The football legend Pelé, who died on December 29, went down in history not only as an incredible striker but also as the only man to have won the World Cup three times. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the three World Cups that would result in Fifa dubbing Pelé “the immortal”.
Pelé, the World Cup’s undisputed ambassador, was conspicuously absent from this year’s edition in Qatar. Despite battling cancer, the so-called “King of Football” had followed and commented on the latest World Cup from his hospital bed in Sao Paolo. 11 days after Argentina’s stunning victory in the final match, the legendary footballer passed away, leaving devastated fans behind.
The world will no longer be able to enjoy the debonair appearances and wise words of the “king” at the World Cup. His talent as a goalscorer — 1281 goals in 1363 matches according to a far from official count, often inflated by Pelé himself — made him a star but his wins at the World Cup (in 1958, 1962 and 1970) made him a legend, in part because the event started being televised for the first time.
In 1958, for the first time in its history, the World Cup was broadcast on television. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, for football fans across the world might have otherwise missed out on seeing the sensational 17-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento (aka Pelé) play. Injured just before the tournament was held in Sweden, the teenager for Santos FC missed Brazil‘s first two matches. Despite his young age, he was slotted as a key forward in his country’s line-up. He returned for the third game — and the rest is history.
He set a string of records, becoming the youngest player in a World Cup match and the tournament’s youngest goalscorer, marking the only goal in the quarter-final match against Wales (1-0). He followed with a hat-trick against Fontaine and Kopa’s France (5-2) in the semi-final, then a brace in the final against Sweden (5-2), stunning with his technical prowess. He then became the youngest man ever to win the World Cup.
He wept at the victory, his older teammates hoisting him triumphantly, his tears reminding the world how young he was. His teammate Gilmar told him: “Cry, my boy. It will do you good.”
1962: A bittersweet victory
Four years later, that boy was already a star. Europe tried to persuade him to join their clubs, but he remained loyal to Santos FC before joining Brazil to defend its crown as world champions in Chile. Pelé started off well, scoring against Mexico (2-0), but was injured during a first-round match against Czechoslovakia. 60 years before Neymar’s ankle injury, Brazil was gripped by the story of Pelé’s injured thigh. He didn’t play another match, and watched from the sidelines as the Seleçao was crowned champions again, thanks to four goals from Garrincha, the other Brazilian hero of the 1960s. It was a bittersweet victory, and it made him the youngest player to win two World Cups.
Pelé dreamed of a third consecutive title in England, the birthplace of football, in the 1966 World Cup. But it was not to be. The king of football and his team were butchered by Bulgarian and Portuguese tackles under the impassive eyes of the referees. Pelé was injured again and the Auriverdes were knocked out in the first round. Disgusted, the legend vowed to never wear the yellow jersey again. He kept his word for two years, until a new generation of talent emerged and his former teammate Zagallo took over the reins of the Seleçao.
Animated by a spirit of revenge, Pelé would go on to write the most beautiful page of his footballing story. He shone even more brightly as the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was broadcast in colour for the first time. A whole generation of football fans were blown away by images showcasing the king’s virtuistic skills, his lethal Brazilian madness.
The tone was set from the start. Although Pelé scored a goal in the opening match against Czechoslovakia (4-1), it was his incredible 50-metre lob over goalkeeper Viktor, which went just wide, that become the talk of the world. Such strokes of genius sometimes brought out the best in his opponents aswell. For instance, England’s goalkeeper, Banks, made the “save of the century” in the next match, following a powerful header from the Brazilian star. Pelé joked about the spectacular save for the rest of his life: “Today I scored a goal, but Banks stopped it.”
After scoring a brace against Romania (3-2), which would have been a hat-trick if not for a disallowed goal, and an easy quarter-final win against Peru (4-2), Pelé eyed Uruguay ahead. He was lit once again by the spirit of revenge. All Brazil remembered the terrible “Maracanazo” of 1950, when La Celeste robbed Brazil of its first world title, on home ground. Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues compared the trauma to Hiroshima. Pelé took it upon himself to dry the tears of his country and father, who he had seen crying the day they lost. Revenge came perfectly (Brazil won 3-1) and Pelé nearly scored a goal out of nowhere. In a moment of mad inspiration, he started running and managed to feint without even touching the ball, which nearly resulted in a cross-shot. The type of feint eventually came to be known as the “Pele feint”.
Pelé also left his mark on the final, which Brazil won 4-1 with a triumphant header goal and a brilliant blind pass, proving he was both a brillant striker and a team player. The king finally added the third jewel to his crown, the only player to lift the World Cup three times, making him “the immortal”.
This article was translated from the original in French.