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Football News: Legends of Football Number 3: Pele

Legends of Football Number 3: Pele
Image from: npr.org

Pele 'The Black Pearl' 'The King of Football' 'Gasoline' 'The Executioner'


When you do a series on legends of the game, it is impossible to leave out arguably the greatest player ever, one Edson Arantes do Nascimento or, as he is better known, Pele. A player so good that the government of Brazil made him a 'national treasure' to make it almost impossible for him to join a club in Europe's richest leagues. Not that it stopped them trying to sign him, in fact he turned down Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United and Juventus during his career. After the 1958 World Cup sums in the region of a £1,000,000 pounds were being waved around to tempt him away, despite the transfer fees usually being less than a tenth of that at the time.

It is all a long way from the boy born in October 1940 to a family in poverty. His dad, known as Dondinho, was also a footballer, but earnt very little and so Pele as a boy would shine shoes in public places or work as a waiter in a tea shop to help the family put food on the table. In his spare times he would play football in the streets with his friends, the group being known as the 'shoeless ones' as none could afford shoes, kicking a stuffed sock around.

He joined a junior club called Bauru Athletic Club and won 2 Sao Paulo state youth championships with them, but it is indoor football he credits with developing his skills. He believes that the newly emerging sport was quicker and the lack of space meant that quicker thinking was required with players being closer together. Pele also got the chance to play against adults in indoor football, from the age of 14, instead of just with other children.

It was not always plain sailing, one indoor tournament nearly excluded him for being too young. After being allowed to play, Pele went on to become the tournament's top scorer, saying later, "that gave me a lot of confidence, I knew then not to be afraid of whatever might come." His team, Radium, won the first championship in the area and several others before Pele moved on, as his coach at Bauru, Waldemar de Brito, saw a great talent in the young Edson and took him to Santos for a trial.

Waldemar told the directors of Santos FC that the then 15 year old would one day be 'the greatest player in the world'. Impressed by his display, Pele was handed a professional contract, which was signed in June 1956 and Pele made his professional debut in September, still just 15 years old. He was already being promoted in the local media as a future superstar. Santos beat Corinthians Santo Andre 7-1, with Pele having a good game and scoring one of the goals. A star was born.

The following season he was made a regular at the tender age of 16 and repaid the faith shown in him by becoming the league's top scorer that season. His first international call up came along during the season and his international debut was made just over a year after signing his first professional contract, in July 1957 at the Maracana. At just 16 years and 9 months old, Pele scored on his debut in a 2-1 defeat to Argentina to become the youngest player to score an international goal.

Despite suffering from a knee problem, Pele was included in the Brazil squad for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. However it reportedly took a players' revolt to get him into the team, as his teammates insisted he was included in the side as soon as he recovered from the injury. While those reports have never been confirmed, it is certain that he was brought into the team for the 3rd match of the 1st round against the USSR to become the youngest player in the tournament, he also went on to become the youngest to play and the youngest to score in both semi-final and final of a World Cup, as he picked up a hat-trick against France in the semi, which also made him the youngest ever to score a World Cup hat-trick.

After Brazil beat Sweden 5-2, with the help of a brace from Pele, Swedish player Sigvard Parling said about his second "when Pele scored the 5th goal in that final, I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding." Legendary France striker, Just Fontaine, the top scorer in the tournament, said later: "when I saw Pele play, it made me feel I should hang up my boots." At the end of the match the youngster passed out and had to be revived by Garrincha. He had scored 6 goals in 4 matches and was named the best young player of the tournament.

Incidentally it was the 1958 World Cup that saw him first start wearing the number 10 shirt with which he became synonomous. Brazilian federation was so disorganised that, among other things, they forgot to send out squad numbers for the shirts and so FIFA assigned them. It was FIFA that gave him the number 10.

Bouyed by the triumph Pele returned to lead Santos to the Campeonato Paulista, scoring a tournament record 58 goals. A record that still stands to this day nearly 60 years later. The following season was more difficult for him with opposing teams double and triple teaming him everytime he received the ball, but Pele just learnt to play his teammates into the spaces left. He was becoming more than just a deadly goalscorer, now he was creating chances for others as well, becoming even more difficult for the opposition to stop.

