Events, Inspiration

Pelé through the lens—LIFE and Reuters


The FIFA World Cup

Whether you call it football or soccer, everyone’s talking about the ultimate event for the beautiful game. On November 20, players from 32 nations will again take their shot at the title of world champions.

The tournament is watched by billions of viewers, with a ninth of the planet’s population watching the final in 2006! The world’s biggest sporting event ensures that those who shine on the pitch go down in history—and a blaze of glory. Most of soccer’s significant moments happened under World Cup stadium lights, many of which were masterfully executed by the great Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pelé.

Warming up before a practice game in the UK
Image by Art Rickerby, from the LIFE Picture Collection

Here, we reflect on the football legend’s career highlights through the lens of LIFE and Reuters.
Let’s dive in.


A Prodigy Takes the Pitch

Brazilian-born Pelé burst into the global limelight during the 1958 World Cup. The 17-year-old scored a hattrick and a semifinal victory, then netted two more goals in the final game. These decisive moments secured a victory over the host country of Sweden—Brazil’s first-ever World Cup win, at the hands of their newest player.

Exhibition shows emotional Pelé and teammates after 1958 Cup Victory
Video from Reuters

These heroics made him the youngest player ever to win a World Cup Final, an achievement he would commemorate many years later in the below video from Reuters. So began eight years of success in his international career.


Highs and a low

Pelé displayed a trademark combination of remarkable speed, balance, control, power, and field vision. These powered career-and-headline-making moves, game after game. It was the dawn of a golden era for the iconic yellow Brazillian shirt, as, by the end of his career, Pelé led Brazil to claim three World Cup titles in four appearances. However, not even O Rei could escape disappointment forever.

Brazilian World Cup Team, 1966
Image from LIFE Picture Collection

In the 1966 World Cup, many teams saw a canary yellow and cobalt blue target on Brazilian backs, and numerous players were charged with doing whatever it took to defeat them. Their brute physicality did the job: a 3-1 loss to Portugal confirmed Brazil’s exit at the group stage in Liverpool.

Looking back, Pelé regretted a lack of humility in 1966 World Cup preparations, perhaps understandable in light of their eight-year winning streak. Despite his misgivings, the below images show excellent form during warm-ups and practice games.

Image from Art Rickerby / The LIFE Picture Collection

At this point, a weary Pelé turned his back on international football. Instead, he focused on club Santos for several good seasons—the club he played for when he executed one of the most celebrated soccer goals of all time.


The 1000th goal

On November 19, 1969, Pele changed the game forever at Maracana stadium in Rio De Janeiro. As his ball slotted into the corner, over eighty thousand adoring fans erupted in wild celebration, swarming the field even though Santos was their opposing club team. This was because Pelé had scored his professed 1,000th career goal on a penalty kick against Vasco da Gama. Watch incredible moments from the electrifying spectacle as they unfold below!

The goal that united fans and ignited a stadium
Video from Reuters

This victory encouraged Pele, and he found a new passion for mentorship thanks to fatherhood and his travels throughout Africa. In 1970, rejuvenated and determined, he set his sights again on the World Cup—this time armed with a greater purpose and more experience. The Brazilian team was better than ever and reclaimed the trophy in a glorious 4-1 victory over Italy. Pelé was named the player of the tournament shortly before finally withdrawing from international soccer. The below scene from Rio de Janeiro displays his indomitable, exuberant spirit after his final international game against Yugoslavia in 1971.

Pelé celebrating after his last international game
Video from Reuters

Pelé went on to sign with the NY Cosmos and played until retiring at 77.
The clip below covers important career highlights. Here’s a recap of what you’ll find:

  • Until 0.8: Pelé appears with the Santos team.
  • Until 0.24: He was congratulated after a goal during a friendly with England in 1964.
  • Until 0.37: Scores his 1000th goal in 1969.
  • Until 0.50: Heads a goal in the 1970 final against Italy 1970.
  • Until 1.12: Playing his last international 1971, followed by a lap of honour.
  • Until 1.50: Swamped by fans as he heads to his dressing room in Chicago.
  • Until 2.05: Signs a contract for NY Cosmos.
  • Until the end: Playing a poignant last-ever match in 1977, New Jersey, one half for Cosmos, the other for old club Santos.

Highlights Reel
Video from Reuters


The Legacy

After his retirement, the recognition kept coming. Pelé was named FIFA’s “Co-Player of the Century” in 1999, alongside Maradona. At the same time, he pursued a philanthropic path with involvement in numerous charities. A confident spokesman, Pelé served as a United Nations ambassador for ecology and the environment, with a particular interest in slowing deforestation. Perhaps most notable was his contribution to children’s welfare. His legacy goal was to improve the lives of young people everywhere, particularly those with underprivileged backgrounds like him. These efforts awarded him the International Peace Award for his work with UNICEF in 1978. A heart for people and play is evident in the following soundbites—watch as he talks about the sport as a great encouragement for youth worldwide, reflects on the impact of Maradona’s drug use, and contributes to youth sports across the globe.

At a Seminar on the Future of Soccer in 2005
Video from Reuters

Together with numerous charities, including his own Pelé foundation, he found practical ways to enable and inspire youth, both on and off the field. The below scene captured such initiatives.

Unveiling new soccer grounds in Mexico
Video from Reuters

As seen below, Pelé partnered with ‘The Time To Play, Time to Read’ campaign. He urged children to put the same effort into the books as the field, giving them the education to last a lifetime.

Pelé speaking about literacy campaign
Video from Reuters


Off the Pitch

The King was known for his effortless flair; all eyes were on him, on and off the field. Yet, none could ignore his sensible humility. He was loved the world over by people from all walks of life.

Pelé called Muhammad Ali his friend, idol, and hero. According to the retired player and sports analyst Shep Messing, the feeling was mutual. “Muhammad Ali was waving to the crowd, blowing kisses, doing the Muhammad Ali thing. As soon as he walked into the locker room and saw Pele… he was like a star-struck child.”

The below clips and images capture his connections with artists, players, athletes, fans, and political leaders.

“Absolutely everybody wanted to shake his hand, to get a photo with him. Saying you had partied with Pelé was the biggest badge of honor going.” – Mick Jagger.

Mick Jagger and Pelé
Video from Reuters

Before the 2006 World Cup, Pelé believed South Africa deserved the opportunity. It is no secret that Pelé and South African leader Nelson Mandela greatly appreciated each other. The great leader said: “To watch him play was to watch the delight of a child combined with the extraordinary grace of a man in full.”

Pelé honors Nelson Mandela with a ‘priceless gift’ from the Brazilian soccer team
Video from Reuters

Hailed as greater than flesh and blood, Pelé has lived a life that leaves future players with large boots to fill. Who’s career will enter the football hall of fame this year? Time, and our editorial partners, will tell. Watch this space.

All stock videos and stock images featured in this post are available on Pond5. For all Reuters and LIFE media featuring Pele, check out this dedicated collection and explore the curated History of the World Cup and Everybody Loves Soccer collections.