'The King has passed': Brazilian football legend Pele has died aged 82

He was unquestionably one of the greatest footballers who ever lived - and, for many, he was more than just a player, as Steve Scott reports

Brazilian footballer Pele, widely regarded as the finest player the sport has ever known, has died at the age of 82.

He had undergone treatment for colon cancer since 2021 and had been hospitalised for the last month with multiple ailments.

The medical centre where he had been hospitalised said he died of multiple organ failure as a result of the cancer.

His agent Joe Fraga confirmed he died in Sao Paulo on Thursday, saying: “The king has passed.”

His daughter Kely Nascimento wrote on Instagram: “All that we are is thanks to you. We love you endlessly. Rest in peace."

Pele helped his national side to four World Cup finals and is the only player to win the tournament three times, which he did between 1958 and 1970.  

In Brazil, he was known simply as 'O Rei' - The King - and is considered a national hero.

Pelé is widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time. Credit: AP

Born in a slum of Sao Paulo in 1940, he was taught to play football by his father - also a professional footballer - at a young age.

He was named Edson Arantes do Nascimento after the American inventor of the lightblub, Thomas Edison, but quickly acquired the nickname Pele, which has no meaning in Portuguese.

Growing up in the Bauru slum of Sao Paulo, he began playing football with a grapefruit or a sock stuffed with newspaper.

He was signed by the Brazilian side Santos at the age of 15 and joined the national side a year later.

Pelé bicycle kicks the ball in September, 1968. Credit: AP

In interviews, Pele recalls the first time he ever saw his father cry when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup.

Just eight years later he would play an instrumental role in Brazil's World Cup victory in Sweden.  

Pele always maintained that he played his best football as part of the 1970 World Cup team, which he initially declined to play for because of his age.

One Italian defender, who marked Pele in the final, would later comment: "I told myself before the game, 'he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else'. But I was wrong.”

Pelé, celebrating Brazil's 1970 World Cup win against Italy, scored 77 goals in 92 matches for his national team. Credit: AP

In 1999, Pele was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and a year later he was elected Football Player of the Century by Fifa.

He is the most prolific goal scorer of all time, according to the International Federation of Football History & Statistics, which calculates that he scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 games, including unofficial friendlies and tour games.

But it was his penchant for spectacular goals gave rise to his larger-than-life status.

One goal he scored in the Maracanã Stadium in 1961, after dribbling the ball the full length of the pitch, was hailed as the "most beautiful goal in the history of the Maracanã".

Pele retired in 1977 and was to become a devoted ambassador for the sport for the rest of his life. He would go on to meet Nelson Mandela, several US presidents and two Popes.

Pele President Richard Nixon and the footballer's wife Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi in the chief executive's office in Washington, May 8, 1973. Credit: AP

The former Brazilian ambassador to the United Nations, J.B. Pinheiro, once said that Pele's career on the pitch "did more to promote world friendship and fraternity than any other ambassador anywhere".

As well as his victories on the pitch, he was widely admired for his campaigning to improve social conditions for the poor in Brazil.

Throughout his career, Pele was lauded as a player who defied logic, brought magic to the game and inspired awe wherever he went.

The American artist Andy Warhol best summed up his legacy when he said that “Pele was one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.”

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