Unless you live under a rock or something, you know that Pele died two days ago at the age of 82 from cancer. I’ve written in the past how terms like “legend” or “generational talent” get overused. It’s not overused on Pele, who was inarguably one of the most famous people on the planet. People who care nothing about sports know who Pele was. My teenage son asked me about him after seeing a sports news clip that he was in the hospital, and I told him to think of Pele like Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan…and add that soccer is the most popular sport on the planet.
Summarizing his career to non-soccer fans isn’t about playing 18 years for Santos in Brazil, or scoring 618 goals. That sounds like a lot, but what’s the comparison? It’s not about scoring 77 goals in 92 games playing for the Brazil national team. You can find amazing stats by Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer, Ronaldo, Neymar, etc. It gets a little easier by pointing out his three World Cup championships (1958, 1962, 1970)…and then pointing out that the complete list of players to headline three champions is: Pele. Really, though, I submit that the clearest demonstration of his impact on his sport came after he retired from playing for Santos in 1974. In 1975, a new professional soccer league had been started in the US, a country that thought of soccer as quaint…it was called the NASL (North American Soccer League). A team in that league, the New York Cosmos, talked him out of retirement…and attendance tripled. He played in NY for three years. Little league soccer programs sprung up all across the country…there are now more kids playing little league soccer in this country than baseball. It is no exaggeration to say he made soccer a thing here, that the dominance of the American women in international soccer and the competitiveness of the men are directly descended from Pele.
RIP, Pele, a genuine legend.