Pelé: Athlete of the Century

Discover the story of the three-time World Cup winner who made history in Brazilian and world soccer.

Pelé comemora o bicampeonato paulista após vitória do Santos sobre o Juventus (1965-11-27)Folha de S.Paulo

Named Athlete of the Century by the international media and various sporting bodies, former soccer player Edson Arantes do Nascimento—or Pelé as he is more commonly known—is considered the most famous Brazilian in the world.

Among the former player's awards are the Cross of the Order of the Hungarian Republic, France's Knight of the Legion of Honor, and the Knight Order of the British Empire, which he received from Queen Elizabeth II herself at a ceremony in the UK.

Pelé (1962)Folha de S.Paulo

The boy from Três Corações

Dico, as he was known by his family, was born on October 23, 1940, in the town of Três Corações (Minas Gerais State).

He was the eldest child of Celeste Arantes do Nascimento and João Ramos do Nascimento (1917–96)—himself a soccer player nicknamed Dondinho. Pelé had a brother, former soccer player Jair Arantes do Nascimento (1942–2020), and a sister, Maria Lúcia, who was the baby of the family.

Pelé (1960)Folha de S.Paulo

Pelé's early years were spent not only in Três Corações, but also in the rural town of Lorena (São Paulo State) and São Lourenço (Minas Gerais State), where his father played as a center forward for local clubs Esporte Clube Hepacaré and Vasco da Gama de São Lourenço, respectively.

When he was 4, his family moved again—this time to Bauru, another rural town in São Paulo State, where his father would play for Bauru Atlético Clube. As well as being an excellent header of the ball, Dondinho was considered one of the best center forwards in southern Minas Gerais.

Pelé (1958-11-11)Folha de S.Paulo

The shoeshine boy

An early awareness of poverty meant that, even as a small boy, Pelé did odd jobs to contribute to the family income, whether that was shining shoes or selling peanuts.

Pelé and Bilé

According to friends of the former striker, he became known as Pelé because he struggled to pronounce the name of one of his heroes—Bilé, who played in goal for Vasco da Gama de São Lourenço. In interviews, however, Pelé has said that he does not know exactly where his nickname came from.

Pelé (1958)Folha de S.Paulo

An outstanding player in street soccer games in Bauru in the 1950s, Pelé progressed through the junior teams at various clubs, namely Vai Quem Quer, Canto do Sete de Setembro, Ameriquinha, Radium, Noroeste, and Baquinho, the feeder club for Bauru Atlético Clube.

At the age of 13, he was the star player in the 1954 Bauruense League championship when his team, Baquinho, were crowned champions. According to interviews with Pelé himself, that season was the first time he wore cleats.

Pelé entre os dirigentes do Santos (1958-12-07)Folha de S.Paulo

Santos FC

“Youngster Pelé Is Off to Santos” was the story that a Bauru newspaper ran about the star's move to Santos Soccer Club, based at the Vila Belmiro Stadium.

In the photo, Santos directors Athiê Jorge Coury and Modesto Roma hug Pelé after the team's 6-1 win over Corinthians in the 1958 Paulista Championship.

Pelé posa para foto com a equipe do Santos (1958)Folha de S.Paulo

Pelé’s Santos story began on July 22, 1956, when Waldemar de Brito—the then Baquinho manager who had played as a center forward for Brazil at the 1934 World Cup—brought him in to play for the club.

Pelé’s brilliance on the soccer field led to him being called up to the first team before he even turned 16. In his first game as a professional, a friendly against Corinthians de Santo André on September 7, Santos thrashed their rivals 7-1.

Pelé (1958)Folha de S.Paulo

1958 Paulista champions

Pelé is hugged by Paulo Machado de Carvalho—the businessman who headed the Brazilian delegation at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups—after thrashing Guarani FC 7-1 in Campinas (São Paulo State) to win the Paulista Championship for the first time.

Scoring four of his team’s seven goals in the final made Pelé the league’s top goal scorer. His 58 goals in a single season have never been beaten, and this was the beginning of an era that would shape Santos FC and Brazilian soccer forever.

Pelé (1962-09-19)Folha de S.Paulo

In a survey by the Argentinian sports magazine El Gráfico in the 1960s, Santos were named the best team of all time. With their stars Pepe, Coutinho, Dorval, Mengálvio, and Pelé forming a famous and much-feared attack, that era is still the most successful in the club’s history.

1963

The 1963 season was another glorious one for Pelé and Santos, with the club winning the Rio-São Paulo Tournament, becoming Brazilian champions for the third time, and winning both the South American Libertadores Cup and the Intercontinental Cup for the second time.

Pelé durante partida entre Santos e Esporte Clube Bahia (1969-11-17) by Antônio PirozzelliFolha de S.Paulo

The 1,000th goal

On Wednesday November 19, 1969, there was a party atmosphere among the 65,000 spectators in Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã Stadium for the match between Vasco da Gama and Santos. Journalists from all around the world were there when Pelé, at the age of 29, scored the long-awaited 1,000th goal of his career after the home side's center half, Fernando Silva, gave away a penalty.

