Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born in Três Corações, a city in the south of Minas Gerais state in Brazil, on 23 October 1940. His childhood was typical by Brazilian standards, living in relative hardship with his family struggling to make ends meet. Yet this was no ordinary child. Under the watchful eye of his father “Dondinho”, whose football career ended prematurely through injury, the boy who would become known simply as “Pelé” began to demonstrate his own aptitude with a round ball. Despite the protests of his mother Dona Celeste, who feared her son would suffer the same fate as Dondinho, Pelé would cultivate his talent with friends on the street outside his family home.
As he grew older, Pelé formed his own teams and his prodigious flair soon had local scouts sitting up and taking notice. Before long a host of professional clubs were lining up to offer him trials. Following the advice of former Brazil international Valdemar de Brito, who had coached one of Pelé’s childhood teams, the boy wonder joined Santos, a São Paulo-based club.
He played his first professional match in 1956, at the age of 15, and made his debut for Brazil just ten months later. Then, at just 17, he became the youngest-ever World Cup winner as Brazil lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in Sweden in 1958. The tournament confirmed Pelé – second-top scorer with six goals – as a world superstar.
It marked the start of an upward spiral in a career that often seemed to know no bounds. He began smashing goal-scoring records on a regular basis and in 1962 became the fastest player in the history of the game to reach a half-century of goals. It was, however, a year of mixed fortunes for Pelé: at the World Cup in Chile, he was injured in Brazil’s opening game and sat out the rest of the tournament as Brazil went on to retain the trophy.
The middle of the decade also saw Pelé forge a close and binding friendship with Santos’ newly-appointed physical trainer Julio Mazzei. Their relationship grew ever stronger as Mazzei became not only his trainer, but his translator, friend and confidant.
After marrying his childhood sweetheart Rosemeri Cholbi prior to the 1966 World Cup in England, Pelé was to suffer more World Cup woe. He was the victim of cynical Bulgarian and Portuguese defending as Brazil were dumped out the tournament in the group stages. Pelé, disgusted by the perceived lack of protection he received from referees, vowed never to play a World Cup again.
Domestically, it was business as usual and the goals kept raining in. In 1969 Pelé reached a truly momentous landmark when he scored his one-thousandth career goal. Fittingly, it arrived in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium, lit up by Pelé on so many occasions for both Santos and Brazil. Less poetic perhaps was the fact it was scored from a penalty, although this did nothing to dilute the wild celebrations which greeted the historic moment.
A year later and Pelé was back in World Cup action in Mexico after being persuaded to renege on his pledge to never play in the tournament again. Mexico proved to be his zenith as Brazil secured the trophy for a record third time, beating Italy 4-1 in a momentous Final.
Taking heed of his father’s advice to always go out at the peak of your powers, he soon made his final bow in a Brazil shirt against Yugoslavia at the Maracanã in July 1971. But his stock remained high and his role as Santos’ talisman continued unabated until 1973, when he finally said farewell to Brazilian football against Ponte Preta at Santos’ Vila Belmiro stadium. Capturing the mood of the occasion, Pelé caught the ball mid-match before heading to the centre circle and bowing down to each corner of his football temple, before departing the pitch for the last time.
After ending his 18-year reign as Brazil’s King of football, Pelé soon came out of retirement to join the New York Cosmos club. His three year stint would briefly spark a soccer boom in the U.S. and he played his last professional match in 1977 against his old team Santos, turning out for both sides during an emotional match.
Post-retirement gave rise to another facet of Pelé’s abilities. His business interests intensified, as he signed sponsorship deals with the likes of Pepsi, Pfizer (maker of Viagra) and MasterCard, as well as performing duties as a soccer pundit and commentator. Already well-versed in diplomat duties, he also became a roving ambassador, taking up roles with the United Nations and lending his name to a host of benign campaigns, mainly targeted at helping the world’s needy children. But such were Pelé’s work commitments that something had to give. Unfortunately it was his marriage to Rosemeri, now mother to three of his children, and the couple filed for divorce in 1979.
Pelé fell into the role of bachelor boy with consummate ease, dating a string of models and television personalities. In 1994, however, he was back down the aisle as he married gospel singer Assíria Seixas Lemos, a long-term friend.
In 1995 Pelé was appointed Brazil’s minister for sport, and he pledged to dedicate his time to providing sports facilities for the young and poor. He also promised to root out the endemic corruption polluting Brazilian football. He held the post for a bitter-sweet three years before retiring in 1998, largely dissatisfied with his achievements.
Today he remains a global star and still one of the most recognisable faces on the planet. He is a regular presence at football events, such as World Cup draws and Awards ceremonies and recently picked up a Lifetime Achievement award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards. His monumental legacy will surely burn brightly forever.