On His Birthday, Here are a Few Sides of Pele You Didn’t Know

Football journalist Novy Kapadia shares a few unknown facts about football legend, Pele.

8 min read
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as the legendary footballer Pele, was born on 23 October 1940 in Tres Coracoes.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as the legendary footballer Pele, was born on 23 October 1940 in Tres Coracoes.

History has it that soon after he was born, his father Dondinho (whose professional football career got curtailed due to injury) prodded his scrawny legs and said:

This one will be a great footballer.

Pele’s parents married young. His mother Celeste, the daughter of a cart driver, was fifteen when she married Joao Ramos de Nascimento (nicknamed Dondinho) who was doing military service at that time. He was sixteen and played as a centre forward for a small town club, Atletico of Tres Coracoes. He later played as a professional for Atletico Mineiro but got injured in his first season and that was the end of his career.

Shortly before Pele was born, the town of Tres Coracoes got electrified. To celebrate the arrival of electricity, his father named him Edson, a tribute to Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb.

So he was born as Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

File photo showing former Brazilian soccer star Pele with Pope John Paul II during their meeting at the Vatican on 18 March 1978. Pele led Brazil to three World Cup titles as a player in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
File photo showing former Brazilian soccer star Pele with Pope John Paul II during their meeting at the Vatican on 18 March 1978. Pele led Brazil to three World Cup titles as a player in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
(Photo: Reuters)

How Did He Get the Nickname Pele?

Brazilians use a lot of nicknames. So Edson Arantes do Nascimento came to be known as Dico, later changed to Pele. The reasons for the same are however, uncertain.

It seems a team-mate of his father when he played for Vasco de Sao Lourenco, was a goalkeeper called Bile. Edson was just three or four-years-old when he would accompany his father to the training sessions at the club. As a kid he would rush to the ground and start playing near the goal. He started playing as a goalkeeper and whenever he saved a shot he would try and say, “Good save Bile” but being young he distorted the name and said Pele. His classmates at school also started calling him Pele.

He disliked the name at first because he was proud to be named after Thomas Edison.

The footballer once even punched a classmate who called him Pele and was subsequently suspended from school for two days. Gradually though he came to accept the name.


Pele Almost Drowned as a 10-Year-Old

A little later in life, Pele’s father got a job in Bauru, a Municipality of Brazil, and grew up in that city. During the summer months it became very hot there. Pele and his friends would go to the river near the North West Railway and spend the afternoon swimming there. There was also a small waterfall and they would enjoy playing there the whole afternoon. At times they even skipped class to play in the river. These frolics in the river nearly led to a fatal accident.

Pele was swimming with some friends when a boastful older boy Zinho tried to pull him across the river. Pele had to hold on to Zinho’s legs and do the kicking while the elder boy did the arm strokes. Halfway across the river they got tangled up and exhausted. They swallowed a lot of water and nearly got drowned. The boys on the bank shouted for help. Luckily a man came along and held out a long stick to pull both boys out of water. After this near brush with death, Pele felt that God was looking after him.


First Date

Pele was seventeen when he first met Rosemeri who was white, fourteen years old and worked in a records shop in Santos. She said she was too young to go out for a date. Instead she invited him to her house on Saturday. He went with a clean shirt, polished shoes, nails cut and cleaned. He spent time with the family eating biscuits and drinking coffee.

The parents accepted him as he was the first young man to call on their daughter. The courtship went on for several years.

The girl’s family did not want the press to hear that they were dating. So when they went for a movie they used some subterfuge. Rosemeri would go in first with an aunt. Only when the lights were out, Pele would go in and sit besides her.

Brazilian football legend Pele sits for a portrait with his extended family, in his summer home in the Atlantic coastal city of Guaruja, in Sao Paulo state, 14 February 2003.
Brazilian football legend Pele sits for a portrait with his extended family, in his summer home in the Atlantic coastal city of Guaruja, in Sao Paulo state, 14 February 2003.
(Photo: Reuters)

His Marriage to Rosemeri in 1965

He had been dating Rosemeri for several years. She was hesitant about marriage as she felt she was too young. Finally Pele decided to ask her parent’s permission to marry her.

By 1965 Pele was a superstar; he had won the World Cups in 1958 and 1962 and was considered the best player in the world and was making a good living. He thought his proposal would be met with joy and happiness. Instead Rosemeri’s father indifferently said, “Let’s discuss it with my wife when we get back.”

Pele was tentative and nervous for the rest of the day. He admitted he never felt so nervous even before the World Cup final.

When they got home for dinner he told Rosemeri’s mother Dona Idalina about his proposal. Much to Pele’s relief she agreed and they got engaged. During Carnival week in 1966 they got married. A black man, even though a world famous athlete, marrying a white girl caused a furore and some racist comments were made in the press.

