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Pele, king of the beauty game

hE was just a kid at the time, only 17 years old. Yet in the 1958 World Cup final, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (better known by his nickname Pele) displayed the poise and virtuosity that were the hallmarks of his career . With Brazil leading hosts Sweden 2-1, he received a high pass inside the box. With a defender on his shoulders, he controlled the ball with his chest, took one step, nonchalantly rounded the ball around another, and ran to meet it with an unstoppable volley into the net. He scored a total of six goals in four games in that tournament. It was the first of three World Cups he won, more than any other player. It could have been four, but he and Brazil were kicked out by a brutal defense by Bulgaria and Portugal in 1966 for not being given enough referee protection.

Three Argentines – Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Armando Maradona and Lionel Messi – all claim to be the best footballers in the world. But the greatest player, according to many of the savviest football analysts and many former players, was Pele, who died at the age of 82 in a Sao Paulo hospital after a long battle with cancer. Among other things, his 1,279 goals in 1,363 games is a world record unlikely to be surpassed. He’s a complete player, a team player who often provides killer passes for others. “He was the greatest because he could do everything in football,” said England captain Bobby Moore, who lost to him in the 1970 World Cup.

Edson was born into poverty in a small town in the southwestern state of Minas Gerais. His father was a promising professional football player in an era when their salaries were low and his career was prematurely ended by injuries. The father then devoted himself to training his son, using old socks, grapefruits or rags as balls. Ederson was snapped up by professional club Santos at the age of 15. Largely because of him, they became the best team in the world in the early 1960s, winning the Intercontinental Cup twice and beating European club champions.

Brazilian playwright and journalist Nelson Rodrigues saw Pele play for Santos when he was 17. “Pele has a considerable advantage over other players,” he wrote. “He felt like a king from head to toe.” The nickname stuck. Pele will be unofficially crowned king of the sport, in no small part because of him, dubbed “the beautiful game”. In addition to his skills, Rodriguez also found Bailey’s extraordinary self-confidence. He believed that the young man would spread this to the national team with an inferiority complex, so he managed to get Pele selected for the national team going to Sweden.

At 5-foot-8 (1.73 meters), Bailey wasn’t particularly tall, but he was strong and quick. His greatest strengths are his superb positional sense, instinctive ability to read the game and excellent ball control. He’s usually in the right place at the right time. He anticipated the opponent’s move. He’s a skilled ball-handler who confuses defenders with fakes and sudden stops and starts. His shots with both feet are powerful, sometimes arcing, and despite his height, he has a bouncy header. Italian defender Tarcisio Bergnich, who manned Pele in the 1970 World Cup final, said: “I told myself before the game that he was skinny like everyone else, but I was wrong.” Pele overtakes him Scored the first goal.

European clubs sought him out, but Santos and the Brazilian government refused to let him go. He played as a global business before the era of football: Half his career was in black and white, and it took the Brazilian a month to see his exploits in Sweden on film newsreels. In today’s game, he will be a billionaire. In fact, he’s shown a keen eye for money in off-court deals. At 34, he made a comeback to help launch “football” in America, joining the New York Cosmos. He is a global football ambassador.

But Pele never lost touch with Brazil. He refused to have much to do with the 1964-85 military dictatorship. But when Democratic President Fernando Henrique Cardoso asked him to be sports minister in 1994, he accepted. He tried out a law to clean up Brazilian club football but was emasculated in Congress, where a powerful lobby defended corrupt vested interests.

Pele was always an athlete and a gentleman on the court, but he was less disciplined in his private life. He was married three times and had at least seven children. His refusal to acknowledge a daughter born of an affair was considered indecent by many. The son went to jail for money laundering.

Bailey’s great-grandparents were slaves. He was never an activist, just by being himself, he was the embodiment of black dignity. Along with Muhammad Ali, he is the first black global superstar. Nelson Mandela said of him: “Watching him play was like seeing the joy of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man.” That’s how he should be remembered.

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