He was born on October 23, 1940 as Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Três Corações, a town in the Brazilian province about 300 kilometers from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. He earned his first money as a shoe shine boy – $15 a month.
In the 1950s, he advanced by the name Pele to become perhaps the most famous athlete on Earth. His first professional contract with Santos brought him $200 a month.
When I sat across from him for an interview in 2013 on the sidelines of the group draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil at a resort town in Salvador de Bahia, I asked how I could address him. After all, his title “O Rei” (King) actually required a title of peerage. But Pele said in good English, even though a Portuguese interpreter was standing nearby: “Please just call me Pele” — Pé means foot in Portuguese — “Hence my father got the name. I was very proud to have been christened Edson” — named after Thomas Edison, Inventor of the Light Bulb – “When I was born, the first light bulbs shone in the Brazilian mines. That’s why my parents called me Edison. However, I’m lost on the birth certificate. But today I can live very well with Pele.”
We laughed – as we must have laughed heartily several times in the next hour. A 20-minute interview was agreed upon. But Pele clearly had the time and inclination to answer the Swiss journalist’s questions. I quickly sensed: Before me was a man at peace with himself and with the world—his greatest successes were from decades ago, but he still lives lightness and grandeur and joie de vivre at the age of 73, as if he had just come to Brazil to lead to the world title.
Pele set standards as a footballer that have not been matched to this day: 1363 matches, 1281 goals, as the only player in history to win the World Championship three times. 26 titles in 17 years. When he won his first world title in Sweden in 1958, he was just 17 years old – and bathed the tournament in a magical glow with his feints and goals. When he lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy for the third time twelve years later, he was unreliable before the tournament – but once again he became the defining figure of his team.
Pele possessed technical qualities never before seen in football – and a presence that made him a role model far beyond the sport’s confines. And although almost every year he received offers from the major European leagues, he always remained faithful to his “team” FC Santos (in Sao Paulo). Only in the fall of his career did he move to New York to work for Kosmos for two years. In that interview, I asked him why he had not moved to Europe. His answer: “Santos has always been the best choice for me – in terms of sport and atmosphere. I could have made a lot of money at Real Madrid, but that wasn’t important to me. I wanted to play where I feel comfortable and where the environment is better.”
The debate over history’s greatest athlete is as old as it is controversial. A binding answer cannot be obtained even in a grassroots democratic vote. Perspectives on the world are very different – depending on generations and sectors. The question arises in athletics circles: Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt? For swimming enthusiasts, the record-breaking Olympic champion can only be Michael Phelps. Or maybe Mark Spitz or Johnny Weissmuller? In Canada, the choice unreservedly falls on ice hockey icon Wayne Gretzky, and Germany’s Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher is favored. Or Sebastian Vettel? For basketball fans there’s just Michael Jordan – for baseball fans there’s Babe Ruth. On the other hand, cricket fans are attracted to Sir Donald George Bradman. Above all, there’s boxing legend Muhammad Ali and tennis god Roger Federer. or not?
In football, the question arises every year – also in 2022 after the World Cup in Qatar: Messi or Mbappe? When asked which of today’s players he could be compared to, Pele said: “With the role he plays in his team, Messi is closest to my style of play.”
In the end, the answer is just a snapshot of the larger context. FIFA complied and named Pelé the “World Footballer of the Twentieth Century”. The International Olympic Committee went one step further and named the exceptional Brazilian talent “Athlete of the Century”.
Guenter Netzer, a formative style icon in the history of German football, says of Pele: “He was the best – without any doubts or reservations. His life story is remarkable, his looks and his charisma. He leapt into the world from the smallest of beginnings and the most humble of circumstances, but always rose to challenges.” His situation was comparable to that of Cristiano Ronaldo today. But Pele responded to the general desire and global interest without warning or preparation. Despite this, Pele never changed. He lived his life the way he always did, remaining true to himself and was always honest, humane and humble.” .
There is no better way to describe Edson Arantes do Nascimento – and Netzer’s words match the impression of the person I was able to meet nine years ago in Brazil. I met Pele again three years later, on the eve of Euro 2016 in France. At that time he was the big attraction in a PR event with Diego Maradona. Pele and Maradona – The two have been separated for 20 years, but also whole worlds. Maradona was a shadow of his best days: swollen and rickety—kind of green and yellow in the face. Fans cheered him on, but life gave him up long ago.
In contrast, Pele exuded something of a statesman and solemnity. He walked on crutches after hip surgery. But he was still the same as he was in Mexico in 1970 after the 1970 World Cup Final against Italy: the King. No ifs and reservations.
I have to think about that now more than ever. With Pele, football could lose perhaps its greatest masters in history. And the world is missing a figure who could also be a role model for future generations. Dear Pele, the world bows low to you and your life’s work.
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