For us younger folks, Brazil soccer is great because that’s how it’s meant to be…we take that as a natural order of things, having grown up with the Brazilian soccer team’s successes in the World Cups of the 1990s.
But the myth of Brazilian soccer was born a lot earlier, in times when soccer started to become a worldwide “plague” and there are a lot of people who attribute this internalization of soccer to the Brazilian team of the 50s, a team that was lead to success by one of the most preeminent figures in sports, the famous soccer player Pele.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele climbed a steep mountain from living his youth in a poor Brazilian family, to becoming one of the most beloved figures in the modern history of sports. His father was a footballer himself, playing for Fluminense in the Brazilian league and it was only natural that young Pele would follow his father’s footsteps in the game.
He wasn’t always known as Pele though. Rumor has it that this nickname was given to him in primary school, as he kept misspelling the name of one of his favorite players at that time, Vasco Da Gama’s goalkeeper Bile.
His schoolmates gave him this new nickname and mostly made fun of him, so he obviously disliked it; so much that he punched the fellow classmate that coined the nicknamed. However, in time, he gradually became used to it and even started liking it and it wasn’t long before everyone knew the soccer wonderkid as Pele.
Living in poverty, he couldn’t afford soccer equipment, nor a soccer ball. He shined shoes for an extra coin that would help him and his friends stitch up a newspaper-filled sock to use as a football. He formed a team with his neighbors from the Sete de Setembro street and even participated in a youth tournament, where the team earned the nickname “the shoeless ones” because none of the kids could afford to waste their walking shoes (if any) on playing soccer.
A few years later, each member of the team worked hard for the extra money to get a proper pair of shoes and renamed their team to Ameriquinha. Participating in numerous youth tournaments with Ameriquinha, Pele made a name for himself at a tender age for his prowess in front of goal, becoming top scorer in almost all of these tournaments.
At the tender age of 15, he caught the eyes of one of the biggest teams in Brazil, FC Santos, who offered him a contract and by 16 he was already a member of the senior squad. He spent almost his entire career at Santos, since European transfers weren’t that popular back, although the final 2 years of his career were spent at New York Cosmos, before Pele finally hanged his boots.
Pele made his debut in the Brazilian soccer team in the same year he debuted at Santos’ senior squad, when he was just 16 years old. Amazingly, he was taken on to the 1958 World Cup squad, at age 17, becoming the youngest player in the competition. He even scored a crucial goal in the quarterfinals against Wales, a goal which took Brazil past that stage and into the semis.
But Pele was saving the best for the final: meeting Sweden, he scored a magnificent goal, lobbing the ball past a defender and volleying it into the net, eventually winning the final for Brazil. After the match ended, the effort and the joy bundled up and the 17-year old Pele couldn’t take it, passing out on the field and needing medical attention.
As a soccer player, Pele attended 3 more World Cups, between 1962 and 1970, winning the first and latter. He was the first player ever to score in 4 different World Cups and in 1970 he achieved a unique performance that boosted him to the heights of international soccer: he scored 1,000 official goals for club and country.
Although many dispute this record or try to bring it down, saying that soccer wasn’t as defensive or tactical back than as it is today (which is partially true), his merit of being a major stand pole on the international soccer stage between the mid 50s all the way to the late 70s should not be undermined. Named best soccer player in the World and athlete of the 20th century, Pele now acts as an ambassador for soccer and fair play.