SAO PAULO— Brazilian soccer legend, Pelé, who’s won three world cups and became the first soccer icon of the world, died in São Paulo, Brazil on Thursday, December 29, at the age of 82. 

Pelé had been undergoing medical treatment for colon cancer since September 2021. He was first hospitalized in late November at Hospitalita Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo, following a respiratory infection and complications related to colon cancer. 

Albert Einstein hospital released a statement on Wednesday, December 21 that Pele’s condition had worsened and his colon cancer had progressed. Pelé spent Christmas bed-ridden at the hospital with his family, then died on Thursday due to “kidney and cardiac dysfunctions” as a result of the cancer. 

Pelé, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Oct. 23, 1940, in the small city of Tres Coracoes, left a legacy that amassed him as one of the greatest and most celebrated athletes of all-time. In his 21-year career, Pelé won three World Cup tournaments (an unmatched record still to this day) for Brazil and 10 league titles with his Brazilian club team, Santos FC. By 34, he came out of retirement for a $1.67- million-a-year contract to join the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. He championed the Cosmos to the 1977 North American Soccer League championship title and scored 64 goals in three seasons. In his career, Pelé scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 professional matches, including 77 goals for the Brazilian national team. He brought international attention and status to Brazil and gave soccer a higher profile in North America.

Pelé playing for Brazil.

Pelé signed his first contract with a junior team when he was 14, and was later transferred to Santos FC at 15. By 16, he made his debut on the Brazilian national team in July 1957. It wasn’t until he played for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, at the age of 17, that he gained global recognition. He scored six goals throughout the tournament, three against France in the semi-final and two in the final, cementing their 5-2 victory over Sweden, and Brazil’s first World Cup win in history. It was at this moment Pelé emerged as a star for Brazil, and remained that way until his death. He continued on to eventually play in the Brazilian teams that won the World Cup in 1962 and 1970. 

Brazil’s 1958 World Cup win is also credited in debuting Brazilian style soccer to the world. Prior, most players for European teams rarely stepped out of their designated areas during play. Brazil, on the other hand, showed a different line of artistic defense: midfielders behaved like wingers, the forwards often switched sides and the outside fullbacks would sometimes join in the attack. Pelé and the Brazilian team challenged opponents like no other and inspired much of the excitement the sport provides onlookers with today. This style personified the Portuguese term “O Jogo Bonito”, or “the beautiful game,” a phrase Pelé coined in the title of his 1977 autobiography “My Life and The Beautiful Game,” and a phrase still used in soccer today. 

Pelé overhead kick.

Beyond soccer, Pelé was a bright personality, a politician – Brazil’s Extraordinary Minister for Sport – a wealthy businessman, an ambassador for UNESCO and the United Nations, and a figure of national unity for his country, who believed in the power of soccer to connect people across race, class and nationality.  

Pelé’s mastery of the beautiful game even unified and brought momentary peace to a Nigerian civil war. In 1967, when Santos arrived in Nigeria to play the Nigerian national team, the Green Eagles, at Lagos City Stadium, both warring factions decided on a 48 hour cease-fire in order to watch the game.

Following his passing, many of today’s soccer stars and celebrities took to social media to express their respect to the legend: French soccer superstar Kylian Mbappe wrote, “The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten.” Argentinian soccer great and 2022 World Cup winner, Lionel Messi posted a photo with Pelé captioned, “Rest in Peace.”

Pelé and Kylian Mbappe.
Lionel Messi and Pelé.

Brazilian footballer Neymar Jr. wrote on Instagram, “I would say before Pelé, football was just a sport. Pelé has changed it all. He turned football into art, into entertainment. Gave voice to the poor, blacks and mostly: Gave visibility to Brazil. Soccer and Brazil have raised their status thanks to the King! He’s gone but his magic remains! Pele Forever!”

“Inspiration and love marked the journey of King Pelé, who peacefully passed away today. In his journey, Edson charmed everyone with his brilliance in sport, stopped a war, performed social work around the world, and spread what he most believed to be the cure to all our problems: love,” a statement read on his Instagram account on December 29.

Instagram post by daughter, Kely Nascimento

Pelé is survived by his six children: Kely Christina Nascimento, Flávia Christina Kurtz Nascimento, Edinho, Jennifer Nascimento, Joshua and Celeste Nascimento.