Pelé, the Brazilian soccer legend, died in Sao Paulo’s Albert Einstein hospital Thursday, where he was under palliative care. The internationally beloved 82-year-old superstar, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, had been fighting colon cancer since 2021.
Regarded as the sport’s all-time greatest player by soccer’s governing body, FIFA, Pelé is the only man to have won three World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970). He was only 17 when he won the World Cup in Sweden. He trademarked one of soccer’s most exciting moves—the bicycle kick—epitomized Brazil’s joyful, graceful jogo bonito style of play, and stood alone as his national team’s all-time leading scorer until this year, when Neymar Jr. matched his record of 77 goals.
A legend in his native Brazil, Pelé played for Santos Futebol Clube (S.F.C.), a soccer team in Santos, a coastal town in Sao Paulo state. Following his success at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups, he was asked to play for European clubs such as Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus, and even signed a contract with Inter Milan. But after a revolt by Santos fans, the agreement was annulled, and Pelé stayed. He scored 643 goals during the 18 years he played for Santos, winning five national, 12 regional and three international club championships.
Pele came out of retirement to play for New York Cosmos in 1975 when he was 34 years old. He was paid $2.8 million a year for three seasons, making him the highest-paid athlete in the world at a time when there was not much money in soccer.
“He was really the first superstar. He emerged out of the black and white era into the full color in a way that celebrated football as ‘the beautiful game,’ whether he is actually the one who coined that phrase or not, jogo bonito,” David Kilpatrick, the historian of New York Cosmos and a professor of English and Sport Management at Mercy College, told Sportico. “It’s almost beside the point, because he’s synonymous with artistry and the game. He made people appreciate that sport was art. And he was an artist on a grand scale.”
Some 10 million viewers tuned into CBS’ live broadcast of Pelé’s debut with the Cosmos, a record TV audience for soccer in the United States. The Cosmos also set several soccer attendance records during his time with the club. On Aug. 14, 1977, one of his last matches drew 77,691 fans. He ended his professional career against his former club Santos in front of a sold-out Giants Stadium on Oct. 1, 1977.
His stint with the Cosmos made a profound impact on the sport in the U.S. “He didn’t just show up the play,” Kilpatrick said. “He showed up as an example, for others to learn to play. He was out there giving clinics everywhere he went. I think it’s really fair to say that he changed the landscape of America. And anytime you see a set of goals in some Midwestern town, you have to thank Pelé.”
While Pelé’s career as a soccer star was groundbreaking, he made most of his money after he retired from professional sport. He was a TV show host, an actor and musician, and endorsed multiple brands across the globe (including a Japanese anti-impotence drug and Subway sandwiches). He was Brazil’s minister of sport between 1995 and 1998 and the ambassador for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Pelé’s funeral will take place in Santos F.C.’s stadium, Vila Belmiro.
(This article has been updated with quotes from David Kilpatrick about Pele’s impact on the sport.)