Due to the battle with cancer in which he was engaged, it was not a great surprise when the news arrived that Pelé had died. Despite that knowledge, however, the announcement came as a tremendous blow to many people around the world.
He had lived a public life and played the game of soccer so well that he was not just the King of Soccer, he was the face of it and, in a sense, the country of Brazil as well. People who knew very little about soccer knew that he was from Brazil; people who knew very little geography knew that he was a soccer star. Now, 82 years after his birth in Tres Coracoes, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé) has died.
The name Pelé was recognized virtually everywhere. He was to the soccer world, which is the entire globe, what Muhammad Ali was to boxing, what Willie Mays was to baseball, and what Bill Russell was to basketball. He was that and more since he was head and shoulders above the other memorable soccer players than Ali was above other boxers, than Mays was above other baseball players, or Russell was above other basketball players. He had no rivals or claimants to the title, no matter how good Diego Maradona was or how good Lionel Messi is, it is Pelé who is king forever.
It is easy to check the statistics and see that over his career, Pelé scored 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, a Guinness World Record. He helped his team win three World Cups – 1958, 1962, and 1970 – which has not been duplicated since. At the age of 17, he was the youngest player to score a goal in a World Cup match. He had become the leading scorer on the Brazilian national team a year earlier. He is the only soccer player to score a hat trick – three goals – in a World Cup match. Although he was most noted for scoring as a striker, he holds records for most assists in a World Cup match, three in 1958; most assists in a World Cup tournament, six in 1970; and most assists in World Cup competition, 10 from 1958 – 1970. He was voted Athlete of the Century, World Player of the Century, and joint winner of the title of FIFA Player of the Century. The records and recognitions go on and on in national and international competition, on his Brazilian team, Santos, the Brazilian national team, the New York Cosmos team, and with various exhibition teams.
What the record books do not capture is how naturally fluent and adept he was in shooting with either foot. That is a skill that is often practiced by many, but mastered by only a few. Most players are only accurate and powerful with one foot or the other, not both. He is also the rare player who is noted for the accuracy of his/her passing, the speed and maneuverability of his/her dribbling, and the deadliness of his/her shooting, as was Pelé. He was a most complete player, one who understood and had mastered the whole game at an early age. (Many young players even today are fascinated by his famous bicycle score in the World Cup and try their best to imitate that flair, style, and skill.)
Another thing that the record books cannot capture is the influence that he had on the development of youth soccer in America, especially among Black youths. For example, in Jackson’s Black community, many people expressed the idea that soccer was a “white boys’ game.” There was a mixture of ridicule and resentment from many quarters as Black youth made their way into the sport. They were more commonly accepted in baseball, basketball, and football. Because of the influence of Pelé, however, Black children at what is now Barack Obama Elementary School began playing soccer during their recess periods. More than a few of them went on to become quite skilled soccer players. One group of them became so devoted and adept at the game until they won back-to-back state championships in 1990 and 1991. Other Black youths made their way into the sport as can now be seen around the country on league, national, and Olympic teams.
Again, Pelé became an international symbol and star. With his passing, he becomes enshrined in the pantheon of ancestors who will always be remembered in Brazil, around the world, and among his brothers and sisters of African ancestry.
It is fortunate that there are videos of some of his games because by retiring in 1977, many American and contemporary soccer fans would never be able to see him in action. Often the verbally related stories of the elderly, which is what would be available to them, are not accepted as completely accurate and without embellishment. The videos do not lie and can even capture some of the atmosphere of the times. If, and when, they can, soccer fans should avail themselves of videos showing Pelé in action on the field during his prime. As is the case with the rest of our ancestors, the young can and should learn about and appreciate who Pelé was and what he did for the sport and the community of which he was a part.
As we mourn his passing, it is quite fitting to say, “Long live this King of Soccer, the Black native son of Africa and Brazil, the greatest of all time. Long live the memory of Pelé.