World Cup Legends #2: Pelé

Continuing our series on World Cup legends, the Brazilian they called The King was less a footballer and more an artist, whose skills made him a global brand

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Even though Pelé scored more career goals than any other footballer, his most memorable World Cup moments were his misses.

In the first minute of his first appearance in the tournament, against the USSR in 1958, he hit the bar – announcing to the world that even though he was only 17, the youngest player in the tournament, he was destined to be its star.

Brazil’s joyful, attacking style of play eventually led them to the 1958 title, and captured the hearts of football fans everywhere.

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Thus began the country’s first period of international dominance, when the Seleção won three World Cups in 12 years.

Pelé was the team’s talisman, ambassador and icon – a personification of what was best not just in Brazilian football, but in all of football.

In 1970, his final World Cup, again it was Pelé’s misses that we remember. The audacious chip from the halfway line in the opening game against Czechoslovakia.

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The mesmerizing dummy in the semi final against Uruguay. It doesn’t matter that the ball went narrowly wide in both cases.

His playfulness and creativity were intoxicating. Pelé was an artist, whose vision of the game and technical skills enabled him to rise above his peers.

Hence his nickname, The King. As a player, Pelé had it all. Small but with an athlete’s perfect physique, he could shoot with both feet, use his head, dribble, pass and defend.

He was even a good goalkeeper, despite his size, and was the reserve keeper for Santos, his club side, for whom he played in goal four times.

Pelé also had timing – not just on the pitch but also in the sweep of history. The 1970 World Cup may have been his swansong, yet it was also the first World Cup to be broadcast in colour.

Football as a televised spectacle was born with Pelé and his golden-shirted teammates.

They provided an indelible first impression – a glamour and romanticism that no subsequent team has attained.

Pelé’s legend is also enhanced by his name, a nickname of disputed origin, that sounds like it was an international brand name thought up to be pronounceable in all languages.

It is both child-like and an intimidating nom de guerre. A brand name it did become.

Pelé was one of the first footballers to use sporting fame as a commercial launching pad: he registered his name as a trademark, sponsored products and invested in business ventures.

In the Seventies, a survey showed his was the second most recognised brand name in Europe after Coca-Cola. Pelé had talent; he also worked hard.

Despite being the most famous footballer in history, he never went off the rails. In retirement he has never stopped.

He advertises many products – some would say too many – and spends his life semi-permanently on tour.

It helps that he has aged well. Well into his seventies now, he still looks like the 17-year-old who dazzled the world in 1958.

Even though he stopped playing almost 40 years ago, his face remains one of the most widely recognized in world sport.

The June issue of Esquire, starring Bobby Moore, Pele, Diego Maradona, Johann Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Zinedine Zidane is available to buy now from all (most / some) good newsagents and as a digital edition.

More Sport:

17 Reasons England Will Definitely Win The World Cup
Why Do Brazil's Best Footballers All Leave?
England's 8 Most Heart-Breaking World Cup Moments

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