The teams were competing in the Roberto Gomes Pedrosa Tournament and Santos came from a goal down to beat their Rio rivals 2-1.

Pelé (1974-10-02)Folha de S.Paulo

Farewell to Santos

On October 2, 1974, Pelé played his last game in a Santos shirt in the match against Ponte Preta. Santos won the game 2-0, but Pelé only played the first 21 minutes. Clearly moved, Pelé did a lap of honor of the ground where he had become a legend.

During his 18 years at Santos, he scored 1,091 goals in 1,116 games. Some of his greatest achievements at the club included winning both the South American Libertadores Cup and the Intercontinental Cup twice, the Rio-São Paulo Tournament four times, the Brazilian Championship six times, and the Paulista Championship 10 times.

Pelé com uniforme de treino da seleção brasileira (1974)Folha de S.Paulo

Cosmos

In June 1975, a year after leaving Santos, Pelé signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the New York Cosmos, a North American club that was looking to expand soccer in the US.

During a visit back to Brazil later in 1975, Pelé once again put on a Santos shirt for an exhibition game in Salvador against Bahia, in the Governor Roberto Santos Tournament, also known as the Hunger Tournament (Torneio da Fome). The match ended in a 1-1 draw.

Pelé no estádio do Santos (1990-10-23) by Sérgio TomisakiFolha de S.Paulo

His final farewell

Pelé played his last competitive match on August 28, 1977, when he helped Cosmos to a 2-1 win over Seattle Sounders in the North American League. But the star’s real farewell was in a friendly between Cosmos and Santos on October 1 in New York.

During the match, which ended in a 2-1 Cosmos win, Pelé wore both teams' shirts. It was his way of honoring the club that made him a sports legend.

Pelé (1958)Folha de S.Paulo

Playing for Brazil

In 1957, Pelé was just 16 when he was called on by the manager of Brazil's national team, Vicente Feola. That same year, he won his first international trophy, the Rocca Cup—a friendly between Brazil and Argentina.

He won the World Cup in 1958 (Sweden), 1962 (Chile), and 1970 (Mexico), making him the only player to win the trophy three times. Across all the tournaments he played in for the national side, he scored 77 goals in 113 matches.

Folha TV

In an exclusive interview with Folha TV, Pelé talks about playing in the World Cup

Pelé (1958-06-19)Folha de S.Paulo

Sweden, 1958

Pelé’s first appearance in the World Cup came in a 2-0 win over the former Soviet Union on June 15, 1958. His first goal in the tournament, however, was the only goal in the match against Wales. In the final against Sweden, Pelé scored twice in Brazil’s 5-2 defeat of the host nation.

Pelé comemora a vitória na Copa do Mundo do Chile (1962-06-17)Folha de S.Paulo

Chile, 1962

In the 1962 World Cup in Chile, an injury Pelé sustained in the match against the former Czechoslovakia put an end to his participation in the tournament. Four years later, at the 1966 World Cup in the UK, Brazil went out in the group stages following a 3-1 defeat to Portugal.

Pelé ergue a Taça Jules Rimet ao lado do presidente da República Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1970-06-23) by Roberto StuckertFolha de S.Paulo

Mexico, 1970

The Brazilian team started their 1970 World Cup in Mexico—which would be Pelé’s last—by beating the former Czechoslovakia 4-1 on June 3, 1970.

On June 21, Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in the final, becoming the first team to win the World Cup three times. The best soccer player of all time was saying goodbye to the best soccer tournament in the world.

The last goal and the last game


On July 11, 1971, Pelé played his penultimate game for the national side in a friendly against Austria at São Paulo’s Morumbi Stadium. The match ended in a 1-1 draw and the King of Soccer was treated like royalty after what would be his last goal in the famous yellow shirt.


One week later, on July 18, Pelé put on a Brazilian shirt for the last time for a friendly between Brazil and the former Yugoslavia at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium. The match ended 2-2 with goals from Gérson and Rivellino.

Pelé e família (1972)Folha de S.Paulo

Family

Pelé’s first marriage was to Rosemeri Cholbi in 1966. The couple would go on to have three children: Kelly Cristina, Edinho (the former Santos goalkeeper), and Jennifer, who was born in 1978—the year her parents separated. Pelé also had two other daughters from other relationships: Flávia Kurtz and Sandra Regina, who died in 2006.

In 1994, he had twins, Celeste and Joshua, with his second wife, psychologist Assíria Lemos. Pelé lived with his third wife, businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki until his death on December 29, 2022.

Pelé atuando com a camisa do Santos (1966) by Aroldo Chiorino/FolhapressFolha de S.Paulo

Pelé

Pelé atuando em jogo-treino entre Brasil e Escócia, em Hampden Park, para a Copa da Inglaterra, em 1966.

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