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THE MOST FAMOUS ATHLETE IN THE WORLD
Pete Axthelm
October 24, 1966
Almost unknown in the U.S., Edson Arantes do Nascimento—nicknamed Pel�—is the idol of soccer-playing nations and a demigod in Brazil where he earns half a million dollars a year
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October 24, 1966

The Most Famous Athlete In The World

Almost unknown in the U.S., Edson Arantes do Nascimento—nicknamed Pel�—is the idol of soccer-playing nations and a demigod in Brazil where he earns half a million dollars a year

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Two members of the Santos, Brazil soccer team passed the ball forward along the sideline, then shot it toward the small man called Pel�, who was waiting in front of the goal. Pel� lifted his right leg in a short, quick motion and looped the ball over one defender's head. He dodged past that man and lifted the ball again as two more defenders approached. The ball seemed to hang in midfiight as Pel� feinted to his left; then he ducked his shoulders and lunged between his opponents. Before a shocked goaltender could react, Pel� drove the shot into the net with his head.

It was very close to the perfect way to execute a scoring play in Pel�'s chosen game—the game that is called soccer in the U.S. and football everywhere else, and is also the most popular sport on earth. The goal was scored in a one-sided game between Santos and Juventus in the S�o Paulo state league, back in 1959. But Brazilians, who are sophisticated as well as passionate about their soccer, remember its brilliance as if it had won the most recent World Cup for them. About 60,000 people saw it; about one million will claim to have seen it if you ask them now. "It was," a Santos sportscaster says confidently, "the greatest goal Pel� ever scored." In Brazil—and almost everyplace else where soccer is played—that is equivalent to saying it was the greatest goal anyone ever scored.

"I guess it was my best goal, from a technical standpoint," says Pel�, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento and whose undisputed title is king of international football. "I can't say it was my biggest thrill, because it wasn't important enough. We were ahead 4-0 at the time and we didn't need a goal that much. But I must admit it was something special."

Coming from Pel�, who makes a diligent effort to be the most modest of idols, this is a strong statement. Coming from anyone else, from anyone who has watched this man play during the last eight years, it would be an understatement, for almost every move Pel� has ever made on a soccer field has been something very special. Pel�, 25 years old, is 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 163 pounds, most of it apparently concentrated in the awesome muscles of his powerful, slightly bowed legs. On every play he seems to be two steps ahead of the players around him. He dribbles the ball as if it were attached to his feet by sensitive strings; he shoots harder and more accurately than anyone else in the game. When he rushes through the offensive zone toward a goal, Pel� captures the imagination in a way that only the most dramatic of athletes can.

Pel� is one of those rare performers who can, for a moment, make all the patterns and tactics of a complex game seem unimportant. He prides himself on being a team player ("He sets the example for all the other players," says the Santos coach, Lula), but relating a brilliant Pel� goal to a team pass pattern is like crediting an 80-yard pass reception by Olympic Sprinter Bob Hayes to the Dallas Cowboys' multiple offense. Like Hayes or Gale Sayers in American football or Bobby Hull in ice hockey, Pel� can turn a team game into a memorable individual show. Suddenly he is alone, surrounded by opponents. He draws them out of position, rushes around or between two of them, gets knocked down or shoved aside and then, somehow, comes up with the big shot. The huge crowd cheers; some delirious fans try to scale the high barbed-wire fences that separate Brazilian soccer fields from the grandstands. Pel� walks back to his position, smiling—he seems to smile after every play, even unsuccessful ones—having once more shown why he is the highest-salaried and most idolized athlete in the world.

He was smiling in the same way last month on the Santos practice field, but around him things were different. The gates in the fences were open, and only about 20 kids had wandered into the stadium to watch an early-morning workout. Now there would be no individual show. Pel� was one of 10 men jogging around the field; then he was one of half a dozen doing special leg-strengthening calisthenics. Just another member of a very good, well-run organization.

Well, not quite. Santos Football Club, the beneficiary of his talents, won two major state league titles in the 20 years before Pel� came into his own in 1958. Since then the team has won seven out of nine. These days Santos always plays to packed houses and commands huge fees for exhibition games and tours. (As if to prove that this prosperity was not a coincidence, attendance dropped by 50% in 1962 when Pel� was benched for a long period because of injuries.)

After practice Pel� sat in front of his wooden locker and stripped off his gray sweat shirt. Others in the crowded room laughed and yelled back and forth. Pel� spoke quietly, absently fingering the gold crucifix he wears on his neck as he chose his words. "Luck. You need a lot of luck to have a long and successful career. There is so much chance of injury, or of something suddenly going wrong. But so far I've been as lucky as anyone. I'm very fortunate."

His good fortune is legendary among soccer followers. The son of a bush-league player who earned $4.50 a game, Pel� now makes more than $200,000 a year in salary and bonuses. A fourth-grade dropout, he is the owner of several lucrative businesses and the subject of two books and a movie. His total income is about half a million dollars. A Negro, he lives happily in one of the few places in the world where color has no effect on a man's life. And after 10 years of playing soccer for a living, he still likes what he is doing. "I enjoyed it when I was just a kid in the streets," he said, "and I enjoyed it when I started playing in Santos for $75 a month. Now that I'm married, naturally I'd prefer to travel less. But that doesn't mean I'm unhappy. Just because I'm on top, I'm not going to start complaining."

This is the Pel� style. He could complain and people would listen. He could demand changes in his rigorous schedule and he would get them. He could write his own ticket for his salary. But he figures that a man who gets paid to play a game should be happy, so Pel� acts happy, satisfied, grateful. He is modest—almost, but not quite, to the point where it would sound phony. He is courteous even to the most unruly of his fans, and smiles bravely as shrieking girls with long fingernails try to claw souvenir pieces of jersey off his back. He has been honored by kings, statesmen and religious leaders all over the world. Yet he is cautious and soft-spoken, less concerned with his records than with showing you what a nice guy a superstar can be.

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