Pelé, Brazilian soccer legend who won three World Cups, dies at 82

Pelé, Brazilian soccer legend and record-holding winner of three World Cups, has died. He was 82.

The footballer's agent, Joe Fraga, confirmed his passing to the Associated Press. Pelé died Thursday as a result of multiple organ failure from complications from colon cancer. He was first diagnosed with cancer in Sept. 2021 and had been undergoing treatment for the disease since.

Considered one of soccer's greatest players, Pelé helped to popularize the game, particularly in the United States, during his banner years in the 1960s and 70s. He was the only soccer player ever to compete in four World Cups and to win three (in 1958, 1962, and 1970).

Known for his athleticism, grace, and flashy style that observers compared to the samba, a Brazilian style of dance, he revolutionized soccer. Dubbed "the King," Pelé is one of the few sports figures held in near-universal reverence for his accomplishments and contributions to the sport.

"Instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries," the artist Andy Warhol once said of Pelé, referencing his own quip about fame.


Bettmann Archive/Getty Images Soccer legend Pelé

Pelé made his debut on the world stage when he was only 17 years old, playing at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the youngest player ever at the tournament. He scored two goals in Brazil's decisive 5-2 victory over Sweden in the final, and he was carried off the field on his teammates' shoulders.

His most notable victory came in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where he scored in the final and also set up his teammate with a pass to clench their 4-1 victory over Italy.

Pelé was so renowned that he provoked a 48-hour ceasefire in the 1967 Nigerian Civil War so that both sides of the conflict could watch him play when he visited the African country. In 1997, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Visiting Washington D.C. in the 1980s, Pelé prompted the President to say, "My name is Ronald Reagan, I'm the President of the United States of America. But you don't need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pelé is."

After his historic run on the Brazilian National team, he joined the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League in 1975.

Pelé was also a prominent media figure, channeling his athletic success into movie roles. Most notably, he appeared in 1981's Escape to Victory, a film that chronicled a World War II-era soccer game between Allied prisoners of war and a German team. He starred alongside Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.

He also starred in a 1969 telenovela, Os Estranhos, about establishing first contact with aliens. He co-starred in Hotshot, a 1987 movie about an American soccer player who seeks his advice. 2001's satirical Mike Bassett: England Manager featured a Pelé cameo.

He was also the subject of documentaries, most notably 2016's Pelé: Birth of a Legend, a look at his childhood produced by Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment. Most recently, the 2021 Netflix documentary Pelé looked at his life from 1958-70, as he transformed from a young soccer phenomenon to a national hero.

Also an accomplished musician, he composed music, including the soundtrack for 1977's Pelé, and recorded albums of popular Brazilian music. He also penned several autobiographies, including 1977's My Life and the Beautiful Game, which helped associate the phrase "the beautiful game" with soccer from that point on.

After his time as a professional soccer player, he served as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. In 1995, he was appointed the Brazilian Extraordinary Minister to Sport. During his time in the post, he proposed legislation with the aim of reducing corruption in Brazilian soccer.

His rewards and honors were many, including being named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 and earning a spot on the Time list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

In 2000, Pelé was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) and was one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the Century.

Pelé was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Tres Coracoes, Brazil on Oct. 23, 1940. Born into relative poverty, he grew up kicking balls of rags and shining shoes to purchase soccer gear.

He started playing for the Brazilian national team when he was only 16 years old. Outside of his international play, he also was on Santos FC, a Brazilian professional club. He became the top scorer in the league in his first year of play with the team. He played for Santos over the course of three decades, until his semi-retirement in 1972.

In 1961, the Brazilian government declared him an "official national treasure" to prevent him from being transferred out of the country to a European football team.

Despite being past his prime, Pelé helped increase soccer's profile in North America when he joined the Cosmos in 1975. He even led the Cosmos to the 1977 league title. He played his final match on on Oct. 1, 1977, in an exhibition game between the Cosmos and Santos, playing half of the game with each team.

Pelé is survived by seven children, including five from his first two marriages, to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. In 2016, he married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki and they remained together until his death.

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