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Pele is one of the greatest footballers in the history of the beautiful game

Posted in Historical articles, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

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This edited article about football originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Pele, picture, image, illustration


In 1958, the 17-year-old boy’s dark, smooth face was alight with joy and excitement as he helped his Brazilian colleagues carry a huge Swedish flag round the Stockholm soccer stadium.

They were paying tribute to the host country of that year’s World Cup finals, whose team they had just beaten 5-2 to win the world championship for the first time.

The boy among the men of that happy Brazilian band had two other reasons to celebrate, besides the gold medal clutched in his hand. He had scored two sensational goals – and he had become the youngest ever to play in a World Cup final.

Nobody knew it at the time, but he was to become the only one of that team who, 12 years later, would be dancing and prancing round the Aztec stadium in Mexico City with the golden World Cup again in Brazil’s grasp – this time for good.

Three wins in four World Cups gave Brazil permanent possession of the Jules Rimet trophy – as the first World Cup was officially called – and only one man could claim to have scored in the first and also in the fourth.

His name was still the same on the official teamsheet – Edson Arantes do Nascimento. But in 12 years he had made another name a magic word in football – Pele.

There were 112,000 football-mad fans in the vast sun-baked Mexican stadium that delirious afternoon – most of them Mexicans and Brazilians who would go on celebrating throughout the night turning Mexico City into a fiesta of drumming music, singing and samba dancing.

They had seen Pele – the king of football – crown his career with a typically scintillating display of all the arts and crafts of the game. But they had also seen the triumph of a remarkable come-back.

For few remembered – and even fewer had been there to see it – four years earlier when the great Pele had limped painfully off a rain-sodden pitch in England, his legs bruised by cruel tackles, his World Cup career apparently shattered.

The 1966 World Cup final was as much a personal disaster for Pele as it was a shattering blow to the soccer pride of a nation which had won the World Cup twice in succession and aimed to make it a straight hat-trick.

Indeed, for over two years, Pele himself was to say again and again, “I’ll never play in another World Cup.” Then his pride to re-establish himself as the world’s greatest player in the world’s greatest team overcame the anger at the hurt he had suffered – and he came back to a final glorious triumph.

Such is his skill and popularity that even this year, Brazilians moved heaven and earth to persuade the now 33-year-old “Black Pearl” to appear in yet another World Cup final. But this time he resisted even appeals by government ministers to don again the famous green and yellow jersey.

Although he was only 17, Pele had already been a professional player for two years when he made his first memorable impact on the world soccer scene in those 1958 cup finals.

Son of a Brazilian minor league player, he was spotted by a Santos club scout at 14, and brought to the Rio de Janeiro club a year later. He is still there.

In Sweden, he scored the only goal which cracked a 10-man Welsh defence to win a vital quarter-final game. Then he hit an incredible hat-trick of goals in the 5-2 slaughter of France in the semi-finals.

Another two followed in the final – and one particularly will always be remembered by those who saw it. With his back to the goal, in a packed Swedish penalty area, Pele took a pass on his thigh, flicked it over his head, turned, chested the dropping ball gently down and rammed a half-volley into the net – all in one glorious smooth movement of superb ball control and skill.

These astounding qualities and his quick thinking – he very nearly lobbed the ball into the opposing goal from the halfway line in Mexico – were to be the hallmarks of Pele at his best.

Although plagued by injury, he did not have a particularly good tournament four years later in Chile; he was the master mind and man of the team which came to England to defend its title in 1966.

But he was also a marked man. Although he took swift revenge for the first fouls on him by the Bulgarians – scoring from a free kick – he was eventually provoked into retaliation and his play gradually suffered.

Those with evil intent had almost literally found his Achilles heel. He had to miss the next game against Hungary, and then the Portuguese finished off the job.

Within half an hour, the great man had been reduced to a hobbling cripple. He was carried off for touchline attention, but Brazil, desperately needing a win to qualify from the group, had to have him back on the field.

With one leg heavily bandaged, he spent the rest of the match painfully on the left wing, his genius flickering only fitfully.

Even then, he was needled into retaliation by close and “careless” marking. And when at the end – with Brazil beaten – he limped off the field a sad figure with a raincoat thrown over his shoulders, most of the crowd in Everton’s Goodison Park stadium sympathetically applauded what they must have felt was the last exit of a great man from the World Cup scene.

But, despite his early despondency, he was not to be beaten – and his finale, four years later, was to be as great and memorable as his first appearance.

In Mexico, he played match after superb match. In Guadalajara, a header brought the “save of the century” from England’s Gordon Banks. Alan Mullery, who marked Pele that day, said afterwards: “Against him, you cram 90 years of learning into 90 minutes.”

And in the final, against Italy, it was Pele who set his team on the road to their 4-1 victory by scoring their first goal, and later made another for Jairzino.

Thus the world’s greatest attacking footballer came back to prove himself against the world’s greatest defensive team – and won.

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