It’s the most asked question in soccer, probably the most asked question in all of sports: who’s the greatest of all time? It’s something that has been debated among friends and foes from here to Papua New Guinea. However, when this debate occurs in soccer, ultimately the debate boils down to one name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento. You know him as simply Pelé.
Born in the Minas Gerais state in Brazil and raised in Bauru, São Paulo, Pelé earned his nickname as a schoolkid when it was rumored that he tried to pronounce the name of his favorite player, goalkeeper Bilé of Vasco da Gama, and kept messing it up. The rest of the kids began calling him Pelé, which has no Portuguese meaning, and the name stuck. Now, Pelé has a world meaning: greatness.
Pelé was taught how to play by his father, who played for Fluminense, but he couldn’t afford soccer balls as a kid. He normally played with a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied together with string or he kicked around a grapefruit. As a kid, he played on many youth teams, including in indoor soccer. Pelé stated that his game elevated by playing indoor soccer: “It’s a lot quicker than football on grass. You have to think really quickly because everyone is close to each other. Learning the game probably helped me think on my feet better.”
After leading his Bauru youth team to two state championships, Pelé’s coach, Waldemar de Brito, took him to try out for Santos. de Brito told the Santos directos that Pelé, then 15, would be “the greatest football player in the world.” How right he was. Pelé dazzled during his trial and signed with the club in 1956. He debuted on September 7, 1956, scoring his first goal in the process. There would be plenty more to come. Over his 19-year career for Santos, he would tally over 1,100 goals, one of the largest goal totals in world history on the senior level. In 1969, he became one of the first to ever notch 1,000 goals:
With Santos, he won 10 Campeonatos Paulistas, 6 Brasileiro titles, 2 Copa Libertadores, 2 Intercontinental Cups, and 3 Rio-São Paulo Tournament titles. He was the Copa Libertadores top scorer in 1965, the top scorer in the Campeonato Paulista 11 times and was the 1970 Bola de Prata winner. Simply put, Pelé was Santos.
Pelé’s style of play is the reason why soccer is considered “The Beautiful Game.” He was an incredible goalscorer because of his ability to finish with either foot or in the air. He had an innate capability to pass to read a defense and either bury a shot or find his teammates for the finish. He had speed, he had power, he had athleticism, he had pace, he had creativity, he had balance, he had agility. But, what he also had was his trademark skill, the drible da vaca:
No one could make a defender or goalkeeper look silly better than Pelé could with a drible da vaca. His creativity also took a new name on penalty kicks: the paradinha, or little stop. It’s a style that has been emulated by every soccer player, good or bad, to this day. Step up to the ball, fake the kick to get the keeper going in one direction, and calmly slot the ball in the opposite corner. Pelé would give fans a reason every single game to go out to the street, the playground or their local field and practice a move that he made, a goal that he scored. He transcended the game, and his iconic status took flight with A Seleção. With the national team is where he became simply “O Rei” (“The King”).
Pelé’s first match with Brazil was on July 7, 1957 against Argentina. He scored in his debut, making him one of the youngest players to ever score in international soccer at just 16 years old. He then headed to the 1958 World Cup, where he became the youngest player ever to play in the World Cup and the youngest to score a hat trick in World Cup history.
It was here that he began wearing his iconic number 10 shirt, and it was by accident that he ended up with what is now the most revered number in soccer. The Brazilian federation forgot to submit roster numbers with their World Cup squad, so FIFA ended up randomly assigning numbers to the players. Pelé ended up with the number 10 shirt, and it is because of his play throughout his career in the number 10 that it is so coveted by soccer players. When fans say that a team needs a 10 on the field, Pelé is the reason everyone knows what that means.
Pelé, along with legendary player Garrincha, led Brazil to the title, destroying Sweden 5-2 in the final. His first goal in that World Cup final is considered one of the greatest goals in World Cup history:
Pelé continued his dominace in the 1962 World Cup until he injured himself in the 2nd match. He had to sit out the rest of the tournament, but the team carried on in his absence. Garrincha helped assume the leading role for the Brazilians, and they eventually won their 2nd straight World Cup. In 1966, despite having a terrific team, Brazil was eliminated in the group stage, but Pelé became the first player ever to score a goal in 3 consecutive World Cups.
After another World Cup where he suffered injury, Pelé stated that he would never compete in the World Cup again. Luckily for the rest of the world, he did an about face in 1969, returning to the national team to qualify Brazil for the 1970 World Cup. This Brazil team was fierce, one that many fans consider the greatest team ever assembled. They marched all the way to the final, where they destroyed Italy 4-1 to win their 3rd World Cup. Pelé retired from the international game a year later.
He would complete his career in the NASL, playing for the New York Cosmos. There, he helped increase the popularity of soccer in the United States. He was a rock star, and the Cosmos were one of the world’s most popular teams. He lead the team to a title in 1977 before finally retiring.
If Pelé is not your greatest player of all time, you should ask yourself this question: who is your greatest player’s pick for greatest player? Chances are, Pelé is the first, second, third, fourth and even fifth name out of their mouth. Bobby Moore, the captain of England’s 1966 World Cup champion squad, defined Pelé’s game in these terms:
“Pelé was the most complete player I’ve ever seen, he had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only five feet and eight inches tall, yet he seemed a giant of an athlete on the pitch. Perfect balance and impossible vision. He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch. I remember Saldanha the coach being asked by a Brazilian journalist who was the best goalkeeper in his squad. He said Pelé. The man could play in any position.”
Ferenc Puskás, the Real Madrid and Hungary legend, summed up Pelé’s legacy in more simpler words: “The greatest player in history was [Alfredo] Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pelé as a player. He was above that.” That’s what Pelé meant to the greatest players that have ever played this game. To them, classifying him as the greatest of all time didn’t quite cut it. He was a mythical creature, something of legend and definitely, most assuredly, not from this planet. A reporter once asked Pelé to compare his fame to that of Jesus Christ. Pelé smiled as he replied, “There are parts of the world where Jesus Christ is not so well known.” He was right. To billions of fans around the world, soccer is religion...Pelé is god.
His career ended with 1285 goals across all competitions, a number that is unfathomable. He didn’t just set the standard. He was the standard. Every great player that has come after him has been compared to him. And while this conversation will continue as the world turns, the ending, to me, is the same: Pelé is the greatest player who ever lived, and his career is one that will define The Beautiful Game for generations to come.
Editor’s note: This story concludes our daily series of Black History Month stories. This was a journey that I began for personal knowledge and growth throughout an important month to me, and I am honored that I had the opportunity to bring these stories to you everyday throughout the month of February. If you missed an article or want to re-read any of them that you enjoyed, they are all located here. Thank you so much to all of you who read, commented, or shared these stories this month. Black History Month may be over, but the journey for knowledge continues. Let’s continue to educate ourselves and continue to grow as soccer fans and as people. History is made everyday, and together we can not only make it but bring those stories that deserve to be told to light. Special thanks to Stephanie Yang, Rob Usry and Jeremiah Oshan for indulging my late-night, crazy light bulb idea that became this series. Once again, thank you all for your support. It’s truly appreciated.