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Pelé, the global face of soccer, dies at 82

His death was confirmed by his manager, Joe Fraga. The Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo said the cause was multiple organ failure, the result of the progression of colon cancer.
Pelé, one of soccer’s greatest players and a transformative figure in 20th-century sports who achieved a level of global celebrity few athletes have known, died Thursday in São Paulo. He was 82.
A national hero in his native Brazil, Pelé was beloved around the world — by the very poor, among whom he was raised; the very rich, in whose circles he traveled; and just about everyone who ever saw him play.
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“Pelé is one of the few who contradicted my theory,” Andy Warhol once said. “Instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.”
Celebrated for his peerless talent and originality on the field, Pelé also endeared himself to fans with his sunny personality and his belief in the power of soccer — football to most of the world — to connect people across dividing lines of race, class, and nationality.
He won three World Cup tournaments with Brazil and 10 league titles with Santos, his club team, as well as the 1977 North American Soccer League championship with the New York Cosmos. Having come out of retirement at 34, he spent three seasons with the Cosmos on a crusade to popularize soccer in the United States.
Before his final game, in October 1977 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Pelé took the microphone on a podium at the center of the field, his father and Muhammad Ali beside him, and exhorted a crowd of more than 75,000.
“Say with me three times now,” he declared, “for the kids: Love! Love! Love!”
In his 21-year career, Pelé scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 professional matches, including 77 goals for the Brazilian national team.
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Many of those goals became legendary, but Pelé’s influence on the sport went well beyond scoring. He helped create and promote what he later called “o jogo bonito” — the beautiful game — a style that valued clever ball control, inventive pinpoint passing, and a voracious appetite for attacking. Pelé not only played it better than anyone; he also championed it around the world.
“Pelé changed everything. He transformed football into art, entertainment,” Neymar, a fellow Brazilian soccer player, said on Instagram. “Football and Brazil elevated their standing thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will endure. Pelé is eternal!”
Among Pele’s athletic assets was a remarkable center of gravity; as he ran, swerved, sprinted, or backpedaled, his midriff seemed never to move, while his hips and his upper body swiveled around it.
He could accelerate, decelerate, or pivot in a flash. Off-balance or not, he could lash the ball accurately with either foot. Relatively small, at 5 feet, 8 inches, he could nevertheless leap exceptionally high, often seeming to hang in the air to put power behind a header.
Like other sports, soccer has evolved. Today, many of its stars can execute acrobatic shots or rapid-fire passing sequences. But in his day, Pelé’s playmaking and scoring skills were stunning.
Pelé sprang into the international limelight at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, a slight 17-year-old who as a boy had played soccer barefoot on the streets of his impoverished village using rolled-up rags in a sock for a ball. A star for Brazil, he scored six goals in the tournament, including three in a semifinal against France and two in the final, a 5-2 victory over Sweden. It was Brazil’s first of a record five World Cup trophies.
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Pelé also played on the Brazilian teams that won in 1962 and 1970. Brazil’s World Cup team in Mexico in 1970 is widely hailed as the best ever; its captain, Carlos Alberto, later joined Pelé on the Cosmos.
“I wish he had gone on playing forever,” Clive Toye, a former president of the Cosmos, wrote in a 2006 memoir. “But then, so does everyone else who saw him play, and those football people who never saw him play are the unluckiest people in the world.”
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born Oct. 23, 1940, in Três Corações, a tiny rural town in the state of Minas Gerais. His parents named him Edson in tribute to Thomas Edison. (Electricity had come to the town shortly before Pelé was born.) When he was about 7, he began shining shoes at the local railway station to supplement the family’s income.
His father, a professional player whose career was cut short by injury, was nicknamed Dondinho.
Brazilian soccer players often use a single name professionally, but even Pelé himself was unsure how he got his. He offered several possible derivations in “Pelé: The Autobiography” (2006, with Orlando Duarte and Alex Bellos).
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Most probably, he wrote, the nickname was a reference to a player on his father’s team whom he had admired and wanted to emulate as a boy. The player was known as Bilé.
One of Pelé’s earliest memories was of seeing his father, while listening to the radio, cry when Brazil lost to Uruguay 2-1 in the deciding match of the 1950 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. The game is still remembered as a national calamity. Pelé recalled telling his father that he would one day grow up to win the World Cup for Brazil.
He signed his first contract, with a junior team, when he was 14 and transferred to Santos at 15. He scored four goals in his first professional game. He was only 16 when he made his debut for the national team in July 1957.
When Brazil’s team went to the World Cup in Sweden the next summer, Pelé later said, he was so skinny that “quite a few people thought I was the mascot.”
