PELE: What you probably don’t know about the world’s greatest footballer

Pele, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, was Brazil’s all-time leading scorer, with 77 goals in 92 matches for his country.

The three-time World Cup winner embodied the idea of football as “the beautiful game”, one played with skill, speed, and imagination.

Early life

Pele was born into a poor family in Tres Coracoes in southern Brazil on 23 October 1940.

His full name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, which, he revealed in a 2014 tweet, was in honour of US inventor Thomas Edison, because electricity had just been introduced to his hometown.

He took on the nickname Pele while at school.

His father, Dondinho, was a minor league footballer, who taught his sons to play and his brother, Zoca, also played for Brazilian side Santos.

Early career and the 1958 World Cup

Pele joined Santos at 15, and at the same age, he made his senior debut in 1956.

He won a place in the national team squad for the 1958 World Cup, held in Sweden and, at just 17, scored twice in the final as they beat the hosts 5-2.

Pele became the tournament’s youngest goalscorer and remained the only 17-year-old to score in the World Cup.

1962, 1966 and 1970

Pele opens the scoring in the final of the 1970 World Cup

Injury restricted his contribution to Brazil’s triumph in 1962 in Chile, and he was heavily marked in the 1966 competition in England, where he suffered repeated, sometimes brutal, fouls.

But he was player of the tournament four years later, as Brazil assembled one of the greatest sides ever and lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in Mexico.

Led by Carlos Alberto, the team featuring the likes of Jairzinho, Tostao and Rivellino, defeated Italy 4-1 in the final.

What made him great?

Like many of those considered among the game’s all-time greats, Pele was relatively short, at around 5ft 7in (1.73m).

But what he lacked in height, he more than made up for in skill, with both feet, pace, strength, and heading ability.

The centre-forward’s achievements are even more remarkable given he played in an era when skillful players were routinely fouled out of games, with referees often reluctant to send off or even book offenders.

No out-and-out striker, some of his most famous moments were not goals at all.

In the 1970 World Cup, there was an attempt from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia, an outrageous dummy against Uruguay, and a downward header somehow saved by England goalkeeper Gordon Banks.

Club football – Santos

Pele spent 18 years at Santos, where he is the all-time leading goalscorer.

He helped them to six league titles, including five in a row from 1961, as well as two victories in the Copa Libertadores, considered to be the closest thing South America has to the Champions League.

New York Cosmos

Pele ended his playing days at New York Cosmos and retired from football in 1977.

Such was his impact in the US and the nascent North American Soccer League (NASL), more than 75,000 fans crammed into the New York’s Giants Stadium for his final game, fittingly against Santos.

He was a prolific scorer in the NASL, leading Cosmos to the title in his last season.

His star power helped to establish the world’s biggest sport in a country which, until then, had largely ignored it.

Goals controversy

There is much dispute over the number of goals he scored during his career, which Guinness World Records places at 1,279.

However, many critics believe that figure is too high, boosted by hundreds scored in friendlies and practice matches.

Including those, he scored at almost a goal a game throughout his 22-year career.

Others put his overall total at 757 goals, although Santos say his tally was closer to 1,000.

This would make him the highest-ever scorer for a single major club.

In 2013, he was awarded the FIFA Ballon d’Or Prix d’Honneur (award of honour) in recognition of his career and achievements.

As a modern comparison, Cristiano Ronaldo, notched his 800th goal from 1,095 official senior appearances for clubs and country in December 2021.

Personal life

Pele was married three times, on the last occasion to businesswoman and entrepreneur Marcia Aoki, in 2016.

He fathered seven known children, but admitted in 2021 that he had so many affairs, he couldn’t be sure what the real total was.

2014 World Cup

Pele attends a news conference to present the FIFA World Cup global ‘Trophy Tour’ in Paris, 10 March, 2014

Since retiring, Pele has been Brazil’s sports minister and acted as an ambassador for football.

He was an honorary ambassador for Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, which was held in his home country.

But before the tournament started, he angered many of his fellow Brazilians by criticising the timing of anti-corruption protests, telling demonstrators they could spoil the event.

The greatest?

Football fans love to debate who is the greatest of all time, with many believing Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi have greater claim to the title than Pele.

But Sky Sports football commentator Martin Tyler disagrees, saying “for me he [Pele] is the greatest player of all time”.

“One of my early jobs outside of television was to put the English voice on a VHS, as it was in those days, of his Brazil career and his 1,000 goals,” he said.

“If I had any doubts about how good he was, that video proved it. It was a privilege to do that and pay tribute to a man who could do so much more than score goals.

“He will always be remembered for the ability to score amazing goals in terrible conditions on bumpy pitches, when players had more licence to use all means to stop him. He was irresistible.

“Undoubtedly for me, he will always be the greatest and in the football world he is immortal.”