I doubt if any man has been reported dead more times than the Great Pelé. At the last count, it was five times when newspapers and later, social media headlines would scream – Pelé is Dead! They were all wrong those times.
But today, 29th December 2022, exactly 30 days since he was admitted at the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paolo, for the treatment of his colon cancer and breathing conditions, the Brazilian football legend breathed his last, following failure of several organs, according to hospital sources.
His name resounded only recently during worldwide debates in the aftermath of the World Cup in Qatar and comparisms between him and Lionel Messi as to who is the Greatest Of All Time, GOAT in football.
Older followers of the round leather game believe that those who compare the two great men, along with late Diego Maradona and decide on the younger Messi do so because they did not watch Pele play. Indeed, most of the younger fans have never even watched Pele on TV, as they have Messi and Maradona, not to talk of see him play live so how can they really do a proper comparism?
Some of us had in Nigeria a golden opportunity about 50 years ago to watch Pelé play football and display what we had read about the legendary Brazilian striker who seemed to make the round ball do whatever he wanted. The date was 4th February 1969 and Pelé was then playing with the Santos Football Club of Brazil who were on an African tour and the then great Midwest, later Bendel State was the citadel of sports in Nigeria.
Santos had arrived in Lagos on Sunday, January 26, 1969, right in the middle of the Nigerian civil war, to play a friendly match that same day at the Onikan Stadium, against the Nigerian Green Eagles, as the national team was called then.
Pelé who was then 28 years old, arrived Lagos with Santos from the then Congo Kinshasa who had beaten Santos by 3 goals to 2 in their friendly there. Pele scored the two goals for Santos in their match with the Green Eagles which ended 2-2, with Muyiwa Oshode and Baba Alli scoring the Nigerian goals.
It was then the turn of our Midwest Eleven to face Pele and Santos on February 4, 1969 and the sports-loving Military Governor of Midwest Region, Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, led the unprecedented crowd at Ogbe Stadium which was opened just the previous year.
I was a Form Two student that year at Immaculate Conception College, Benin City and my younger brother Omobude who was in Form One was one of the football enthusiasts who tried to join the crowd for the match fixed for 3.30pm but for which the stadium gates were opened 10am. But he didn’t get to enter the stadium and thousands of others were also stuck outside because there were just no seats to accommodate everyone.
But what about me, the so-called block-busting football player who said it was now or never – I MUST SEE PELE PLAY?
FA! FA!! FA!!! FOUL!!!!
I didn’t even go near the stadium. While Omo and others were saving money for the gate fee which was quite high for those days (I can’t quite remember the amount), I was doing some calculations of what and what I will do with such a huge amount of money and how I could follow the match anyway on radio via the super commentaries Radio Nigeria was famous for those days. Those radio commentators practically put you live in the football field – such were the descriptions of every move on the pitch by the late Ishola Folorunsho and others. I blew the opportunity to watch Pele play live! But many of our friends did and there is no way anyone can convince any of them that Pelé was not the GOAT!
But that match between Santos and the Midwest team, made up mainly of players of Vipers FC of Benin which years later became Bendel Insurance, ended 2-1 in favour of the Brazilians and they went back home with the great Pele.
So I, like many others, couldn’t see the great one play live.
But he came to Nigeria a couple of more times since then, particularly in the late 70s on a promotional drive when he played an exhibition match in Lagos and in September 2016 when he came for the WJS/YEDA Legend Edition on youth development and empowerment.
Pelé has always been a friend of Nigeria and was so impressed by Nigeria’s performance in age group FIFA tournaments that he predicted that the World Cup will come to Africa and Nigeria in no distant future.
Now, the great Pelé is gone at 82, a ripe old age; but he had been ailing and in poor health for a while, but that is the human body.
The three-time World Cup winner was hospitalized with a urinary infection in 2019. He had problems with his hip for some time and needed a frame to walk, with many of his public appearances in a wheelchair. His health had been of concern in recent years and he had surgery of the prostate in 2015 after he was admitted to hospital for the second time in six months. He also had a hip replacement surgery.
In 2020, Pelé could not attend a ceremony to unveil a statue of him representing Brazil’s historic 1970 World Cup-winning team. Nine players of that Brazil squad of almost 50 years ago were present at the headquarters of the country’s soccer federation in Rio de Janeiro, but Pele could not attend. Recall that poor health stopped him from attending the Rio 2016 Olympic Games opening ceremony.
The former striker who turned 82 last October has been voted in the past as the greatest footballer of all-time – ahead of Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He is credited with scoring 1,281 goals during his glittering 21-year career, including 77 for Brazil in 92 appearances. In 1978, Pelé was awarded the International Peace Award for his work with UNICEF. He has also served as Brazil’s Extraordinary Minister for Sport and a United Nations ambassador for ecology and the environment.
Pelé was named FIFA’s “Co-Player of the Century” in 1999, along with Maradona. To many, his accomplishments on the soccer field will never be equalled, and virtually all great athletes in the sport are measured against the Brazilian. Against such great football players like Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michel Platini and Alfredo Di Stéfano, Pele is recognised as Numero Uno.
He is the only player to have won three World Cups – 1958, 1962 and 1970.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940, in Três Corações, Brazil, Pelé became a superstar with his performance in the 1958 World Cup. He played professionally in Brazil for two decades, winning three World Cups along the way, before joining the New York Cosmos late in his career.
His final game was an exhibition between New York Cosmos and Santos in October 1977, playing for both sides, and he retired with a total of 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.
In 1999, he was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics, aside from being one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the Century award with Maradona. That same year, Pelé was elected Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee, IOC.
Unlike many other sportsmen outside the field of play, his life was devoid of controversies or scandals. His life was worth emulating by men and women, in and out of sports.
Pelé is gone; but his legacy surely lives on. Rest in Peace, Great Pele!
Epa Ogie Eboigbe, veteran journalist, broadcaster and public affairs specialist writes on, and analyses current and historical issues with a ‘wise pen’.