January 3, 2023
Melinda Head

King Pelé

Football (aka Soccer) Icon

Although he was just 5’8” tall, Pelé was a giant of a man who transformed the sport of football. As North America prepares for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, let us understand what this pioneer accomplished as he paved the way for football (soccer) to become the sport we know today.

Interestingly, his real name was Edson, named after Thomas Edison, but misspelled in a far-off country along the way. Edison was an American known for inventing the incandescent light bulb, whose original surname, Edeson, was also misspelled. Imagine that: from Edeson to Edison to Edson! One can arguably say that Pelé (Edson) turned the football lights on.

Since his death last week, the world has been ablaze with stories about Pelé. In a nutshell:

  • He came from very humble beginnings, blessed with a football dad who turned him onto the sport and developed his incredible natural abilities. At the time, a career in football meant a life of poverty. There was no money in it.
  • Pelé made his professional debut at age 16, and was selected to represent Brazil just 1 year later at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, during which Brazil won its first World Cup, with Pelé landing 2 of the team’s 5 winning goals.
  • He is the only player to have won the FIFA World Cup 3 times – the first while still a teenager (age 17).
  • No one has scored as many goals as Pelé: 1,279 in 1,363 games for both club and country.
  • He came out of retirement at age 34 to play for the N.Y. Cosmos on “a crusade to popularize soccer” in the U.S., reportedly drawing a record audience of 10 million people to watch his debut game against the Dallas Tornado.
  • Pelé is credited by many with paving the way for the U.S. to host the 1994 World Cup. The U.S. will co-host the World Cup with Canada and Mexico in 2026.
  • In 2000 Pelé was named FIFA Player of the Century and Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee.
  • His accomplishments cemented him as a black superstar, both globally and in Brazil, which continued to suffer from deeply rooted racism. Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery, just 52 years before Pele’s birth in 1940.
  • His humble beginnings were never forgotten. Pelé devoted many of his philanthropic activities to children living in poverty, and never accepted sponsorship from brands that could be harmful to young people.

“Pelé was one of the greatest to ever play the beautiful game. And as one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, he understood the power of sports to bring people together.” (Former U.S. President Barack Obama)

“For a sport that brings the world together like no other, Pelé's rise from humble beginnings to soccer legend is a story of what is possible.” (U.S. President Joe Biden)

Pelé was a pioneer in the sport of football (aka soccer), to which we are all forever

If you’d like to learn more about this Brazilian icon, watch these two films about him:

The 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup concluded with an Argentinian victory just a few weeks ago. The next big event will be the FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted by Australia and New Zealand this summer (July 20-August 20, 2023). Since this event began, the U.S. Women’s soccer team has won 4 out of 9 World Cup titles. That’s more than reason enough to show them our support.

There’s so much more to women’s soccer than sports bra media.

In 1999, American soccer player Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty kick in the Women’s World Cup match against China at California’s Rose Bowl Stadium … and removed her shirt. The image quickly became iconic

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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