More Than a Football Legend-The Life and Legacy of Pelé


Violet Kohlenstein, Student Journalist

More Than a Football Legend-The Life and Legacy of Pelé

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, “Pelé” was named after Thomas Edison, as electricity had recently been introduced to his Brazilian hometown, Três Corações. “Pelé”, the name that would become a household legend, came from a teammate of his father, during his time playing at Vasco de Sao Lourenco. The goalkeeper there was named Bilé, and Pelé often snuck into the goal while practicing with his father, announcing himself “Bilé” after a great save. Of course, being young the pronunciation of this name sounded a bit more like “Pilé”, which eventually morphed into the name “Pelé” as we know it today.

Even from a young age, Pelé was connected to his country. “Brazil is my country it is the country that brought me into this world,” he said in the 2021 Netflix Documentary, Pelé. During Pelé’s youth, Brazil was lesser known to the world. The country’s name didn’t immediately scream “football”. Instead, outsiders looking in saw a “developing” or “promising” nation.

Pelé changed this; from shoe shiner to international legend, Pelé led Brazil out of the shadows and into the future.

Life and Career
Pelé grew up in a working class family and came from poverty; he played his first games with rag-stuffed socks in place of a ball. From there his talent took off, he joined a youth football club, where the coach recognized his abilities and suggested he join the professional club, Santos, which he did, at 15.

At 17 he played in his first world cup with the Brazilian National team, where he stunned crowds with three total goals, two of which won Brazil its first ever world cup. Pelé went on to play in 4 more world cups, winning two more. Pelé ended his career with the national team and Santos in 1974, but was called back to the pitch to play for the New York Cosmos, where he helped change American soccer forever.

Pelé died on December 29, 2022 after battling colon cancer for some time.

Pelé, a “National Treasure”
In 1961, Pelé was named a national treasure, and not just ceremoniously. In fact, the current president of Brazil at the time, Janio Quadros, awarded him the title in response to the plethora of European football clubs offering Pelé a spot on their line up.

The young striker had become renowned internationally for his pioneering playing style. At just 21 Pelé had already scored 355 goals and made his debut as the youngest player ever in a world cup. Becoming a National Treasure forced Pelé to only play on Brazilian teams, making his club, Santos, refuse offers from Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, and Inter Milan. Amidst outrage from fans at these offers, President Jânio da Silva Quadros saw a way to ease political turmoil surrounding his presidency.

Prior and leading up to Pelé’s debut, Brazil was home to a rough political scene. The country went through multiple presidents over the course of a decade, each falling into the cycle of corruption. In 1961, Quadros became president, soon he too lost most political leverage due to unconventional laws including a ban on gambling, and relationships with communist countries

Among the chaos, the 1958 world cup was a source of hope for citzens. For them the cup wasn’t just their first world cup win, as Gilberto Gil, a Brazillian musician and Former Minister of Culture of Brazil recalls, “[Pelé became a symbol of brazil’s emancipation”

Quadros knew that Pelé meant more to Brazil than football so in 1961 he passed a law that prohibited Pelé from leaving to play abroad, forcing Pelé to play only for the national team and Brazillian-based clubs like Santos. He hoped this would regain him some political credibility, and support among the people.

A star in the darkness of a “Racial Democracy”
Though Pelé never left Brazil to play, he made his career, playing for Santos, and continued to be the face of hope for Brazil. Growing up, Pelé shined shoes; he wasn’t born into money, so for the people of Brazil, many of whom had similar stories to tell, Pelé’s success gave them faith for change.

Brazil has had a long history with racism and slavery, 1958, Brazil first world cup win, was only 70 years since slavery had been abolished in Brazil in 1888,

Brazilian society had struggled with a corrupt class system that viewed black people at the bottom, as third class citizens, while the top was held by white people. In an article by Malu Cursino for BBC news, Cursino explains that Pelé wasn’t exempt from Brazilian racism, “He regularly faced monkey chants on the pitch and had several racist nicknames. He once said that if he had stopped every game after a monkey taunt, he would have had to stop them all.” Cursino explains that the player, “was key to carving out space and recognition for black people in Brazilian football.”