Though his new-found creativity did not stop him scoring the 'gol de placa' (goal worthy of a plaque) against Fluminese at the Maracana. Receiving the ball on the edge of his own penalty area, Pele ran the length of the pitch, jinking, feinting and dribbling past opponents before slotting the ball past the keeper. A plaque was commissioned to commemorate it with the inscription to "the most beautiful goal in the history of the Maracana".

Santos continued to rack up the trophies, including the Copa Libertadores in 1962 to gain entry to the precursor to the modern day FIFA Club World Cup: the Intercontinental Cup. Before that though, there was the small matter of the 1962 World Cup in Chile, with Pele now widely known as the best player in the world. The first game opened with Pele showing his class with an assist for Brazil's first followed by a run beating 4 defenders before he put Brazil 2-0 up against Mexico. However it all ended early for the superstar as he picked up an injury while shooting from long range in the second match against Czechoslovakia and had to sit on the sidelines and watch as Garrincha led Brazil to their 2nd World Cup.

Pele had to settle for the Intercontinental Cup with a hat-trick to inspire Santos to a 5-2 victory over Benfica. The Portugese side's goalkeeper said afterwards, "I arrived hoping to stop a great man, but I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us." They also retained the Copa Libertadores, beating a Botafogo side containing Garrincha and Jairzinho in the semi-finals. More domestic trophies arrived until, heading into the 1966 World Cup, Pele was by far and away the most famous player in the world.

With a squad which included Garrincha, Gilmar, Djalma Santos, Jairzinho, Tostao and Gerson, as well as Pele, Brazil were clear favourite to retain the World Cup once again. Despite Pele becoming the first player to score in 3 World Cups, as he scored a free kick against Bulgaria in the opening game, it was not to go as planned. The Bulgarians kicked Pele throughout the match, with no intention to do anything other than injure the Brazilian. The Bulgarians got their wish as Pele was forced to sit out the 2nd match against Hungary with the injuries received and watch his teammates lose. Despite Pele still being injured, coach Vicente Feola turned to him to rescue their World Cup hopes in the final group match.

The Portugese were even more brutal than the Bulgarians had been, with defender Joao Morais blatantly hacking down Pele and dragging his studs down his leg to cause an open wound. Shockingly the referee, George McCabe, failed to award even a free kick for this blatant assault, which, even in those days, was a clear red card offence. With this being the days before substitutes were allowed, Pele was left to limp round the pitch unable to affect the game at all. Pele left the Goodison Park pitch, with Brazil's World Cup over, with a young St John's Ambulance lad draping a blanket around his shoulders, the two walked off in tears together. The St John's lad was my uncle and it had been his claim to fame ever since.

Following the disgusting treatment handed out to Pele in that tournament, he vowed never to play in a World Cup ever again. His club made sure that Pele got to see the world anyway, as they continued to cash in on his fame with tours all over the place, including one trip to play in an exhibition match in Lagos. This was 1967 and Nigeria was in the grip of a civil war at the time but the two sides agreed a 48 hour ceasefire so that everyone could see Pele play in the country!

Santos were still managing to gather up trophies, despite all the tours and Pele scored what was claimed to be his 1000th goal in November 1969. Pele Day is still held on the 19th November every year in commemoration of that goal in Santos. Oddly, this year was also the one he starred in a TV series about first contact with aliens called 'Os Estranhos'. He was also convinced to return to the national team in 1969 to play in the World Cup qualifying games, scoring 6 in the 6 qualifiers he played.

That 1970 World Cup must be considered to be the high point of Brazilian football, as well as Pele's career, as what is probably the greatest international team in football history bestrode that tournament like a goliath, with devastating samba football and attacking flair. With a front 5 of Jairzinho, Pele, Gerson, Tostao and Rivelino, no one could compete, not even the holders England, who had an even stronger side in 1970 than they did when winning the competition the last time around. After beating Italy 4-1 in the final, Italy defender Tarcisio Burgnich said, "I told myself before the game, he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else - but I was wrong." The Sunday Times afterwards said: "How do you spell Pele? Easy, G-O-D."

