Best of Brazil

Best of Brazil Extra: Rest in Peace, Pelé

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known to the world as soccer legend Pelé, died earlier today.

Pelé was synonymous, not just with Brazilian soccer, but with soccer as a whole. On Twitter soccer legends, athletes, and even world leaders are paying homage to a man who defined the sport as nobody else.

Here in Brazil, when a professional soccer player begins to make a name for himself, the comparisons to Pelé are automatic, and there is always agreement that nobody can match “the King”. And it is the greatest honor for a player to be awarded the “number ten” shirt, made famous by Pelé in his games with the Brazilian squad.

Indeed, perhaps the most poignant tribute came from Neymar Jr., who currently wears “number 10”:

Before Pelé, 10 was just a number. I’ve read this phrase somewhere, at some point in my life. But this sentence, (while) beautiful, is incomplete. I would say before Pelé football was just a sport. Pelé has changed it all.
He turned football into art, into entertainment. He gave voice to the poor, blacks and mostly, gave visibility to Brazil. Soccer and Brazil have raised their status thanks to the King! He’s gone but his magic remains. Pelé is FOREVER!!

If you are of a generation that did not experience Pelé’s greatness firsthand, here is a video that shows how some of the amazing moves of today’s soccer stars were pioneered by “the King”.

Personal note: On July 17, 1994 I arrived in Brazil for what would be a life-defining, two-year stay. The date is fixed in my mind as it was also the day Brazil became a four-time World Cup champion. Pelé was not on the squad – number ten was worn by the powerhouse Romário. It was an intense game that came down to the penalty kicks, and I watched it in the plane as it winged its way from São Paulo to Fortaleza.

The tension in the plane was palpable as each kick was made. When the final Italian kick went wide my fellow passengers went wild with ecstasy. On the screen I saw the entire Brazilian squad running out onto the field. And first among them? Pelé, of course. He loved Brazil too much not to be there.

This year, as he lay on his hospital bed fighting, and losing to, cancer, it was the hope of the nation that the current Brazilian squad would bring home one more trophy – for Pelé. That…did not happen. After the disappointing defeat, Pelé sent the following note to an inconsolable Neymar Jr.:

I saw you grow, I cheered for you every day and finally I can congratulate you for equaling my number of goals with the Brazilian national team. We both know this is so much more than a number.

Our greatest duty as athletes is to inspire. To inspire our professional colleagues of today, the next generations and, above all, to inspire everyone who loves our sport.

Unfortunately, the day is not the happiest for us, but you will always be the source of inspiration that many aspire to become. I’ve learned that the more time passes, the more our legacy grows. My record was set almost 50 years ago, and no one has been able to approach it until now. You made it, boy. This enhances the greatness of your achievement, Neymar.

However, you know, as I do, that no number is greater than the joy of representing our country. I’m 82 years old, and after all this time, I hope I’ve inspired you in some way to get this far. More than that, I hope that your achievement spreads to the millions of people who follow you to challenge what seems impossible. Your legacy is far from over. Keep inspiring us. I will continue to punch the air with happiness with every goal you score, as I have done in every game I’ve seen you on the field.

That is Pelé. Classy. Encouraging. Brazilian to the end.


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