Pelé, the legendary Brazilian soccer forward, passed away on December 29 at 82. He was one of the sport’s most accomplished and important figures, with a lengthy list of accomplishments that included three World Cup wins over a 21-year career in which he still ranks top five in goals all-time.
According to CNN, Pelé had been in the hospital since the end of November, dealing with complications from colon cancer that eventually manifested as organ failure. He had been in palliative care over the previous few weeks in São Paulo, surrounded by family. In a post on Instagram translated by CNN, Pelé’s daughter Kely Nascimento wrote, “Everything that we are, is thanks to you. We love you infinitely.” (Pelé is survived by six children, but had one daughter pass from cancer in 2006.)
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé grew up in São Paulo struggling with poverty, but had a generational gift for the sport that got him earmarked as a future star even as a teen Playing most of his career for the Brazilian club Santos FC from 1956-1974, Pelé broke numerous records with his prolific scoring and graceful play, before spending the last few years with the now defunct New York Cosmos. As an Afro-Brazilian, Pelé was a trailblazer for Black soccer players and his enduring popularity helped shatter stigmas on a global scale. He remained an influential ambassador for the game decades after his playing career ended, and stayed in the public eye through endorsements and his knack for headline-grabbing quotes.
The sport’s biggest stars have quickly come out with their own tribute messages to one of soccer’s most important figures. “Pelé was a true inspiration and one of the greatest to ever play the game,” Harry Kane wrote. “The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten,” Kylian Mbappé said on Twitter, sharing a photo of the two together. 2022 FIFA World Cup champion Lionel Messi shared pictures of himself with Pelé, while writing “Rest in peace.”
Beyond his on-field accolades, Pelé was also widely praised for his philanthropic efforts. He worked closely with UNICEF, and fought global poverty through The Pelé Foundation, which he launched in 2018.
In a 2018 interview with British GQ, Pelé spoke about his enduring legacy in a sport where new stars are continually being minted. “Most of the children today watch [Lionel] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo, Neymar, but they also know the name of Pelé. Maybe from their fathers, or from their fathers’ fathers! But it is a big responsibility for me, because I can never make a mistake in my life. I always have to be an example to these children, but I thank God for this honour.”
Pelé’s death follows the tragic passing of fellow legend Diego Maradona in late 2020, leaving a massive absence in the soccer landscape. Pelé’s life, controversies, and international icon status were explored closely in an eponymous Netflix documentary released in 2021.