Once they saw him play, it was a different story. Reports of this precocious Brazilian teenager’s prowess raced around the world. One account told of how, against Wales in the quarterfinals, with his back to the goal, he received the ball on his chest, let it drop to an ankle and instantly scooped it around behind him. As it bounced, he turned — so quickly that the ball was barely 1 foot off the ground — and struck it into the net. It was his first World Cup goal and the game’s only one, and it put Brazil into the semifinals.
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“It boosted my confidence completely,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The world now knew about Pelé.”
After the semifinal against France, in which Pelé scored a hat trick in a 5-2 Brazil win, the French goalkeeper reportedly said, “I would rather play against 10 Germans than one Brazilian.”
The team went home to national acclaim, and Pelé resumed playing for Santos . In 1959 alone, he endured a relentless schedule of 103 competitive matches; nine times he played two games within 24 hours.
He had become such a hero that in 1961, to ward off European teams eager to buy his contract rights, the Brazilian government passed a resolution declaring him a nonexportable national treasure.
When Pelé was about to retire from Santos in the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state at the time, wrote to the Brazilian government asking it to release Pelé to play in the United States as a way to help promote soccer, and Brazil, in America.
Yet, it was beyond quixotic when Toye, the Cosmos general manager, decided to try to persuade the player universally acclaimed as the world’s best, and highest paid, to join his team.
The Cosmos had been born only a month earlier, in one afternoon, when all the players had gathered in a hotel at Kennedy International Airport to sign an agreement to play for $75 a game in a country where soccer was a minor sport at best.
Toye first met with Pelé and Julio Mazzei, Pelé’s longtime friend and mentor, in February 1971 during a Santos tour in Jamaica. It took dozens more conversations over the next four years, as well as millions of dollars from Warner Communications, the team’s owner, for Pelé to join the Cosmos.
Toye made his last pitch in March 1975 in Brussels. Pelé had retired from Santos the previous October, and two major clubs, Real Madrid of Spain and Juventus of Italy, were each offering a deal worth $15 million, Pelé later recalled.
“Sign for them, and all you can win is a championship,” Toye said he told Pelé. “Sign for me, and you can win a country.”
To further entice him, Warner added a music deal, a marketing deal guaranteeing him 50 percent of any licensing revenue involving his name, and a guarantee to hire his friend Mazzei as an assistant coach. Pelé signed a three-year contract worth, according to various estimates, $2.8 million to $7 million (the latter equivalent to about $40 million today).
He was presented to the news media on June 11, 1975, at the “21″ Club in New York. Pandemonium ensued: Fistfights broke out among photographers, and tables collapsed when people stood on them.
The Cosmos moved to Giants Stadium in Pelé’’s final season, 1977, and there, in the Meadowlands, reached the pinnacle of their — and the league’s — popularity. For a home playoff game on Aug. 14, a crowd of 77,691 exceeded not only expectations but also capacity, squeezing into a stadium of 76,000 seats.
Soccer seemed poised to enter the American mainstream. But as it turned out, professional soccer was not yet ready to blossom in America.
The league went out of business after the 1984 season.
But at the grassroots level, and in schools and colleges, soccer did take off. In 1991, the United States women’s national team won the first women’s World Cup. (The United States has won it three times since.) In 2002, the men’s national team made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. And Major League Soccer has established itself as a sturdy successor to the NASL.
Pelé would endure difficult times in his personal life, especially when his son Edinho was arrested on drug-related charges. Pelé had two daughters out of wedlock and five children from his first two marriages, to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He later married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Pelé was sensitive about having dropped out of school (he later earned a high school diploma and a college degree while playing for Santos) and often lamented that so many young Brazilians remained poor and illiterate even as the country had begun to prosper.
Indeed, the day he scored his 1,000th goal, in November 1969 at Maracanã stadium in Rio before more than 200,000 fans, Pelé was mobbed by reporters on the field and used their microphones to dedicate the goal to “the children.” Crying, he made an impromptu speech about the difficulties of Brazil’s children and the need to give them better educational opportunities.
His face remained familiar around the world long after his retirement from soccer. In 1994, when the World Cup was about to be played in the United States, Pelé sat in Central Park in New York waiting to be interviewed for ABC News. A teenager passed, did a double-take and then ran off; within minutes, people were streaming across the park to see him.
“There were hundreds of them,” Toye, the former president and general manager of the Cosmos, wrote in a 2006 memoir. “Seventeen years after he last kicked a ball, this dark-skinned man is sitting in deep, dark shade under the trees — but he is still recognized, and once recognized, never alone in any country on Earth.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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