Benedita Da Silva, the first Afro-Brazilian congresswoman in Brazil, herself a victim of opression said that Pelé “was the most promising image we had of a poor black kid” He showed the world that anybody could be a “king”

Despite his experiences as an Afro-Brazilian leading the national team, Pelé held his famous a-political stance, staying silent on issues that pressed Brazil. Many saw his silence toward issues of racism as weak. A fellow teammate, Paulo Cezar Caju said, “He acted like a submissive black who accepts everything and fights nothing,”

Brazil’s Dictatorship and Pelé
Pelé a-political stance reached further than racism. He also refused to use his platform to speak out against the injustices that plagued Brazilian society during Emílio Garrastazu Médici’s dictatorship in the late 60s. A Brazilian sports journalist, Paulo Cesar Vasconcellos, commented that, “[Pelé] accepted the regime, which treated him well because it knew how important he was,”

In 1964, a coup overthrew the government, at the time democratically elected, which led to Médici’s Military dictatorship in 1969. This era left Brazil in a state of oppression that was an all-time high, hundreds and thousands were murdered, and tortured, civil rights were dissolved and Pelé, revered as a national treasure neither supported nor condoned any of the events.

This was in part because he had some level of immunity when it came to Medici. Though safety was not a given, the dictator used Pelé to boost the spirits of the people; watching Pelé play and supporting him, made Medici seem like a relatable character and painted him as a man of the people. With this level of protection Pelé kept playing, whether that be strictly for his career or due to external pressure from the government.

Pelé responded to critics of his political stance, stating, “I’ve been invited to participate in politics but honestly I’ve got no desire to get involved…Football already takes up most of my time and ultimately I don’t understand anything about politics.” Even so, images from the 60s show Pelé meeting with Medici, grinning, and shaking his hand, a sight that made the public buzz.

By the time the 1970 World Cup in Mexico rolled around, Pelé had plans to retire from the Brazil National team. Haunted by their tragic loss in the 1966 cup, the striker wanted to quit. Medici, however, coerced Pelé to play one last time, a political cover up for the Brazilian dictatorship being at its height.

When Brazil won in Mexico, the win wasn’t just for the team, but for the nation. The footballers were awarded cash prizes, and Volkswagens, along with their medals by Medici’s allies, presenting the public with a more positive image of the dictatorship. Citizens celebrated, Pelé’s victory “a shining star glowing in the black sky of brazillian life.” says Gil, to the people “He symbolized a victorious and powerful Brazil, the promise of a fairer and happier country.”

Pelé remained politically neutral for most of his career, though after retirement from Santos and the Brazil national team, he went on to become Minister of Sport for Brazil in 1994, where he passed laws pushing for transparency and respect between football clubs and their players. During his political career he didn’t belong to any political party, instead, he focused on using his platform to establish programs for young players all across Brazil in hopes to not only teach soccer but to help to release the people of Brazil from corruption.

He also held the position of FIFA Ambassador against racism and was a dedicated donor to many charities. Pelé spoke of his work saying, “I was no superman. I didn’t work miracles or anything. I was just a normal person who got granted the gift of being a football player…But I am absolutely certain that I have done much more for Brazil with football in my own way than many politicians who are paid to do so have done.”

The King Of Football
Today, the term “GOAT” is thrown around in all sports; fanatics argue whether Lebron James should hold the title over his predecessor, Michael Jordan. In football big names like Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are compared to Pelé, while younger stars compete for spots among the greats, but who really is the Greatest of All Time?

The phrase is subjective, and some may argue dependent on those who come before you, Ronaldo, posted to his Instagram after Pelé’s passing, stating, “What a privilege to come after you my friend. Your talent is a school every player should go through. Your legacy will transcend generations. And that’s how it will stay alive. Today and always we celebrate you.”

It is no doubt that Pele changed the game forever, he still holds the record for only player to win three FIFA world cup titles, continues to be Brazil’s and Santos’s all-time leading goal scorer, and the youngest World Cup goal scorer. He is also remembered for his career record of 1283 goals in 1367 games.

Besides the statistics, Pelé pioneered the way the game is played; taking shots from center field and faking opponents with unmatched technique. His playing style combined technical skills with athleticism in a style that was mostly unseen before his time. Even though others may surpass him, in the future, “The King” will always be the foundation beneath “The Beautiful Game.”

In the end, is his greatness really measured in goals, or rather in the mark left outside of the pitch?