Today is the birthday (1940) of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, universally known as Pelé, a retired Brazilian professional footballer who is often regarded as the greatest player of all time. As I have said many times before here, I dislike the term “greatest” or “best” in these contexts. What’s the yardstick? Was he better than Maradona or Messi are now? Maybe. How do you judge? I have loved to watch them all. They all do brilliant things with the ball. When I used to watch Pelé play it was as if the ball were glued to his foot. He would find openings where none existed, and strike at the goal with pinpoint accuracy, beating the keeper by inches. Amazing. In 1999, he was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS). The same year, France Football asked their former Ballon d’Or winners to choose the Football Player of the Century; they selected Pelé. In 1999, Pelé was elected Athlete of the Century by the IOC, and Time named him in their list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century. In 2013 he received the FIFA Ballon d’Or Prix d’Honneur in recognition of his career and achievements as a global icon of football.
According to the IFFHS, Pelé is the most successful league goal scorer in the world, with 541 league goals. In total Pelé scored 1281 goals in 1363 games, including unofficial friendlies and tour games, for which he was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for most career goals scored in football. During his playing days, Pelé was for a period the best-paid athlete in the world. In his native Brazil, he is hailed as a national hero for his accomplishments in football and for his vocal support of policies to improve the social conditions of the poor. In 1961, Brazilian President Jânio Quadros had Pelé declared a national treasure (although this was primarily to stop him being traded overseas). During his career, he became known as “The Black Pearl” (A Pérola Negra), “The King of Football” (O Rei do Futebol), “The King Pelé” (O Rei Pelé) or simply “The King” (O Rei).
Pelé began playing for Santos at 15 and the Brazil national football team at 16. He played on three winning Brazilian FIFA World Cup teams: 1958, 1962 and 1970, the only player ever to do so; and is the all-time leading goal scorer for Brazil with 77 goals in 91 games. At club level he is also the record goal scorer for Santos, and led them to the 1962 and 1963 Copa Libertadores. Pelé’s electrifying play and penchant for spectacular goals made him a star around the world, and his club team Santos toured internationally in order to take full advantage of his popularity. Here’s a typical compilation:
Pelé was born in Três Corações, Minas Gerais, Brazil, the son of Fluminense footballer Dondinho (born João Ramos do Nascimento) and Celeste Arantes. He was the elder of two siblings. He was named after the inventor Thomas Edison. His parents decided to remove the “i” and call him “Edson”, but there was a mistake on the birth certificate, leading many documents to show his name as “Edison”, not “Edson”, as he is called. He was originally nicknamed Dico by his family. He received the nickname “Pelé” during his school days, when it is claimed he was given it because of his pronunciation of the name of his favorite player, local Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Bilé, which he misspoke but the more he complained the more it stuck. In his autobiography, Pelé stated he had no idea what the name means, nor did his old friends. Apart from the assertion that the name is derived from that of Bilé, and that it is Hebrew for “miracle”, the word has no known meaning in Portuguese.
Pelé grew up in poverty in Bauru in the state of São Paulo. He earned extra money by working in tea shops as a servant. Taught to play by his father, he could not afford a proper football and usually played with either a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with a string or a grapefruit. He played for several amateur teams in his youth, including Sete de Setembro, Canto do Rio, São Paulinho, and Amériquinha. Pelé led Bauru Athletic Club juniors (coached by Waldemar de Brito) to three consecutive São Paulo state youth championships between 1954 and 1956. He also dominated Futebol de Salão (indoor football) competitions in the region and won several championships with local team Radium.
In 1956, de Brito took Pelé to Santos, an industrial and port city located near São Paulo, to try out for professional club Santos FC, telling the directors at Santos that the 15-year-old would be “the greatest football player in the world.” Pelé impressed Santos coach Lula during his trial at the Estádio Vila Belmiro, and he signed a professional contract with the club in June 1956. Pelé was highly promoted in the local media as a future superstar. He made his senior team debut on 7 September 1956 at the age of 15 against Corinthians Santo Andre and had an impressive performance in a 7–1 victory. Pelé scored the first of his record 1281 goals in football during the match.
When the 1957 season started, Pelé was given a starting place in the first team and, at the age of 16, became the top scorer in the league. Ten months after signing professionally, he was called up to the Brazil national team. After the 1962 World Cup, wealthy European clubs such as Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United tried to sign him, but the government of Brazil declared Pelé an “official national treasure” to prevent him from being transferred out of the country.
