Inspirational Athletes

Uniting the World Through Soccer: Pele

“Set me a task in which I can put something of my very self, and it is a task no longer. It is joy and art.” Bliss Carman

His given name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

To most of the world, however, he is simply known as “Pele.”

And for the millions of soccer fans worldwide, just hearing his name invokes feelings or pride and elation.

Pele (Illustrator: Thomas Mesenbring Field)

In his storied and legendary soccer career, Pele has managed to capture the hearts of people from virtually every part of the globe. His stellar career resume has made him the near-unanimous choice for the greatest soccer player ever.

But that alone is not what has garnered Pele the status as a true global treasure who is often cited as being the most recognizable athlete on the planet. It is the way Pele played the game that has truly invoked the tremendously appreciative attitude of his legions of fans.

When people watched Pele play, they saw a man who was in his own paradise. Pele’s mastery in the sport he coined “the beautiful game” shined brightly with the joy and enthusiasm he brought to each and every game he played, from his early childhood days playing barefoot on the streets of Bauru (a city in Sao Paulo, Brazil) with a muddy rag-stuffed sock for a ball, all the way to when he had become a three-time World Cup champion and international icon.

And although he played the predominant part of his career for Brazil and in Brazilian leagues, it is more fitting to say that he actually played for the entire world, and was a person who transcended any and all political borders and ethnic differences existent in the world—one who cannot and should not be confined to mere labels of country and ethnicity.

“... Sport is the best medium through which we can communicate,” Pele once wrote. “... I believe that one day we will be able to unite in a team, a greater team called humanity.”

Perhaps the most prominent display of Pele’s immense universality occurred during his visit to Biafra/Nigeria (Africa) in the midst of a brutal 1968 civil war, when the soccer legend’s two-day appearance caused the two warring sides to declare a temporary ceasefire.

Throughout his life, Pele has had many other similar receptions in other parts of the world, as he stands as a true mark of someone who *

And very fitting to Pele’s universality is the way he initially became named “Pele.” Though his given first name is Edson, and he went by the nickname “Dico” in his early years, by age eight the future soccer star began being called “Pele” by his soccer buddies. Nobody is sure how the name started, and the word Pele has no meaning in Portuguese (Brazil’s language), or any other language for that matter. But the name stuck, even despite the fact that the formerly known Dico initially detested it and event went so far as to get into a fight with anyone who dared call him it.

But eventually, he stopped fighting off the name, and later, he embraced it.

In 1994 Sports Illustrated article, he said, “... I think of Pele as a different person ... Pele doesn’t have a nation, race, religion or color. People all over the world love Pele. Edson is a man like other men. Edson is going to die someday ... But Pele doesn’t die. Pele’s immortal.”

On his journey to immortality, Pele won an amazing three World Cup titles (1958, 1962, and 1970) playing for Brazil, the first of which he played in at the young age of seventeen. The World Cup, soccer’s premiere international competition, is held only once every four years, and begins in preliminary rounds from a crowded and competitive field of over one hundred different teams. Pele is the only three-time World Cup winner, and to this day, only five countries—Uruguay, Argentina, Italy, Germany, and of course, Brazil—have won the tournament more than once.

In his illustrious professional soccer career, Pele scored about 1280 goals in 1362 first-class level games, playing predominantly for his Santos club team and the Brazilian national team. And in addition to his three World Cups wins with Brazil, he also led his Santos club team to eight Sao Paolo League championships, three Brazilian Cups, two South American Club Cups, and two World Club Cups.

And no matter what team Pele was playing for or where he was playing, anybody who watched him play was undoubtedly enthused by his mastery that earned him such nicknames as “Gasoline” for his energy, the “Executioner” for his finishing, the “Black Pearl” for his preciousness, and the “King” for his strong play and dominance.

