DAYS after his passing at the ripe age of 82, the accolades are still flowing for Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known by his mononym, Pelé, and deservedly so. In his eventful life, which ended on December 29 in São Paulo, Brazil, after a battle with colon cancer, Pelé, also known as O Rei (the King), transcended football, which brought him fame, fortune, and an iconic status. He exuded joy to all associated with football around the world. In death, Pelé’s legacy of humility, sportsmanship, statesmanship and integrity will endure.
Like many kings, Pelé found his purpose early in life. At the age of nine, he had just returned home from playing street football and found his dad, Dondinho, weeping because Uruguay had just shattered Brazil’s dream of winning the 1950 World Cup at the Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. He consoled Dondinho, promising him that he would give him the World Cup. At age 17, the youngest player to feature at a World Cup match in 1958, Pelé fulfilled that dream. He scored two goals in Brazil’s 5-2 win over hosts Sweden in the final, one of them an indescribable looping header from the back of his head.
Pelé settled the GOAT (greatest footballer of all time) debate with his awe-inspiring performances in the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico. In the group stage, Brazil secured a 1-0 victory over England, the defending champions from four years earlier. That match is unforgettable for the miraculous save by England goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, from Pelé’s header. In the semi-finals, Pelé interred the ghosts of 1950 against Uruguay and sailed to the final.
In the final with Italy, he deployed his sublime talents to elevate the skills of team mates Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostao, Gerson and Carlos Alberto. The Seleção (Brazil’s national team) defeated the Azurris (Italy’s national side) 4-2, Pelé attaining that unique honour of the first – and so far, – the only player with three World Cups. In a sterling career, he scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 matches. His 1000th goal was special – a penalty that made global headlines and contested the cover of Brazil’s newspapers the following day with the Apollo 12 moon landing. The King hit 77 international goals for Brazil from 92 caps.
His talent was pure; so was his heart. His opponents, while they feared him, also adored him. His shirtless photo with Bobby Moore, the England captain in the 1970 World Cup, lives in the memories of football fans.
Like all mortals, he faced dejection. In the 1966 World Cup Finals in England, where the Seleção would have been pantheonised as the first team to win three straight World Cups, Pelé was brutally kicked out of the tournament. The harsh treatment forced him to retire from international football. He found solace in Santos, the club he joined at age 13 before moving to New York Cosmos for the big money in 1975.
But his retirement was temporary. With his love for the ‘beautiful game’ still burning bright, the changes made to football laws before the Mexico finals, especially the introduction of yellow and red cards, and substitutions, swayed Pelé to return to the highest pedestal of world football for one more rendezvous. It was an astounding success. In Brazil, he transformed to a superstar.
Pelé’s skill was immeasurable. After Czechoslovakia took the lead in a 1970 World Cup group match, Pelé, from the centre circle, noticed the goalkeeper straying off his line. Although he missed narrowly with the keeper scrambling back, that has remained one of the enduring images of the World Cup. Brazil won 4-1 at the final whistle.
In a touching moment in the 1970 final, the Italian opponent detailed to man-mark him, Tarcisio Burgnich, was asked of his experience post-match: “I told myself before the game, ‘He’s made of flesh and blood, just like me,’” he reflected. “I was wrong.” Even opponents admired the great athlete.
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He was a minister of sports in Brazil, feted by military dictators and politicians. He visited Nigeria on more than one occasion; in one of them, he played two halves of football, one with Santos, the other with Stationery Stores. Many more Nigerian children acquired a life-long passion for football, inspired by the great Brazilian.
On the family side, Pelé had three spouses and seven children. He was widely regarded as being highly spiritual and was credited with introducing group prayers to the national team. During the 1970 World Cup, the players never prayed for success, but he led them to intercede for an end to the war raging in Vietnam.
Pelé was a much-beloved ambassador for Brazil to the world, visiting several countries. In 1994, UNESCO adopted him as the ‘Champion for Sport.’
Football has had many stars. Of note are Eusebio, Garrincha, Johan Cruyff, and Ferenc Puskas. In the modern era, Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer, Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi are repeatedly mentioned. Some fans pick the GOAT from this group, majority insist on Pelé.
Sadly, his 100-year-old mother, Celeste Arantes, is still alive in Santos, unaware of her son’s death as of the weekend. The outpouring of emotions has been effusive. All over the South American country, his No. 10 jersey was plastered on buildings and landmarks.
In Nigeria, football is in the doldrums. The Super Eagles have not gone beyond the second round in the World Cup and missed Qatar 2022 altogether. With the talents that abound, it should not be so. Nigeria’s football players and administrators should learn from Pelé, whose career and dedication will always be reference points to today’s football stars, whose love of the jet age life often supersedes their devotion to their craft.
Despite exporting several of its stars regularly to Europe, the domestic league in Brazil is still running. The major clubs are still alive. Nigeria should imbibe that lesson and turn domestic football around.
The world will miss Pelé, but he will not be forgotten. ,
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