19 World Cups, 19 stars: In a series of features in the build-up to this summer's tournament, DFB.de looks back on the household names, as well as some lesser-known figures, to have made their mark at previous World Cups. Today we focus on Pelé, the youngest World Cup winner of all time and the man voted as Player of the Century in 2000 by world football’s governing body FIFA.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was obsessed with football even as a child. His father was a professional player and the young Pelé, who was known as Dico back then, would sleep cradling his beloved ball. Working as a shoe cleaner during the day, Pelé would spend every spare minute kicking a ball around, whether it was a tin can or makeshift ball made of cloth or rolled up socks. His first team played on the streets in the favelas of Bauri, a suburb of Sao Paulo.
Even today, almost 40 years after he hung up his boots for good, the majority of the football world still views Pelé as the most important player ever to have graced the game. Prior to Diego Maradona’s emergence for Argentina in the 1980s there were no other serious candidates to rival the Brazilian. Opinion has been divided since then, often along fiercely patriotic lines, in what has become a futile debate to determine the world’s greatest player. There is no love lost between Brazil and Argentina at the best of times, and even less when it comes to football.
Brazil have had the upper hand over their continental rivals since winning the World Cup for the first time at Sweden 1958. Pelé was pivotal to A Selecao's triumph, having earned his place in the squad after scoring against Argentina on his international debut as a 16-year-old. His talent was immediately apparent and unlike anything the country had seen before.
Pelé was handed his first appearance in the Brazilian top-flight as a 15 year old for FC Santos against Corinthians. The goal he scored gave an indication of what was to come: Pelé snaked his way through the defence, juggling the ball - even with his head - before slotting it through the goalkeeper’s legs. A legend was born. "He wears an invisible royal cloak on his shoulders", wrote dramatist Nelson Rodrigues afterwards. Pelé signed his first professional contract when he was 17 and, thanks to his efforts in Sweden, became a global superstar before his next birthday.
The Pelé show
The young striker made that trip to Europe as a man on a mission. In 1950 he had followed the Maracanazo - Brazil's 2-1 World Cup final defeat against Uruguay - on the radio with a friend. Brazil had been considered overwhelming favourites to win, and the friend began to cry at the final whistle, although Pelé himself did not. Instead he made a promise that he would win the World Cup for Brazil as soon as he was big enough.
He was true to his word. Pelé missed the first two group games in Sweden with a knee injury but coach Vicente Feola was impatient to unleash his young prodigy on the competition and selected him in the next match against the Soviet Union. On 15 June 1958 Pelé put in the first of many dazzling World Cup displays and created his side's decisive second goal in a 2-0 triumph. He was 17 years and 235 days old and remained the competition's youngest-ever player until 1982. Contrary to several journalists' reports, Pelé did not get on the scoresheet that day. They had confused him with Vava, something that would not happen again.
Quick-fire semi-final hat-trick
Pelé only had to wait another four days to find the net though, grabbing the only goal of the game in the quarter-finals against Wales. His strike earned him a second entry in the history books as the tournament's youngest-ever scorer, a record he still holds to this day. European reporters were suddenly fascinated and began asking him questions, such as why he was called Pelé. The youngster explained that he used to enjoy playing in goal and copying the heroics of local idol Bele. The name Pelé swiftly became known the world over and the player trademarked it immediately after the tournament finished.
What really set him apart however, were his goals. Pelé struck six times at his first World Cup and ended his career with a tally of 1281. In the 1958 semi-final against France he hit a 22-minute hat-trick, showing off the full spectrum of his talents: netting a header, a poacher's goal and a magnificent long-range effort. In doing so he overshadowed France striker Just Fontaine, who ended Sweden 1958 on 13 goals, a single-tournament record that is still unsurpassed today.
Nevertheless, Sweden 1958 was all about Pelé, and opposition supporters were moved to applaud him whenever he played. Sport Magazin joined in the praise, writing: "Didi, Vava and Pelé - the world's best trio". The stage was set for Brazil to win the World Cup, even if no South American side had ever managed to do so in Europe before. Yet succeed they did, beating Sweden in the final after the hosts had knocked out defending champions Germany.[bild2]
A meeting of kings
Two kings shook hands on 29 June 1958 as Gustav Adolf, the Swedish monarch, met the new ruler of the football world, Pelé. Any lingering doubts about the player's status were dispelled in the final as the Brazilian teenager scored twice in a 5-2 victory. His first strike was the game-changing goal that gave Brazil a 3-1 lead, while his second capped things off as the final goal of the game.
That first effort would comfortably have been voted as Goal of the Tournament, had the award existed back then. Sport Magazin reported it thus: "You simply had to see it, there are no words to describe the goal. Pelé brought a cross down so skilfully and precisely it seemed like the ball was attached to a string. It was a pleasure to watch. He then shifted the ball from one foot to the other and after a moment’s pause, as if to decide which corner to aim for, he fired the ball into the net."
After the game the No10, who gave the jersey its mythical aura, was overcome by emotion and burst into tears. That day, 29 June 1958, Pelé became the youngest World Cup winner of all time, an achievement yet to be bettered. He went on to win two further World Cup titles, at Chile 1962 and Mexico 1970, and that trophy haul is also a record in the game. Yet it was the tournament in Sweden that changed Pelé's life completely, prompting him to write his autobiography. "Eu sou Pelé" ("I am Pelé"), was published when he was 19.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known as "Pelé"Date of birth: 23 October 1940