Pele: Eye on the Ball

UPDATED: May 26, 2011
PUBLISHED: May 26, 2011

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Edson Arantes do Nascimento. You probably don’t know that he became the most famous athlete of the last century. Not in America. Not in Europe. In the world.

Little Edson grew up in relative poverty in Três Corações, Brazil. As a boy, he worked as a servant to earn extra money for his family. But by the time he was 11, people began to notice Edson was special; he could do things with his feet and a ball that people twice his age couldn’t replicate. A local football coach took an interest and began to instruct the slender kid, who usually had to practice with a makeshift ball—a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with string.

Edson eventually gained a nickname. He’s not quite sure how or why it happened possibly because he modeled himself after his favorite player, Bilé, whose name he had trouble pronouncing. Once schoolmates began using the nickname, he couldn’t shake it. Pelé was born.

Pelé, you’ve heard of. His otherworldly skills on the pitch made him the most prominent and successful footballer of all time. In his prime, he transcended borders, politics and race—a man whose mere appearance resulted in a cease-fire of the Nigerian civil war in 1967 so that both sides could see him play.

 He even captivated audiences in the United States, despite their lack of enthusiasm for his sport, and his admirers came from all walks of life. About Pelé, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told, “Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us. For those who love soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, generally known as Pelé, is a hero.”

Focus Beyond His Years

None of Pelé’s success happened by chance. As soon as he started to walk, he was playing soccer. While other kids were running around the playground, Pelé was working on his craft. By the time he was 14, he was already participating in major tournaments and would turn pro just a year later. “I was eager to help my family, and that gave me extra motivation to succeed and make my father proud of me,” Pelé tells SUCCESS. “I was ready to give up things kids my age were normally doing. Instead, I spent a lot of time practicing and improving my skills.”

At 15, Pelé’s skills had improved enough that he made the Brazilian professional team Santos. He scored his first goal during a “friendly” match. The next year, 1957, Pelé started and starred for one of the best pro teams on the planet at the tender age of 16. He led the league in scoring and was quickly named to the Brazilian national team. Not many outside South America knew him, but the world was soon put on notice that the boy who would become known as the King of Soccer had arrived.

The 1958 FIFA World Cup, held in Sweden, was Pelé’s first. At 17, he was then the youngest player to ever appear in the World Cup, and he remains the youngest to appear in a final and score a goal. And it was in the final against Sweden that Pelé proved his greatness to a worldwide audience.

In the game’s 55th minute, Pelé, draped by two defenders, took a pass off his chest, stopping the ball dead and controlling it to his right foot. He immediately popped the ball over the head of an onrushing Swedish defender, raced two yards around his mark, and kicked the ball before it landed, driving it into the net. It’s widely considered one of the greatest individual efforts in soccer history.

The 1958 win would be the first of three World Cup titles for Pelé, the only player to ever achieve the feat. His other accolades could fill pages. He led his league in scoring 11 times; he won 32 official team trophies (the most ever); he was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee; and Time magazine named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

Love What You Do

A lot of what Pelé could do simply can’t be taught. His inherent ball skills and quickness are the stuff of legend. But Pelé believes there’s no secret formula to being successful in any arena; you don’t need to possess physical or mental tools no one can compete with.

“I always took care of myself,” he says. “Preparation doesn’t start a day or week before the game or event.”

Beyond just preparing to obtain your goals, Pelé believes it’s critical to find a niche that lights a fire inside you and to share that interest with others. “Love what you do,” he says. “That passion will give you the strength, discipline, the desire to work hard and the humility to understand you can always improve. Soccer is a sport that you can’t win without the rest of your team. You cannot win a tournament without a good strategy, discipline and perseverance. Apply that in your life, and you will become a winner.”

After initially retiring from professional play in 1974, he still had one goal he hadn’t yet netted: “The idea was to establish soccer in America. I had left my professional career, but I decided to come back for that great challenge. America is such a great country and should be part of the most-loved game in the world.”

In 1975, he signed with the New York Cosmos of the fledgling North American Soccer League. In 1977, he led the team to the league title and closed out his career with an exhibition match between the Cosmos and his longtime club Santos. He played a half for each team and (of course) scored a goal.

Today, Pelé lends his name to soccer-related gear and other goods, but that’s hardly his focus. “When I started playing professionally, it was important to me to be very good and succeed,” Pelé recalls. “Now that I’m no longer an athlete, I want to make sure I’m giving back to my friends all over the world; I want them to have an opportunity to live in a better place and have opportunities in life.”

What Success Requires

In 1992, Pelé was named the United Nations ambassador for ecology and the environment. He works closely with Pequeno Principe Hospital in Curitiba, Brazil, now the largest pediatric hospital in the country and an important research hub. He’s also heavily involved in The Prince’s Rainforests Project. Prince Charles of England formed the project in 2007 to combat tropical rainforest deforestation, restore the ability to capture carbon dioxide and reduce the effects of climate change.

But setting an example for the youth of the world remains Pelé’s primary mission after soccer. “I’ve been [true] to the same values since I was a kid,” he says. “If we can teach kids from the very beginning the importance of discipline, determination, teamwork and ethics, among other things, we’ll make a great contribution.”

 In 2010, he reached out to children via his illustrated kids’ book For the Love of Soccer! The story follows Pelé as a boy striving to become a great soccer player and a young fan determined to emulate his hero. He wanted to promote his sport, but he also hoped to fill young minds with life lessons. “This book is a wonderful way to send a message to youngsters,” he says. “To achieve success, you need determination, hard work, respect for your mates and your adversaries, and, most of all, a love for what you’re doing. Not only in football, but for everything in life.”

Now 70, Pelé has no interest in slowing down. He spends time with his wife and their twin daughter and son, age 14, as well as his three grown children from a previous marriage. But it’s his passion for helping others that continues to drive him.

He has several philanthropic projects he plans to announce soon, and he continues to reach out to children all over the world, hoping to spark their interest in soccer and in being good stewards to their planet. “I believe God gave me a gift, and it is natural that I give my best in return to society,” he says. “I want to be remembered for the example I set for people and the way I represented my country. I have a wonderful life, and I thank God for it.”

Judging by his legions of adoring fans across the globe, he’s not the only one who is thankful.