Pele retired from international football the following year, with 92 caps and 77 goals to his name, never having lost a game in which he lined up alongside Garrincha. He played on for Santos for a couple more seasons, before announcing his intention to retire, with an undertaking to donate his final year's salary to children's charities. Unfortunately for Pele, for the second time in his life he faced financial difficulties after trusting a Spanish businessman, Pepe Gordo, to manage his finances. The Spaniard had turned out to be useless, despite Pele having a contract following the 1958 World Cup, which saw him receive half of any fee Santos received for playing an exhibition match abroad.

Pepe Gordo had invested his money so badly that Pele was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1966, with a string of failed investments, and needed to agree a new contract with Santos on unfavourable terms to clear the debts. Pele himself proved no better at managing his finances after that and his retirement ended in 1975 as New York Cosmos came enticed him to the USA to play. Cosmos general manager convinced him with the words: "Don't go to Italy, don't go to Spain, all you can do is win a championship. Come to the U.S. and you can win a country." With Pele in more financial difficulties, he decided to take up the offer.

Within 2 years of his arrival in the States, the number of players registered went from just 100,000 to nearly 400,000. Though he only played for 3 seasons, he did win the NASL Championship in his final season before calling time on his playing career with an exhibition match between former club Santos and New York Cosmos, in which he played a half for both sides. The game, played at the Giants Stadium, was televised around the world.

Since retirement there was an affair with his housemaid, with a legally-recognised daughter he refused to acknowledge the result of the affair, who died in 2006. Pele has been Extraordinary Minister for Sport for Brazil, where he proposed a number of laws to reduce corruption in the Brazilian game before leaving the post after unproven corruption allegations were made against him. He has been a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador since 1994 and received an honourary knighthood in the UK in 1997. Pele was also in Escape To Victory alongside Sylvester Stallon and Michael Caine, as well as composing the soundtrack to the autobiographical film 'Pele' and a cameo role in the film 'Mike Bassett: England Manager, which lasted almost as long as his spell scouting for Fulham in 2002.

Pele was instrumental in the rise of Sepp Blatter, though it was not through his choice, after he entered into a long-running feud with Brazil's then FA head Ricardo Teixeira. Pele publicly accused Teixeira of corruption (in the light of recent events he had good cause to do so) after Pele's TV company was rejected in a bidding contest for Brazilian domestic TV rights for the 1994 World Cup. It led the then President of FIFA, Joao Havelange, to ban Pele from the draw for that World Cup in Vegas. That action cost Havelange his chance of re-election that year.

For a boy that struggled so badly at school that he was held back three times, Pele did well for himself. Though I do wonder if his problems at school were due to a lack of paying attention, as that feature of his personality was on full display in 2002 when he was supposed to wave the chequered flag to signal the end of the race as the winner crossed the line. Unfortunately Pele was distracted and failed to spot Michael Schumacher cross the line! Since then the organisers have held training sessions for the celebrity who is set to wave the chequered flag. There may not have been any limits to his talent on the pitch, but clearly there were plenty of limitations off it.

For Pele's player profile click HERE

Maybe that lack of attention also affected his analysis of games, as it was that same year that Pele was criticised heavily by Luis Felipe Scolari for his analysis of a Brazil performance: "I believe that Pele knows nothing about football. He has done nothing as a coach and all his analysis always turns out to be wrong. He is an idol in all of Brazil, but his analysis is worth nothing." Perhaps Scolari has a point, after all Pele was the one who claimed Nicky Butt was England's best player at a time when they had Paul Scholes playing alongside him!

However it is not Pele the man that made the difference to millions around the world, it was Pele the player that is the legend. In the words of Michel Platini, "there's Pele the man, and then Pele the player. And to play like Pele is to play like God."

For the previous Legend of the Game article on Ferenc Puskas' click HERE

Written by Tris Burke November 20 2017 10:11:18