His end, at the age of 82, came Thursday at the Albert Einstein Hospital in his hometown in Brazil’s Sao Paulo, where he had been admitted since November 29 with complications related to colon cancer that was diagnosed in September 2021. Days before his death, he was pictured alongside his children and grandchildren, his face looking tired and worn-out, the passing of time having taken its toll on his physique and manner. But when he smiled that indelible bright-eyed smile of his, there was still a glow, an ageless, immortal glow that perhaps even death cannot stub out.
It was not Pele that died. It was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, named after the American scientist Thomas Alva Edison by his father Dondiho, a centre-forward like his son but who barely played professional football. And it was how Pele — he always referred to himself in the third person — wanted it to be. He once told Alex Bellos, the co-author of his autobiography, “Pele”: “Edson is the person who has the feelings, who has the family, who works hard, and Pele is the idol. Pele doesn’t die. Pele will never die. Pele is going to go on forever. But Edson is a normal person who is going to die one day.”
The nickname sprung accidentally. Pele’s first nickname was “Dicho” — coined by his uncle, and one his mother used to call him until her death — and “Gasolina” in his early days at Santos. Then a boy in school asked him who his favourite footballer was. He said “Bile”, the goalkeeper of a local club. But the boy heard it as “Pile”, which soon became Pele. And so it remained, and a meaningless word became the most meaningful in football.
It’s a name that is as immortal as it is imperishable, as constant as perhaps the beautiful game he beautified, as universal as the sun and stars. Indeed, in footballing consciousness, he exists as the sun, spreading light and life. Even lifeless numbers assume life in his radiance — a haul of 1,279 goals (or is it 1,284?), 92 hat-tricks, three World Cups, hundreds of medals and trophies. The moments that he etched on the football field with the little ball — a pity that most of Pele-magic exists as grainy reels or as recollections of old-timers or as pure myth — would be unsurpassable for magic and intuition, power and poise, strength and grace, balance and vision, audacity and imagination.
Different players of different eras had a blend of all these gifts, but those had not shone as dazzlingly or enduringly on any pair of feet, or head, or body, as it had on Pele’s. It might be that most of today’s world may not have watched him play — he last donned the canary yellow in 1971 and quit professional football in 1974 — but he exists in our subconscious as though he is still out there, as though he never ceased.
A few clips suffice to comprehend his genius.
The goal that shook the footballing consciousness of the world, when a 17-year-old Pele took a long pass on his thigh, hooked it over his head with a gentle touch, turned and smashed the dropping ball past Sweden’s goalkeeper in his inaugural World Cup.
Then there were the goals that never were.
Often described as the “greatest goal never scored”, he dummied Uruguay goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz in a World Cup semi-final, then went behind him, picked the ball and rolled the ball narrowly wide of an empty net, 40 yards away.
There was also the thunderous header into the bottom corner that resulted in England’s Gordon Banks pulling off what is often regarded as the greatest save ever. Or the wondrous dribbled-goal against Mexico in 1970, when he left chasers in the wake to embody the beauty and grandeur of Brazilian football, the nut-meg, shuffle of hips, a feint and a step-over.
It was pure dance, a tap of samba. Or as he himself loves to say, “his game was a song”. In fact, he wrote songs too, sung, and even published an album, “Pele Ginga”, at the turn of the century — a collection of 12 songs distilled from the 500-odd he had written between the time he played football and mastered one martial art after the other. At 20, he was an expert in both judo and karate, to which he credited his suppleness and stealth.
His crowning legacy though was how, through his game, he made masses fall in love with it, in non-internet days, when the television was a preserve of the elites. There were footballing geniuses before him, too: Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas, Uruguay José Leandro Andrade, or the Italian-Argentine Luis Menoti. But no one captured the sport as globally as Pele did, from Latin America to the Middle East and South Asia to the Far East and Down Under.
There are few countries that do not have a football club named after him, or even a player. He was football’s first global star, the overarching deity, the diva and don. He not only beautified but also glamourised the game. He was the perfect story, a boy from the street to the pinnacle. Even into his 70s, he had a bevy of advertisement deals, from Nokia and Mastercard to Coca Cola and Viagra.
Of course, there have been challengers for the King’s crown. Both Diego Maradona and Leo Messi could stake claim, so would Johan Cruyff and George Best, but each of them should be valued as their own, not in the light and shadow of the other. Pele was once asked if he would thrive in the modern game. He struck a Beethoven comparison. “It’s like when people imagine if Beethoven were alive today and wonder if he would still be good. Of course, he would. If he was good then, then with all the electronic aids available now, he’d be a lot better,” he said.
Unlike Maradona, Pele remained largely scandal-free in his playing days. He was a flawless, role-model footballer in the Messi mould. But as he grew older, much after he retired, he did not always strum the perfect notes. His close ties with the military dictatorship cracked a bit of his aura; as did allegations that his sports managing firm siphoned money from UNICEF funds; and, his refusal to recognise a daughter born out of wedlock.
But in the end, they would pass as footnotes or arguments to assert that he was after all human. His death today was another slice of proof that he was human. And yet, it was the immortal, invincible Pele that died, not Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or his mother’s “Dicho”.