"National treasure": Former Brazilian footballer Pelé dies at age 82

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Monday, January 2, 2023

Former Brazilian association football player Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, died in São Paulo of multiple organ failure Thursday. Pelé, whose country's government declared him a "national treasure" in 1961, was 82.

Pelé in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1995.
Image: John Mathew Smith.

A post by Pelé's official Instagram account announced the death of "The King": "Inspiration and love marked the journey of King Pele, who peacefully passed away today...[he] enchanted the world with his genius in sport, stopped a war, carried out social works all over the world and spread what he most believed to be the cure for all our problems: love."

Pelé was born on October 23, 1940, in Três Corações, a town in the state of Minas Gerais, into an impoverished family. Pelé himself worked as a shoeshiner, playing informally; he acquired the nickname "Pelé" from his incorrect pronunciation of "Bilé", the name of a local association football player.

When he was 15, Santos, a local association football club, recruited Pelé for its juvenile team, and eventually promoted him to the adult team. In 1956, at the age of 16, he joined the Brazilian national team.

The national team brought Pelé, 17, as a reserve during the 1958 World Cup in Sweden; while the Brazilian team was playing in the final, they moved him onto the field. Pelé punted the ball over one of the opposing team's defenders, then wheeled around the other man and propelled it into the opponents' goal, scoring. This was voted among the best plays in the history of association football, and Pelé was proclaimed the winner of the Cup.

Pelé suffered an injury and was largely unable to play in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, although he still won.

A 1969 Brazilian stamp depicting Pelé celebrating his thousandth goal.
Image: Correios.

Brazil also advanced to the 1966 Cup in England. Although the Associated Press later said that he was "already considered the world’s top player" by 1966, Brazil was ejected in the group stage; Pelé swore never to return to the World Cup. England won the tournament.

Pelé nevertheless played in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, his last Cup. Brazil advanced to the final, facing Italy, with Pelé making the first goal for his team in that game and winning once again.

In 1972, Pelé retired from Santos FC. European clubs invited him to play for them, but he declined. In 1975, Pelé made a comeback playing for the New York Cosmos in the new North American Soccer League. After a 1976 game between the Cosmos and Santos, his old club, of which he played half with each team, Pelé announced he was again retiring from professional association football.

Pelé wrote an autobiography in 1977, My Life and the Beautiful Game, which the Associated Press credited with the popularization of that nickname for the sport.

Pelé had been hospitalized more than a month ago in Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo while undergoing treatment for colon cancer, which he developed in 2021; the hospital attributed the multiple organ failure that killed him Thursday afternoon to this cancer.

After the announcement, current Brazilian footballer Neymar posted to Instagram, "Pelé changed everything. He transformed football into art, entertainment...Football and Brazil elevated their standing thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will endure. Pelé is eternal!”

French footballer Kylian Mbappé tweeted, "The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten...RIP KING."

Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, who will depart that office on Sunday, called Pelé, "a great citizen and patriot, raising the name of Brazil wherever he went" in a statement and ordered three days of national mourning.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the President-elect, tweeted, "few Brazilians carried the name of our country as far as he did."

Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, tweeted, "The game. The king. Eternity."