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World Cup Legends

Pele: The king of Brazil

June 1, 2010
By John Brewin
(Archive)

Edson Arantes do Nascimento remains the most famous footballer on earth - more than 30 years after his retirement - and it is his World Cup achievements which have chiefly garnered that accolade. Diego Maradona may dispute that statement, and a feud with his fellow South American has long raged over who can regard himself as the best, yet Pele would argue that he got there first.

The crowning moment: Pelé celebrates winning his second World Cup final
GettyImagesThe crowning moment: Pelé celebrates winning his second World Cup final

At a time when the world was being introduced to television coverage of a tournament that was still to get into its stride, Pele and Brazil helped shape the World Cup into the greatest show on earth. Indeed, any great team must measure against those from his twin victories of 1958 and 1970.

An achievement of scoring over 1,000 career goals is amazing, but the Pele of Sweden and Mexico remain the images the world will remember him for long after he has ascended to football heaven. The first saw him arrive as an unknown teenager and depart as the most glittering star in a galaxy of samba talent. The latter saw him cement his place in history as the conductor of the most devastating attacking force that has yet played at a World Cup.

After less than two years as a professional, and at just 17, he became the youngest player to play in the finals. Santos, the club side with whom he stayed right up until his first retirement in 1972, became envied around the world as their tyro, standing at just 5' 8", revealed his array of talents. Pace was matched with power, a fierce shot married to an instinct for opportunity, while a delicacy of touch coupled with a supreme athleticism and the physique of a welterweight boxer.

On arriving in Scandinavia, he was made to wait until Brazil's third group game with the Soviet Union before being given his head, with Garrincha also being selected. He did not score, but strike partner Vava grabbed the brace that took the team through to the last eight.

It was against Wales, making their so-far only finals appearance, that Pele scored the goal he would call the most important of his career before France were swept away by a thrilling hat-trick in the semis. The final saw Brazil haul back an early lead for hosts Sweden with a four-goal salvo shared by Pele and Vava. One of the teenager's pair saw him control the ball, hook it over his shoulder in one movement and smash in an unerring volley. Six goals in three games had already sealed his place in the tournament's history.

Pelé (right) scored his first World Cup goal in the 1958 quarter-final with Wales
GettyImagesPelé (right) scored his first World Cup goal in the 1958 quarter-final with Wales

Chile in 1962 was expected to be further confirmation of supremacy, yet Pele injured his hamstring in the second match and missed out on his country's second successive World Cup win as Amarildo, known in less enlightened times as the "White Pele," took his chance and scored in the final.

Four years later, he was again struck by injury, after becoming the victim of some disgraceful tackling from Bulgaria and Hungary as Brazil shockingly crashed out in the first round. An ageing team could not cope with the strong-arm tactics they faced, but the image of a stricken Pele wrapped in a blanket by the side of the Goodison Park pitch as the decisive match turned in Portugal's favour was a harrowing sight to his legion of admirers.

Mexico 1970 is the tournament that fully cemented Pele's position at the head of World Cup legends. His experiences in England had caused him to proclaim he would never again play in a World Cup. He refused a 1969 call-up for the Selecao only to be persuaded to reconsider and declare that Mexico would be his last tournament.

There, while Carlos Alberto was granted the armband, Pele was the Brazil team's true leader. When, in the semi-final, Brazil had conceded early to Uruguay, so long their bete noire in the World Cup, it was Pele who could be seen imploring his team on to better efforts and a place in the final.

By then he had provided some of the tournament's finest moments. And they didn't even result in goals. The salmon-like header to provide Gordon Banks with save of the century, an amazing shot from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia which just missed its target and a delicious combination of feint, dribble and shot just wide of the post against Uruguay are among the World Cup football's enduring images.

Gordon Banks makes the save of the century from Pelé's downward header
GettyImagesGordon Banks makes the save of the century from Pelé's downward header

His opener in the final against Italy, an object lesson in the bullet header, made him only the second player to score in two World Cup finals. Old oppo Vava had achieved the same in 1962. The pattern of play that forever sealed Brazil '70 as team of the century owed its coupe de grace to the vision of the man who was easily first among near-equals like Gerson, Jairzinho, Rivelino and Tostao.

With the game in its dying embers, Clodoaldo weaved past tired Italian legs before the ball eventually found its way to the feet of Pele.

He retained possession and the attention of Italy's defenders before sliding the ball to his right where Carlos Alberto was cruising into a shooting position. The delicacy of Pele's pass gave the defender the perfect angle to defeat Albertosi from the edge of the box with a rocket of a shot.

Pele was soon to be carried high from the Aztec Stadium's pitch, able to take his leave of the World Cup for the final and most glorious occasion.