Pelé won his first major title with Santos in 1958 when the team won the Campeonato Paulista; Pelé finished the tournament as top scorer with 58 goals, a record that stands today. A year later, he helped the team earn their first victory in the Torneio Rio-São Paulo with a 3–0 over Vasco da Gama. However, Santos was unable to retain the Paulista title. In 1960, Pelé scored 33 goals to help his team regain the Campeonato Paulista trophy but lost out on the Rio-São Paulo tournament after finishing in 8th place. Another 47 goals from Pelé saw Santos retain the Campeonato Paulista. The club went on to win the Taça Brasil that same year, beating Bahia in the finals; Pelé finished as top scorer of the tournament with 9 goals. The victory allowed Santos to participate in the Copa Libertadores, the most prestigious club tournament in the Western hemisphere.
“I arrived hoping to stop a great man, but I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us,” said Benfica goalkeeper Costa Pereira following the loss to Santos in 1962.
Santos’s most successful club season started in 1962; the team was seeded in Group 1 alongside Cerro Porteño and Deportivo Municipal Bolivia, winning every match of their group but one (a 1–1 away tie vs Cerro), with Pelé scoring his first goal in a brace against Cerro. Santos defeated Universidad Católica in the semifinals and met defending champions Peñarol in the finals in which Pelé scored another brace in the playoff match to secure the first title for a Brazilian club. Pelé finished as the second best scorer of the competition with 4 goals. That same year, Santos defended, with success, the Campeonato Brasileiro (with 37 goals from Pelé) and the Taça Brasil (Pelé scoring four goals in the final series against Botafogo). Santos also won the 1962 Intercontinental Cup against Benfica. Wearing his iconic number 10 shirt, Pelé produced one of his best ever performances and scored a hat-trick in Lisbon, as Santos won 5–2.
As the defending champions, Santos qualified automatically to the semifinal stage of the 1963 Copa Libertadores. The ballet blanco managed to retain the title in spectacular fashion after impressive victories over Botafogo and Boca Juniors (hated Buenos Aires rivals of my team in Argentina, River). Pelé helped Santos overcome a Botafogo team that contained legends such as Garrincha and Jairzinho with an agonizing last-minute goal in the first leg of the semifinals and bring the match to 1–1. In the second leg, Pelé produced one of his best performances as a footballer with a hat-trick in the Estádio do Maracanã as Santos crushed Botafogo, 0–4, in the second leg. Appearing in their second consecutive final, Santos started the series by winning, 3–2, in the first leg and defeating the Boca Juniors of José Sanfilippo and Antonio Rattín, 1–2, in La Bombonera, with another goal from Pelé, becoming the first (and so far only) Brazilian team to lift the Copa Libertadores on Argentine soil. Pelé finished the tournament as the top scorer runner-up with 5 goals. Santos lost the Campeonato Paulista after finishing in third place but went on to win the Rio-São Paulo tournament after an impressive 0–3 win over Flamengo in the final, with Pelé scoring one. Pelé would also help Santos retain the Intercontinental Cup and the Taça Brasil.
Santos tried to defend their title again in 1964 but they were thoroughly beaten in both legs of the semifinals by Independiente. Santos won again the Campeonato Paulista, with Pelé netting 34 goals. The club also shared the Rio-São Paulo title with Botafogo and win the Taça Brasil for the fourth consecutive year. The Santistas would try to resurge in 1965 by winning, for the 9th time, the Campeonato Paulista and the Taça Brasil. In the 1965 Copa Libertadores, Santos started convincingly by winning every match of their group in the first round. In the semifinals, Santos met Peñarol in a rematch of the 1962 final. After two legendary matches, a playoff was needed to break the tie. Unlike 1962, Peñarol came out on top and eliminated Santos 2–1. Pelé would, however, finish as the top scorer of the tournament with eight goals. This proved to be the start of a decline as Santos failed to retain the Torneio Rio-São Paulo.
