Who Is Pelé?
In the summer of 1956, Pelé was homesick.
Pelé (say: PEH-lay) had arrived in the city of Santos, Brazil, just weeks earlier. He had grown up in Bauru, a tiny town to the west, but his incredible skills on the soccer field got him noticed by a team called Santos. He was only fifteen, and moving to the city had been a major decision for Pelé.
Without soccer, he might still be shining shoes or working in a field. Most of his friends on his hometown team could never dream of leaving Bauru. Now, on the Santos team, Pelé would earn enough money to support his family. And he could make his dream of becoming a soccer star come true.
At just over five feet tall, Pelé was small for his age. He was an amazing player who could dribble well, and he was very quick. On his new team, though, he was playing against older, larger adults. He was worried he would not succeed. He was also living away from home for the first time. And Santos was a strange place. Then he missed an easy penalty shot during a game that cost his team a victory. He was embarrassed and sad. Pelé had had enough of life in the big city. That’s it
, he thought, I’m quitting
Early in the morning, he packed his bag and tiptoed out of his room. He had just enough money for a bus ticket back to Bauru. But as he walked quietly through the players’ dormitory, he was stopped by a man who worked for the team. Big Sabu helped the players with their gear and watched over the young players. In his many years with Santos, he had seen other teens like Pelé. They were young, scared, and often thought of quitting. So Big Sabu stopped Pelé and told him he could not leave without permission. He wanted to keep Pelé on team Santos. Pelé listened and made an important decision. He headed back to his room. He would keep aiming for his dream.
And it turned out to be the right decision. Pelé had arrived at Santos as a very good player, but that was not enough. Pelé worked hard and soon learned to do more than just dribble. He worked on shooting and passing and being in the right position to help his teammates. He ate more, exercised, and grew stronger and more confident.
In a few months, he was one of the team’s stars, scoring goal after goal. With Pelé’s help, Santos became one of the top teams in the country. When Pelé was only seventeen, he was named to the national team for Brazil and helped his country win its first World Cup championship!
In the years that followed, Pelé became the best, and most famous, soccer player in the world. He helped Brazil win three World Cup titles and scored more than 1,200 goals for his teams and his country. He also traveled to the United States in 1975 and helped the sport of soccer become popular among Americans. As the best player in the world’s favorite sport, Pelé became an ambassador for soccer and a symbol for the sport itself.
Chapter 1: The Boy Who Loved Soccer
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born on October 23, 1940, in the tiny village of Três Corações (say: TRACE kor-ah-SOYS), Brazil. Even in 1940, there were many parts of the world that did not have electricity. Most of southeastern Brazil was one of those areas. In honor of their village finally getting electricity, Edson’s parents named their first son after the American inventor Thomas Edison.
Edson’s father was named João Ramos but went by the nickname Dondinho. Most Brazilian men are known by a nickname. He was a soccer player for the town’s team. Edson’s mother was named Celeste. Two years later, his mother had another son, Jair. Edson had not yet been nicknamed “Pelé.”
Like all Brazilians, the Nascimento family spoke Portuguese. Brazil had been a colony of Portugal until 1822, when it gained independence. In the 1700s and 1800s, millions of Africans had been brought to Brazil as slaves to work for the Portuguese. The Nascimento family had ancestors among those African people, so Edson had very dark skin.
Dondinho loved playing soccer and hoped that his sons would follow him. But playing professional soccer was not an easy life. In Brazil at this time, every village and town had a team. But only the very top players on the biggest teams earned the best salaries. The smaller teams, like the one in Três Corações and nearby towns, could not pay their players well. And that made life hard for Edson’s family. They lived in a brick house that was nearly falling down in places. And Edson didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was seven years old.
In 1943, Edson’s sister was born. She was named Maria Lúcia.
When Edson was four, Dondinho was asked to play for a team in Bauru, a larger town to the south. He was also promised a second job for when he was not playing soccer. This was good news for the family. On the way to Bauru, Edson was excited to ride a train for the first time. He was thrilled to see the country of Brazil rush by the open window. He nearly fell out of one before being caught by Dondinho!
Life in Bauru was not easy. The family’s house was also very crowded. Edson’s grandmother and his uncle Jorge had also moved to Bauru so the family could stay together. The house had only a small backyard, and it was often muddy. They had no air conditioning in the steamy summers. And they heated the house during the winters with a woodstove, which they also used for cooking. It was Edson’s job to stack the wood that was delivered to the house each week.
Dondinho’s team did not provide the second job it had promised him. And he had injured his knee, which meant he could not play all the time. Sometimes the family struggled just to have enough to eat. Their relatives tried to help them out. Even Edson had to help. He worked as a shoeshine boy at the railroad station. He also sometimes worked at the soccer stadium when Dondinho played. He loved watching his tall, strong father leap above the other teams’ players to knock the ball into the goal with his head.
Every boy in Edson’s neighborhood played soccer. He spent many hours playing with his friends. He was fast, and even though he was small for his age, he was one of the best.
The boys were too poor to buy a ball. So they got an old sock, stuffed it tightly with rags, and tied it up with string. This lumpy ball was kicked all around the streets in their neighborhood. The goalposts might be a pair of old shoes. There were no real fields and very few organized leagues for children.
Edson did have one advantage: his father. Dondinho loved showing his boys all that he knew of the game he loved. They practiced dribbling and passing with the sock ball. He told them about the positions on the field and how to shoot the ball at the goal. He showed his sons how important it was to be able to play well with both feet, and how to control the ball no matter how it came to you. Edson loved this time with his father. The more Edson played, the more he had dreams of being a pro player like Dondinho. “One day,” he told his friends, “I’m going to be as good as my dad.”
About a year after they moved to Bauru, Dondinho finally got his second job. He worked at a government health clinic, sweeping floors and helping the staff. Edson sometimes helped his father at work. Dondinho would use the time to tell Edson stories of his life in soccer. As Edson’s dreams grew bigger, he grew even closer with his father.
Now that the family had enough money, Edson could finally go to school. Poor families in Brazil needed to save money for school fees and supplies before their children could begin classes. His mother and his aunt sewed up his old shorts and made him a nice shirt. He got a box of colored pencils to use in school.
But Edson, the boy who loved playing soccer, did not enjoy school. He did not like sitting still and he did not like doing homework. He often sneaked out to go swimming or to play soccer with his friends. When he was in class, he talked too much. As a punishment, his teacher sometimes stuffed his cheeks with paper! Other times, she made him kneel on hard, dry beans.
When Edson was about nine, the boys he played soccer with started calling him “Pelé.” Most nicknames in Brazil are based on a person’s name, what they look like, or how they act. But no one really knows what Pelé means. “I’ve been back to Bauru many times,” Pelé later wrote, “and have asked all my old friends from those days, but they don’t have a clue how or when it started.”
At first, he hated the nickname. He was even suspended from school for hitting a boy who called him Pelé! But he eventually grew to love the name that he would soon make world famous.
Copyright © 2018 by James Buckley Jr. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.