Brazil’s Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known by his nickname of Pelé, was the greatest Footballer because he could do anything and everything in a Soccer Game

HE WAS JUST a kid, aged 17. Yet in the World Cup final of 1958 Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known by his nickname of Pelé, showed the poise and supreme skill that would become the hallmarks of his career.

With Brazil leading Sweden, the hosts, 2-1 he received a high pass in the penalty area. With a defender on his shoulder, he controlled the ball with his chest, took one pace and nonchalantly looped it high over another before running to meet it and drive an unstoppable volley low into the net. In all he scored six goals in four matches in that tournament.

It was the first of three World Cups he was to win, more than any other player. It might have been four but, insufficiently protected by referees, he and Brazil were kicked out of the 1966 tournament by brutal defending by Bulgaria and Portugal.

Three Argentines—Alfredo di Stefano, Diego Armando Maradona and Lionel Messi—all have a claim to be the world’s best footballer. But many of the game’s shrewdest analysts, and many former players, believed the greatest of all was Pelé, who has died in a hospital in São Paulo aged 82 after a long battle with cancer. Apart from anything else, his 1,279 goals in 1,363 matches is a world record that is unlikely to be surpassed.

He was the complete player, a team man who often provided the killer pass for others to finish. “He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch,” said Bobby Moore, the England captain who lost to him in the World Cup in 1970.

Edson was born in poverty in a town in the south-west of Minas Gerais state. His father was a promising professional footballer, in an era when they were poorly paid, whose career was prematurely ended by injury. Father then dedicated himself to training son, using old socks, a grapefruit or rags as a ball. At 15 Edson was snapped up by Santos, a professional club. Largely because of him they became the best team in the world in the early 1960s, twice winning the Intercontinental Cup against the European club champions.

Nelson Rodrigues, a Brazilian playwright and journalist, saw Pelé play for Santos as a 17-year-old. “Pelé has a considerable advantage over other players,” he wrote. “He feels that he’s a king, from head to toe.”

The epithet stuck. Pelé would be unofficially crowned as the king of what, largely because of him, was dubbed “the beautiful game”. As well as his skill, Rodrigues identified Pelé’s preternatural self-confidence.

Thinking that the youth would spread this to a national team that suffered from an inferiority complex, he campaigned successfully for Pelé’s inclusion in the squad that went to Sweden.

At 5 ft 8 inches (1.73 metres) Pelé was not particularly tall, but he was strong and fast. His greatest assets were his supreme positional sense, instinctive ability to read the game and magnetic ball control. He would usually be in the right place at the right time. He anticipated opponents’ moves. He was a skilful dribbler, who flummoxed defenders with feints and sudden stops and starts. He had a powerful, sometimes curving, shot with both feet and, despite his height, was a spring-heeled header of the ball.

Tarcisio Burgnich, an Italian defender given the job of marking Pelé in the 1970 World Cup final, said, “I told myself before the game he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else—but I was wrong.” Pelé outjumped him to score the first goal.

European clubs sought him, but Santos, and Brazil’s government, refused to allow him to be transferred. He played before the era of football as a global business: half his career was in black and white and it took up to a month before Brazilians could see his exploits in Sweden in cinema newsreels.

In today’s game he would have been a billionaire. As it was, he showed a sharp eye for money in deals off the pitch. At 34 he came out of retirement to help to launch “soccer” in the United States, joining the New York Cosmos. He was a global ambassador for football.

But Pelé never lost touch with Brazil. He refused to have much to do with its military dictatorship of 1964-85. But when a democratic president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, asked him to be sports minister in 1994, he accepted. He piloted a law to clean up Brazilian club football but it was neutered in the Congress, where a powerful lobby defended corrupt vested interests.

Always a sportsman and gentleman on the pitch, Pelé’s private life was less disciplined. He was married three times, and had at least seven children. One daughter, born of an affair, he refused to recognise, many thought dishonourably. A son was jailed for money-laundering.

Pelé’s great-grandparents were slaves. Never an activist, just by being himself he was the embodiment of black dignity. Along with Muhammad Ali, he was the first black global superstar. Nelson Mandela said of him, “to watch him play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full.” That is how he should be remembered.

Courtesy:The Economist