In 1966, Pelé and Santos also failed to retain the Taça Brasil as O Rei’s goals weren’t enough to prevent a 9–4 routing by Cruzeiro (led by Tostão) in the final series. Although Santos won the Campeonato Paulista in 1967, 1968 and 1969, Pelé became less and less a contributing factor to the Santistas now-limited success. On 19 November 1969, Pelé scored his 1000th goal in all competitions. This was a highly anticipated moment in Brazil. The goal, called popularly O Milésimo (The Thousandth), occurred in a match against Vasco da Gama, when Pelé scored from a penalty kick, at the Maracanã Stadium.
Pelé states that his most beautiful goal was scored at Rua Javari stadium on a Campeonato Paulista match against São Paulo rival Juventus on 2 August 1959. As there is no video footage of this match, Pelé asked that a computer animation be made of this specific goal. In March 1961, Pelé scored the gol de placa (goal worthy of a plaque), against Fluminense at the Maracanã. Pelé received the ball on the edge of his own penalty area, and ran the length of the field, eluding opposition players with feints, before striking the ball beyond the goalkeeper. The goal was regarded as being so spectacular that a plaque was commissioned with a dedication to “the most beautiful goal in the history of the Maracanã”.
After the 1974 season (his 19th with Santos), Pelé retired from Brazilian club football although he continued to occasionally play for Santos in official competitive matches. Two years later, he came out of semi-retirement to sign with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL) for the 1975 season. Though well past his prime at this point, Pelé is credited with significantly increasing public awareness and interest in soccer in the United States. He led the Cosmos to the 1977 NASL championship, in his third and final season with the club.
On 1 October 1977, Pelé closed out his career in an exhibition match between the Cosmos and Santos. Santos arrived in New York and New Jersey after previously defeating the Seattle Sounders, 2–0. The match was played in front of a sold out crowd at Giants Stadium and was televised in the United States on ABC’s Wide World of Sports as well as throughout the world. Pelé’s father and wife both attended the match, as well as Muhammad Ali and Bobby Moore. Pelé played the first half for the Cosmos and the second half for Santos. Pelé scored his final goal from a direct free kick, and Cosmos won 2–1.
Pelé’s first international match was a 2–1 defeat against Argentina on 7 July 1957 at the Maracanã. In that match, he scored his first goal for Brazil aged 16 years and 9 months to become the youngest player to score in International football. I have to admit that my favorite Pelé moment was watching him head a “certain” goal into the net against England in the 1970 World Cup only to have Gordon Banks make a sensational save, diving backwards to his right. Pelé had turned away yelling “gol” convinced it had gone in. Oh well!!
In that same tournament I watched Pelé try to score from his own half against Czechoslovakia by lofting a long high ball at the goal from behind the halfway line when he saw that the Czech keeper was off his goal line. Just missed. I so hoped it would go in. Oh well, again !!
Here is a recipe for the great Brazilian fish soup, moqueca (mo-ke-ka). It is traditionally made with palm oil, but since palm oil production is devastating the Third World, I use olive oil which is also used commonly.
1 ½ to 2 lbs of fillets of firm white fish such as halibut, swordfish, or cod, rinsed in cold water, pin bones removed, cut into large portions
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 tbsp lime or lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
palm oil or olive oil
1 cup chopped spring onion, or 1 medium yellow onion, chopped or sliced
¼ cup green onion greens, chopped
½ yellow and ½ red bell pepper, seeded, de-stemmed, chopped (or sliced)
2 cups chopped (or sliced) tomatoes
1 tbsp sweet paprika
pinch red pepper flakes
1 large bunch of cilantro, chopped with some set aside for garnish
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
Place the fish pieces in a bowl, add the minced garlic and lime juice so that the pieces are well coated. Sprinkle generously all over with salt and pepper. Chill for several hours, rather like a ceviche.
Coat the bottom of a Dutch oven with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and heat on medium heat. Add the chopped onion and cook a few minutes until softened. Add the bell pepper, paprika, and red pepper flakes. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Cook for a few minutes longer, until the bell pepper begins to soften. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and onion greens. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes, uncovered. Stir in the chopped cilantro.
Use a large spoon to remove about half of the vegetables. Spread the remaining vegetables over the bottom of the pan to create a bed for the fish. Arrange the fish pieces on the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Then add back the previously removed vegetables, covering the fish. Pour coconut milk over the fish and vegetables.
Bring soup to a simmer, reduce the heat, cover, and let simmer for 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Garnish with cilantro. Serve in deep bowls with rice.