The acronym ‘GOAT’, standing for ‘the greatest of all time’, gets bandied around far too easily in a sporting context these days. It’s a made-up moniker befitting only the very best in the business, and as far as football is concerned it is hard to look past Pele for the honour – despite what fans of Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and even Cristiano Ronaldo will argue to the contrary.
The Brazilian legend passed away in December 2022 at the age of 82, and while he was battling with cancer it’s been reported that he died peacefully in his sleep in his home state of Sao Paulo. The tributes have poured in, quite rightly, and a reflection on the achievements of Pele – both as a footballer and as a public figure around the world – confirm him to be the greatest of all time.
From World Cup winner at 17 to the Guinness Book of Records for most goals scored in professional football, here’s a look back at the life and times of Pele.
As is so often the case with the leading sportsmen and women, Pele grew up in abject poverty. So poor was his family that the young Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known later as ‘Pele’ after he mispronounced the name of his favourite Vasco de Gama player Bilé, was forced to work as a servant while still at school.
He was forced to improvise when it came to football too, given that he was unable to afford a proper ball. So the young Pele stuffed a sock full of newspaper and tied it with string, and those that grew up with him claimed that he was rarely seen without a ‘ball’ at his feet.
Pele played for many junior teams and even had a successful spell in futsal, the version of the beautiful game that the Brazilian himself claims helped him to hone his incredible close control and dribbling.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) July 2, 2014
One of Pele’s junior coaches, Waldemar de Brito, was a Brazilian international in his own right, and he knew he had a special talent on his hands. So he personally took Pele, then aged 15, to a trial at Santos FC, one of the pre-eminent teams in Brazil’s Serie A. According to folklore, de Brito claimed that Pele could go on to become ‘the greatest football player in the world’.
Santos must have agreed, as they handed the teenage Pele a professional contract on the spot. The greatest of all time was given his route to greatness….
World Cup Wonder
Knowing no bounds, Pele scored on his professional debut for Santos – remember, he was still aged just 15 at the time. By 16, he was the starting striker for Santos, the top goalscorer in the Brazilian top-flight and had been called up to the national team in what can only be described as a stratospheric rise to the top.
In 1957/58, Pele scored a ridiculous 58 goals in a single season – a Campeonato Paulista record that still stands to this day – and was called up to Brazil’s squad for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. It was here that his legend was truly born.
The youngest ever player to compete in the World Cup (at the time) at 17 years and 249 days, Pele scored a hat-trick in the semi-final win over France and a brace in the final against the hosts – his first voted one of the best-ever World Cup goals.
Collapsing on the pitch at the end of the final through pure emotion, Pele joined Jesse Owens in the ranks of black sporting superstars – a status that ensured he transcended football and became a truly global icon.
Beyond the Beautiful Game
Because he played the entirety of his club career with Santos, save for a late stint at the New York Cosmos, Pele’s major achievements in football are considered to be his three World Cup wins – nobody has yet matched that feat.
Ironically, he played little part in the 1962 edition, and was only given his winner’s medal retrospectively. Pele was injured in Brazil’s second group game, scoring in the opener against Mexico. The Seleḉão would go on to lift the Jules Rimet trophy, and at the time, FIFA rules dictated that only those that played in the final were handed a winner’s medal.
However, that rule was changed in 1978 to include all squad members, and with the new regulation back-dated it meant that Pele would be given a medal too. He was given a rough ride at the 1966 World Cup, where he was targeted by some heavy tackling and fouls by opposition defenders, and Brazil struggled to adapt to the more physical approach being taken to prevent them playing their dazzlingly brilliant football.
Pele returned in 1970 tougher and meaner, and yet that Brazilian team is considered to be one of the greatest ever thanks to their immense flair and guile. They would prove unstoppable on their way to the title – completing Pele’s hat-trick, with Edson himself handed the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament. It would be his crowning moment in football.
He only played sporadically for Brazil thereafter, and even his appearances for Santos were limited due to injury and a lightened workload. But Pele’s place in football folklore was secured, and his accolades and accomplishments too many to document in full.
Pele’s Career Highlights
But, as an overview, here’s just some of his career highlights….confirming his status as the greatest footballer that has ever lived.
- 3x World Cup winner
- 7x Ballon d’Or winner
- World Cup Golden Ball winner
- Player of the Century – FIFA
- Athlete of the Century – International Olympic Committee
- 100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century – Time Magazine
- All-Time Greatest XI selection – World Soccer
- Most Career Goals – Guinness Book of Records