The couple went for their honeymoon to Europe with all expenses paid for by German businessman Roland Endler, who was a fan of Pele. The marriage and honeymoon in Germany was widely reported in the press.

Pele was so popular in Germany that whenever he went shopping, the shopkeepers refused to take money from him.

After Germany he went to Austria and had a second wedding ceremony conducted by the mayor of Vienna. During his trip to Italy he was received at the Vatican by Pope Paul VI.


Sporting Czechoslovakia

In the 1962 World Cup, Brazil was in group 3 along with Czechoslovakia, Mexico and Spain. Pele played against Mexico and scored in the 2-0 win. In the next match against Czechoslovakia, he suffered a groin injury, after taking a powerful shot. This meant he had to hobble through the entire match as substitutes were not allowed in those days (this started after the 1970 World Cup).

The Czechs were a tough and physical side and Pele felt he would be clattered several times. Yet the great Czech midfielders Masopust and Popluhar treated him gently as did right-back Lala. They gently neutralised him. When Pele received the ball, they let him pass it back and did not go in for rough tackles. Some more hard tackles in that match could have ruined Pele’s career. He remains forever grateful to the spirit of fair play by the Czech players and considers them the most sporting that he has played against.

Pele was a member of the 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cup-winning Brazilian soccer teams.
Pele was a member of the 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cup-winning Brazilian soccer teams.
(Photo: Reuters)

Pele Nearly Missed the 1970 World Cup

After being brutally kicked in the 1966 World Cup, Pele decided to retire from international football. For two years he did not play for Brazil. Then he changed his mind for a number of reasons. Friends advised him that he should not bow out of the World Cup as a loser. By then he had scored a thousand goals and so wanted to leave the World Cup also on a high. Another reason was that in the three previous World Cups in 1958, 1962 and 1966 he had never taken part in every game of the tournament. In 1962 due to an injury he missed the knock-out stages of the World Cup.

So he decided to play in the 1970 World Cup, which was held in Mexico. Pele had great admiration for Mexican fans. They had always treated him and the Brazilian team with great adulation and respect. He also wanted to play because if Brazil won a third World Cup, the Jules Rimet trophy would be in their possession forever. Hence he came out of retirement and made himself available for selection.


The Save by Gordon Banks

It was billed as the clash of the champions, the Group III league encounter in the 1970 World Cup between holders England and former holders Brazil. The hot weather conditions favoured Brazil. The World Cup committee had made an agreement with international television to begin their Sunday matches at twelve noon. In the torrid 98 degrees of Guadalajara, it was difficult for a Northern European team like England to survive.

The match was a classic. The opening minutes were like footballing chess with both teams keeping possession.

Midway through the half Brazil almost scored but Gordon Banks made the save of the century.

Carlos Alberto played the ball out to Jairzinho on the right. A powerful Jairzinho surged past left-back Terry Cooper and whipped in a high cross just beyond Bank’s six yard box. The onrushing Pele launched himself in the air and headed the ball hard and low towards Bank’s right hand corner. With incredible agility Banks launched himself across his goal from the opposite post to flick the ball, one handed with his right wrist, over the bar. Even Pele applauded as he considers it the greatest save ever made.


Café Pele

Pele had many endorsements during his career. He even gave his name to Brazilian coffee. It was called Café Pele and was marketed by the Brazilian Coffee Institute around Europe in the late 1960s. In Russia it became the number one coffee brand.

But the biggest admirer of this coffee was the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq. When he was captured by US forces in 2003 he was hiding in a hole with three possessions, a machine gun, a suitcase full of dollars and a packet of Café Pele.

The Most Famous Comment on Pele

Pele has met every US president from Richard Nixon onwards. He gave them all autographed footballs. But the best reception he got was from President Ronald Reagan who introduced himself by saying:

Good to meet you. I’m the President of the United States; you don’t have to tell who you are – I know you you’re Pele, everybody knows.

When Pele Came to Kolkata

The then president of Mohun Bagan Dhiren Dey’s greatest contribution was getting Pelé to Kolkata in 1977 for an exhibition match. In those pre-satellite television days there was mass hysteria for Pelé’s visit. Lakhs of people gathered outside the Dum Dum Airport (now Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport) to greet the Brazilian legend when his plane landed at the late hour of 11:30 pm.

Pelé then played for New York Cosmos, which also included Carlos Alberto, member of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning team, and Italian Giorgio Chinaglia. When the match day came, the ground was rain-soaked and slushy. Pelé almost refused to play because of the slippery conditions. However, Dhiren Dey and the Bagan officials begged him to play, even at half-pace. Police officials implored Pelé, saying the crowd would get violent and lynch the Bagan officials if he did not play. The great Brazilian finally relented, but was cautious throughout the match.

(The author is a football commentator and analyst. He tweets at @NovyKapadia.)


(This story was first published on 23 October 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark Pele’s 78th birthday.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!