footballers exude carefully curated and branded images that make them come off as god-like or otherworldly. Not Pelé. The man perfectly mirrored the spirited optimism and unassuming disposition of authentic people, the real people. When he was with the people, it was clear that he was one of them. 

At his first World Cup in 1958, Pele scored three goals in the semi-final against France, becoming the youngest player to score a hattrick in that stage of a World Cup. He scored two more in the 5-2 final over hosts Sweden. It was during this period that Santos began to receive mouth-watering offers from the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan and major European clubs. These tempting offers were coming at a time Brazil was experiencing political and economic instability. Losing Pele to any of the European clubs would have meant the end to the political career of then President, Janio Quadros, whose popularity had tanked after a ban on bikinis in a country of many beaches. 

Brace up for recovery, reps’ minority caucus urges Nigerians

Emefiele’s return from ‘exile’: Matters arising

Pelé was extremely loved by his people due to his enormous role in Brazil’s first World Cup triumph. This prompted Quadros to gather together a coalition of willing partners who pushed through a bill naming Pele as a national treasure. His status as a national treasure did not confer any special rights and privileges on him. It was a law meant to douse rising tensions at the time by preventing Pelé from leaving the country. Although Quadros’ tenure as President ended unceremoniously, none of his successors deemed it necessary to repeal the ridiculous law which tethered Pele to Santos like a tree, because they all needed him to survive in office.

That Pelé did not play for European football giants like Real Madrid or Inter Milan does not make his achievements pale in comparison to other soccer giants, especially his generational rival, Maradona. It was never his wish. Whenever he was asked why he never left Santos, Pelé would smile wryly and respond by saying that the thought of leaving the club during his prime never really crossed his mind. Unfortunately, we are left to only consider alternate possibilities, although I doubt the situation would have remained the same if Quadros and his successors had acted differently.

Funnily enough, Pele was never a fan of Santos, the football club that made him. He was a fan of another football club based in Rio de Janeiro. In an interview with the YouTube channel ‘Pilhado’, he said the team that made him famous and which he devoted most of his career for, was never the team of his dreams. He had always been a Vasco da Gama fan. He said, “Most of my friends and my father’s friends were Corinthian fans, or Club Atletico Bauru or Club Noroeste de Bauru fans, but from Brazil, most of them are Corinthian fans. I don’t know why I stopped being a Vasco da Gama fan. I started to like Vasco and I became a Vasco fan. I didn’t leave, I’m a Vasco fan. In case you don’t remember, I’m a Vasco fan.” 

The older generation of football fans often feel that younger generations are too quick to dismiss the golden era which saw icons like Pelé dominate the pitch. It is why they take it upon themselves to remind younger ones of Pelé whenever unending debates on which player was/is the undisputed GOAT (Greatest of All Times) pop up on social media. This younger generation cannot be faulted for centering their debates on the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry. And with Lionel Messi adding the covetous World Cup title to his list of decorations, the GOAT debate is not ending anytime soon. But while the debates persist, let us not forget that the Guinness World Records and FIFA officially recognize Pelé as the player with the most career goals in the sport’s history. Pele also holds the record for the most assists in the history of the World Cup. He is also the only player to ever score in a FIFA World Cup Final before turning 18, with the additional record of being the first teenager to score 25 international goals. The records are there, and as such, anyone can “go and verify”. 

Although Pele’s life on and off the pitch was exemplary, it was not altogether without criticism. After all, a lot was expected of him not just as a global sporting hero, but as an icon of Brazil. In 1964, a military dictatorship came to power in Brazil and people expected Pelé to use his undeniable influence and condemn it. He would draw the ire of some Brazilians for choosing neutrality. In a 2021 Netflix documentary titled ‘Pelé’, he admitted that his hands were tied then. “I don’t think I could have done anything different”, he said. “It wasn’t possible. What were you doing during the dictatorship? What side were you on? You get lost in these things. I am Brazilian. I want what is best for my people. I was no superhuman. I didn’t work miracles or anything.”

However, this criticism does little to diminish his status as a giant of the game. Neither does it cast any blemish upon the extraordinary fact of his football career and his affable charm. This generation can be forgiven for saying that his achievements pale in comparison to the individual exploits of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. After all, they did not watch him make those beautiful passes, execute dazzling dribbles and score those breathtaking, joy-giving goals. The fact remains that prime Pelé was a phenomenon on the football field, and if there is one word to perfectly describe him then, it would be the word “unstoppable”.

So, until either a careful revision of history or future occurrences are enough to settle the debates once and for all, let every lover of the beautiful game pay their respects, even as the entire world eulogizes one of the finest, if not the greatest football player ever. The Greatest of All Time. 

Pelé came, he saw and he conquered. But most importantly, he lived life as he played the beautiful game of football—fully, gloriously, like none other.

Zayd Ibn Isah wrote from Abuja. He can be reached via isahzayd@gmail.com