Pele: Recalling the Moments That Defined His Career
“However long we live, we never forget the time when we were young.”
Pele opens his self-titled autobiography with those words, and while they are true about all athletes, indeed all people, they seem rather more appropriate when spoken by Edison Arantes do Nascimento—the Brazilian icon commonly regarded as the greatest footballer of all time.
So rarely has one so young made as much of an impact as Pele did, and it’s unlikely we’ll come across his type ever again.
A lot of that is down to circumstances.
Yes, there may be footballers who one day supplant the now-72-year-old from the sport’s individual perch—Lionel Messi certainly comes to mind—but never again will an international superstar combine the elements of fame and mystery as did Pele from the late 1950s until his 1977 retirement.
After all, anyone at any place in the world can watch Messi weave his magic week in, week out. Television and the Internet have provided that luxury. But one was in its infancy when Pele captured the international consciousness in 1958; the other hadn’t yet been invented.
Over the next few slides, we’ll have a look at the moments that defined Pele’s playing career. Two took place at the World Cup, two more at club level and another in a war zone that suddenly went quiet when the great Pele stepped off the plane.
September 7, 1956: Pele’s First Senior Match—and First Goal
“As soon as I’ve made some money, I’ll buy a house for mum.”
Pele was 15 when he spoke those words to his father, and years later he’d make good on his promise.
Needless to say, he scored in the match.
Shortly after replacing Del Vecchio in the second half, he pounced on a rebound following Pepe’s initial shot and tapped the ball into the back of the net.
It was one of the easier of the more than 1,200 he would score during his playing days.
September 30, 1962: Copa Libertadores Playoff Against Penarol
By the time Santos progressed all the way to the final of the 1962 Copa Libertadores, Pele had helped deliver three Paulista titles, the Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo and the Brazilian Serie A.
All that was left at club level was for the best player in the world to win a continental championship, and in the last of three matches against the Uruguayan giants he took it upon himself to ensure the accomplishment was realized.
Having played to a 4-4 aggregate over two legs, the two sides contested a final, championship match on neutral ground in Buenos Aires, and it was there Pele rose to the occasion,
With Santos ahead by a goal coming into the second half, he scored almost immediately after the restart (shown in the GIF) and completed his brace with a minute remaining in normal time to win the tournament.
By virtue of their win, Santos played European champions Benfica in the Intercontinental Cup and won 8-4 over two legs, with Pele scoring five goals.
June 21, 1970: World Cup Final Against Italy
Pele had to be coaxed back into the national setup ahead of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but with the then-29-year-old in the fold, Brazil were able to field perhaps the greatest team in football history.
Very much the veteran of the group, Pele nevertheless made his impact felt in Brazil`s first game in Guadalajara, where he scored the winner against Czechoslovakia just after the hour-mark. And a week later in the same stadium he enjoyed his final two-goal match for the national team in a 3-2 win against Romania.
From there, the likes of Rivelino, Tostao and Jairzinho took over for the two-time World Cup winners, and coming into the final against Italy, Pele had failed to find the back of the net in back-to-back knockout stage matches.
But then, in the 18th minute at the Azteca, he opened the scoring for Brazil—heading Rivelino's cross past Azzurri goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi.
Brazil went on to win the match 4-1, and Pele would score just four more times for the national team.
June 29, 1958: World Cup Final Against Sweden
The world got their first look at a 17-year-old prodigy named Pele on June 15, 1958, when Brazil faced the Soviet Union in Gothenburg.
Four days later, scrawny, awkward Pele scored the only goal in Brazil`s quarterfinal win against Wales, and five days after that he notched a hat-trick in a 5-2 semifinal victory over France.
On the outskirts of the squad with a knee injury to begin the tournament, the teenager was now very much part of manager Vicente Feola's first team, and he started the World Cup final against Sweden just north of Stockholm.
In the 56th minute, with Brazil leading 2-1, he scored one of the most famous goals of his career.
He describes it best:
I made it 3-1 11 minutes into the second half, after shouting to Nilton Santos to cross a long centre to me. As it came in I caught it first on my chest, then let it drop as the defender Gustavsson came at me. Flipping the ball over his head I ran round him and volleyed home the shot.
Pele would add another in the 90th minute as Brazil won their first World Cup.
January 26, 1969: Pele and Santos Visit Nigeria
In early 1969, much of Biafra was starving.
Cut off by the Niger River in the northwest, the Atlantic Ocean in the south and surrounded by the Nigerian army almost everywhere else, the region had been embroiled in a devastating civil war for two years when Pele and his Santos teammates stepped onto the tarmac in Lagos.
Although the Nigeria-Biafra war would rage on another year, a 48-hour ceasefire was declared that January because there was going to be, of all things, a soccer match.
The Santos team, which travelled around a lot in the 1960s, were aware of the civil war going on around them, but when Pele asked about the likelihood of a friendly match the club’s business manager replied, “Don’t worry. They’ll stop the war. It won’t be a problem.”
Santos ended up playing to a 2-2 draw with Lagos side Stationary Stores FC, and after the match Pele wrote, “My teammates remember seeing white flags and posters saying there would be peace just to see Pele play.”
Pele: The Autobiography was published in 2006 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.