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El Jogo Bonito

Posted 02/15/2023 by Ben Hartley

Pelé is hoisted in the air by fans after Brazil defeated Italy in the 1970 World Cup. photo by Alessandro Sabattini

Exploring the life, legacy, and death of Pelé. 

Nearly half a century ago, the illustrious Brazilian competitor Edson Arantes do Nascimento began popularizing a Portuguese term for soccer called O Jogo Bonito. The phrase, which reads The Beautiful Game in English, not only reflects the passionate universal culture associated with the sport, but also the skillful ease with which Pelé played. It is a fitting phrase for the only man to have ever won three separate World Cup Tournaments. 

After his birth in Tres Coracoes, Brazil, Pelé carved out his legendary reputation for 82 years until his death on December 29, 2023. Before passing away, the Brazilian, who could once run 100 meters in 11 seconds and jump nearly six feet in the air, was diagnosed with colon cancer in September of 2021. More recently, this past November, he was admitted to the hospital for multiple nights after having a case of COVID-19 earlier that month. Despite Pelé being vaccinated, his daughter, Kelly Nascimento, claimed that months of chemotherapy had made her father weaker and susceptible to the illness. This ultimately resulted in Pelé developing a lung infection and being admitted to Albert Einstein Jewish Hospital. Doctors tried their very best at treating him for both kidney and cardiac dysfunction until hope was lost. Although Pelé will never grace a soccer pitch again, his legacy in the sport will live on forever.

After the World Cup final on December 18th, many fans of the sport were still relishing Argentina’s victory in the tournament when they found out about Pelé’s death. It was Lionel Messi’s first World Cup win – a defining moment for a player frequently compared with the likes of Pelé. However, the Brazilian’s national career was even more impressive as he led his country to World Cup victories in 1958, 1962, and 1970. 

Pelé was born on October 23, 1940, just 200 miles northwest of Rio De Janeiro. Although his net worth amassed to roughly $100 million towards the end of his days, he grew up stricken by poverty. His early childhood consisted of using rolled up socks and rags to practice soccer and shining shoes to help support his family. It is no surprise that Pelé fell in love with soccer at a young age; he was the son of Dondinho, a striker who had a twelve year playing career on the dirt pitches of Brazil. Pelé’s father was able to accumulate 893 goals in just 775 games. Even more impressive is the game in which he scored five goals using nothing but his head. Despite this immense talent, Dondinho struggled to make a living because of the poor wages footballers earned in his era. After suffering a meniscal injury in the knee, Dondinho was forced to find work in the local hospital ward. However, his most important job of all just may have been coaching his son. He taught Pelé how to juggle, dribble, and make body feints that would leave defenders stumbling at his heels. Even Pelé himself has attributed much of his success to his fathers coaching and friendship. 

Pelé’s mother, Celeste Arantes, is still alive today at one hundred years old, perhaps proving the strength of the genes that went into sculpting her son’s elite level athleticism. Arantes was not so fond of her son pursuing a career in soccer as a boy, and reasonably so, considering it was amongst the lowest paying jobs in the county in her time. She instead focused on teaching her son to focus on his education and keep a stable head on his shoulders. As a boy, Pelé would lash out at his classmates for calling him “Pile.” He was used to being called by his first name, “Edson.”  It wasn’t until Pelé began pronouncing the name of his favorite local goalkeeper, Bile as “Pile” that the nickname was coined. In an interview in 2017, Pelé revealed that he hated when his classmates would mock him with this name as a boy. He confessed that he once received a suspension after punching a kid that had mocked him. The adversity helped Pelé learn to control his temper when others’ actions were out of his control, which would prove to be an important asset for the future star as a leader on the field. It wasn’t until a theologist taught him that “Pele” actually meant “miracle” in Hebrew that he began to accept the name. 

Pelé’s professional career began when he signed for Brazil’s Santos FC at just fifteen years old – the same team that the current soccer star, Neymar Jr., began his career at. Pelé played central attacking midfield while proudly sporting the number 10 for the majority of his twenty year career. In this time, Pelé solidified himself as Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorer with 77 goals in just 92 international matches. He also managed to score 680 goals in his club career. He scored 643 of those goals at Santos, and scored the remaining 43 with the New York Cosmos. Far more impressive is the fact that Pelé was the youngest player ever to score a goal, as well as a hat-trick, in the FIFA World Cup. At just 17 years old, Pelé scored three goals against France to send his country to the final where they would beat the host country, Sweden. Pelé’s remaining two World cup victories took place in Mexico and England, although he attended five of the tournaments in total over the course of his career. 

Pelé’s impact on the game of soccer is simply undeniable. The Nigerian Civil War, erupting in 1967, was once called to a cease-fire so soldiers and fans alike could watch Pelé play in a club friendly match. The athleticism and technical ability demonstrated by Pelé back then still influences many students of the game today. Pelé brought a fiery competitiveness to the beautiful game, all the while making it more exciting to watch. May he rest in peace.