From spearheading the ”beautiful game” to helping Brazil win three World Cup titles, Pele embodied greatness in his sport.
The incarnation of the country’s style and elegance on the field, Pele began enchanting Brazilian fans as a teenager.
He helped the Selecao lift the World Cup trophy for the first time in 1958, when he was only 17. He excelled for years and years – and by the time Pele stopped playing in the late 1970s, he had become the standard against which every top Brazilian player has been measured.
No players have gotten close to replicating Pele’s success with the national team.
There have been many great players wearing the yellow jersey over the years – from Garrincha to Didi to Zico to Romario to Ronaldo to Ronaldinho to Neymar – but none quite lived up to Pele.
He is the only player to have won three World Cups, and remains Brazil’s all-time top scorer with 95 goals, 77 if counting only official matches against other national teams. The closest Brazilian goalscorer to Pele is Neymar with 75 goals, followed by Ronaldo with 62.
Pele played 114 matches with the national team and 92 of them were full international matches. He played in 14 World Cup games, scoring 12 goals, including in the finals in 1958 and 1970.
Pele started as a reserve in 1958 but became a key part for the team that won the final against Sweden. His first goal in that game, in which he lobbed the ball over the head of a defender and then raced around him to volley it home, was voted as one of the best in World Cup history. He scored six goals overall in the tournament.
In 1962, Pele scored in a 2-0 victory in the opening match against Mexico, but injured his left thigh in the second match against Czechoslovakia and missed the rest of the tournament that Brazil eventually won.
The 1966 World Cup in England – won by the hosts – was a bitter for Pele, who by then was already recognized as one of the world’s top players.
Pele scored in the first game, a 2-0 victory over Bulgaria, but missed the second match – a loss to Hungary – because of an injury. He returned for the third match but was slowed by fouling and hard tackles in a loss to Portugal. Brazil was knocked out in the group stage and Pele, angry at the rough treatment on the pitch, swore it would be his last World Cup.
He changed his mind and was rejuvenated in the 1970 World Cup, scoring four times, including the opening goal in the final against Italy.
Pele’s last match in Brazil’s jersey was a friendly against the former Yugoslavia in 1971. He played the first half of the 2-2 draw at Maracana Stadium and couldn’t hold back tears as he went for a final victory lap with 140,000 fans pleading for him to keep playing.
A ”thank you” message was played for Pele through the stadium’s loudspeakers, and a huge banner was unfurled above the stadium with the words ”Long Live the King.”
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