Pele was an average-sized player, but his game was anything but average. He combined incredible skills, blazing speed, uncanny ball control with both feet, dazzling passing, astute strategy, a stunningly powerful and accurate shot with either of his feet or his head, incredible balance, graceful agility, outstanding strength, keen vision, a calm temperament in the midst of battle, and a remarkable knack for getting through defenses, all with an added an element of trickery that often baffled opponents.

During his lengthy and legendary career, Pele spread his joy of soccer throughout the world, much like an international “Johnny Soccer-seed.”

After initially announcing his retirement from the sport in 1974 at age 34, Pele surprised everyone the next year by announcing that he was coming out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos of the struggling North American Soccer League (NASL). He hoped that his move would help the growth of soccer in the United States, and also offer him a way to return to soccer with a less demanding schedule than he had playing for Brazil and Santos. **

During his 27 months playing in the United States, Pele caused the country’s soccer scene to skyrocket. The number of players registered with the US Soccer Federation leaped from 100,000 to 400,000, and attendances in the NASL went through the roof. Before Pele’s arrival, the league’s games often played in front of sparse crowds and barely caused a ripple in the media—a stark contrast to Pele’s games with the Cosmos that routinely brought in enormous crowds, including one playoff game in Giants Stadium that drew a whopping 77,000 fans and 140 journalists.

And although Pele had lost a step from the prime of his career, he still ranked among the league’s best players, and he and the Cosmos eventually won the 1977 Soccer Bowl Championship in Pele’s last official game in the league.

Later in 1977, Pele played in a special farewell exhibition game in the US that pitted the Cosmos against Pele’s longtime Santos club team. A packed crowd of over 75,000 showed up to witness the emotional match up, where Pele played the first half for the Cosmos and knocked in a goal, and then switched teams at halftime and finished the game playing for Santos in an eventual 2-1 Cosmos win.

Before the match, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali—the self-proclaimed “greatest”—embraced Pele and remarked, “now there are two of the greatest.” Painter Andy Warhol, who also attended the game, chipped in that “Pele will be famous for 15 centuries” instead of the customary 15 minutes of fame Warhol once predicted everyone in the future would be entitled to.

After Pele’s departure, the NASL enjoyed success for several more years, and attendances rose for most teams. But the league tried to expand too quickly, and by 1981, many of the teams had folded due to financial concerns even despite the respectable attendance figures and fan interest. The league eventually folded in 1985.

Nevertheless, Pele managed to draw interest to soccer in the United States, causing a dramatic rise in youth leagues and high school and college teams, and a steady rise in the sport’s popularity throughout the country. Many years after his US departure, Pele used his influence to almost single-handedly make the United States the host country for the 1994 World Cup tournament—the first ever World Cup held in the North American continent.

At the opening ceremonies, US president Bill Clinton remarked, “The world of soccer is now a universal language.” Almost fittingly, the US team faced the Brazilian squad in the second round of the tournament. Brazil prevailed in a tightly contested game, and eventually went on to win World Cup gold for the fourth time in the country’s history, but its first ever in the post-Pele soccer era.

The 1994 World Cup also continued the rise of US soccer, as a new US men’s league called Major League Soccer (MLS) commenced play in 1996 and remains in existence today. And following a much-publicized 1999 Women’s World Cup title for the US women’s team, woman’s soccer has also had a major following in the US.

Soccer remains one of the most popular team sports in the United States today, with an estimated eight million current US players who play at least 25 times per year. The success of soccer in the Unites States clearly demonstrates the impact Pele had in popularizing the game in the US and throughout the world.

Pele is currently active in many business ventures, endorsements, charities, and international relations duties. He also trains children and gives soccer clinics in Santos.

In a soccer-crazed world, Pele remains as soccer-crazed as ever. Several years ago in a 2001 Scotland on Sunday article, Pele said, “I still dream about scoring goals. My wife asks, ‘What were you shouting about last night?’ I say I was dreaming about scoring a goal.”

Inspirational Athletes