SAO PAULO, Brazil (AFP) — Brazilian football icon Pelé, a three-time World Cup winner who transformed “the beautiful game” and is widely regarded as the greatest player of all time, died on Thursday at the age of 82.
The Albert Einstein hospital in Sao Paulo, treating Pelé, said in a statement his death after a long battle with cancer was caused by “multiple organ failure”, confirming the news from the legend’s family.
A flood of tributes instantly poured in from the football world and beyond, with messages from figures including current superstars Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, former greats such as Franz Beckenbauer, and Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who tweeted: “Thank you, Pelé.”
Brazil star Neymar said Pelé “transformed football into an art.” France’s Mbappe said his legacy “will never be forgotten”, and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo called him an “inspiration to millions”.
Argentina’s World Cup-winning Captain Messi simply wrote: “Rest in peace.”
Named athlete of the century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999, Pelé is the only footballer in history to have won three World Cups — in 1958, 1962, and 1970.
Nicknamed “O Rei” (The King), he scored more than 1,000 goals in one of the most storied careers in sport, before retiring in 1977.
He had been in increasingly fragile health, battling kidney problems and colon cancer — undergoing surgery for the latter in September 2021, followed by chemotherapy.
The city of Santos, home to the club where the legend played most of his career, declared seven days of official mourning, as fans flocked to the team’s stadium to leave flowers.
Emotional Brazilians also descended on the hospital where he died — even running 1.5 kilometres (almost a mile) to get there, in the case of Antonio Perera, 46, and his son Luis Eduardo, 12.
“He’s our greatest idol, the greatest footballer of all time,” Antonio told AFP.
As well as the outpouring from the world of football, international figures including former US President Barack Obama, Brazilian music legends Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach also paid tribute.
Born October 23, 1940, in the south-eastern city of Tres Coracoes, Edson Arantes do Nascimento — Pelé’s real name — grew up selling peanuts on the street to help his impoverished family get by.
His parents named him for American inventor Thomas Edison.
But he was soon given the nickname Pelé for his mispronunciation of Bilé, the name of a goalkeeper at Vasco de Sao Lourenco, where his footballer father once played.
Pelé dazzled from the age of 15, when he started playing professionally with Santos. He led the club to a flurry of titles, including back-to-back Intercontinental Cups in 1962-1963.
He epitomised the sublime style of play called “samba football” in Brazil — a fast, fluid style of play that revolutionised the sport.
He scored an all-time record 1,281 goals in 1,363 matches for Santos (1956-74), the Brazilian national team, and the New York Cosmos (1975-77).
But beyond his records, he will be remembered for revolutionising the sport, his ever-present number 10 on his back.
The first global football star, he played a lead role in the game’s transformation into a sporting and commercial powerhouse, tapping his preternatural athleticism despite his relatively small size — 1.70 metres (just under 5ft 7ins).
He also played with heart, visible in the iconic black-and-white footage of the 17-year-old bursting into tears after helping Brazil to its first World Cup title, in 1958.
Eight years earlier, seeing his father cry when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final at home to Uruguay, Pelé had promised to bring the trophy home one day.
Pelé reached the pinnacle of his greatness at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, the first broadcast in colour, where he starred on what many consider the greatest team of all time, with talents such as Rivellino, Tostao, and Jairzinho.
He was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. When Pelé visited Washington, DC to help popularise the game in North America, it was the US president who stuck out his hand first.
“You don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pelé is,” Ronald Reagan said.
He was often welcomed like royalty when travelling abroad with Santos or the national team. Legend has it in 1969 his arrival in Nigeria was the occasion for a 48-hour truce in the bloody Biafra war.
Pelé declined offers to play in Europe, but signed for a brief, lucrative swan song with the New York Cosmos at the end of his career, bringing his star power to the land of ‘soccer’.
His reign extended beyond the pitch, with gigs as a movie star, singer and later sports minister (1995-1998) — he was one of the first black Cabinet members in Brazil. He was also a wealthy businessman, and an ambassador for UNESCO and the United Nations.
But he faced criticism at times in Brazil for remaining quiet on social issues and racism, and for what some saw as his haughty, vain personality.
Unlike Argentine rebel Diego Maradona, his rival for the title of greatest of all time, Pelé was seen as close to those in power — including Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime.
Pelé’s public appearances had grown increasingly rare, and he frequently used a walker or wheelchair.
He was hospitalised several times for urinary infections, then again in 2021 and 2022 for the colon cancer that marked the beginning of the end.
He met his health problems with trademark humour.
“I will face this match with a smile on my face,” he posted on Instagram in September 2021, after surgery to remove his colon tumour.