RIO DE JANEIRO, May 10 – Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in October 1940, Pele went on to become the best-loved footballer of his or any other generation.A veteran of four World Cups, Pele was a member of winning squads in 1958, 1962 and 1970, his sumptuous range of skills making him the glittering totem of Brazilian football’s golden age.
After playing his first game for Santos as a 15-year-old in 1956, Pele earned a call up to the national team a year later, scoring on his debut against Argentina. In 1958 he was picked for the World Cup in Sweden.
His participation at the finals had been a matter of great debate in Brazil, with many critics questioning whether the slender-framed teenager was ready for the physical demands of the tournament.
Nursing a knee injury on arrival in Sweden, Pele was unavailable for Brazil’s opening two matches.
He might also have been forced to sit out their third, against the Soviet Union, had coach Vicente Feola decided to heed the advice of a team psychologist who had urged that Pele was ‘infantile’ and not fit for duty.
In the event Feola opted to play the youngster, and it paid off. Working in tandem with Garrincha, Pele gave a virtuoso display as the Soviets were vanquished 2-0.
Once in the team, Pele made it impossible for him to be removed. A winning goal in the quarter-final against Wales and a hat-trick in the 5-2 semi-final victory over France were followed by two more in the final over Sweden.
Still only 17, Pele had become the youngest World Cup winner in history. The next two tournaments were to be unhappy experiences however.
Twenty-one by the time of the 1962 World Cup in Chile, an older, stronger Pele had been expected to take the tournament by storm.
He gave a tantalising glimpse of what he was capable of with an electric individual goal against Mexico in Brazil’s opening 2-0 win.
But he aggravated an existing injury in the second game, against the Czechs, and was forced to sit out the remainder of the tournament as his countrymen successfully defended their title.
Pele’s frustration that injury had limited his appearances in Chile were nothing compared to the sickening disappointment of England in 1966 where, unprotected by referees, he was literally kicked out of the tournament.
Brutally assaulted by Bulgaria’s defence in the first game to the extent that he was forced to miss the second match, the nadir came against Portugal.
Two crippling challenges by Morais left a tearful Pele being carried from the Goodison Park pitch swearing never to play in a World Cup again.
"I don’t want to finish my life as an invalid," he said.
Thankfully, Pele’s disconsolate vow was to prove an empty threat. He returned four years later in Mexico to spearhead what is regarded to be the greatest team of all time.
Where 1966 had been viewed as a victory for cynicism, the 1970 tournament, and Pele and Brazil’s winning contribution to it, have become synonymous with the beautiful game.
It is a testament to the quality of Pele’s play in Mexico that he is remembered for the goals he didn’t score as much as for the ones he did.
An outrageous attempt to lob Czechoslovakia’s goalkeeper from inside his own half, and a magical dummy against Uruguay in the semi-finals are among the finest moments of World Cup history.
Though he was to continue playing club football for his beloved Santos and later the New York Cosmos, Pele retired from international duty in 1971 making an emotional farewell in front of 180,000 fans at the Maracana Stadium.
"Pele was the most complete player I’ve ever seen," England’s Bobby Moore recalled later. "He had everything."