Twenty-one years of professional soccer, three World Cup wins, and more than 1,200 goals, including 77 for his country, Brazil. Edson Arantes do Nascimento – better known as Pelé, possibly the greatest athlete to have ever played the world’s most popular game – has died at age 82 in Sao Paulo. He was suffering from advanced colon cancer.
Pelé scored his first club goal in his first club match as a substitute at age 16. By 17, he was scoring on the international stage and lifting his first World Cup for Brazil, having scored two goals in the final in a historic 5-2 win over Sweden. That was in 1958. He would repeat the feat and bring home the World Cup again in 1962 and 1970, a record that remains unbroken today.
An international ambassador for his country and the sport, Pelé helped popularize the game in the US with a stint at the New York Cosmos in 1975. But as his golden era overlapped with a brutal military dictatorship back home, the attacking soccer star chose not to speak out against dictator Emilio Garrastazu Médici, who had seized power in 1969, suspending freedoms and conducting torture of political opponents. Médici needed a cultural icon – a face to attach to his nationalist propaganda, and Pelé provided it. In 1970, he didn’t just deliver the World Cup in Mexico, but he also turned up in Brasilia and posed next to the dictator with it, making the notoriously anti-democratic comment: "Brazilians don't know how to vote." He also never uttered a word about the thousands of political prisoners of the regime.
Post-retirement, he stayed involved politically: Pelé’s last political stint as a sports minister in the 1990s ended amid allegations against his company. Business and media savvy to the end, his continuing deals and endorsements afforded him a level of wealth that contrasted with the poverty of his childhood, when he resorted to playing soccer with grapefruits, rather than balls. The “Rei do Futebol” (King of Football), as the locals called him, will be buried in Santos, the coastal city where he played most of his soccer.