The world's greatest soccer player is a child. He is sitting on
the grass as if on vacation from school, not even 150 pounds,
squinting into the sunlight. "A skinny little black boy," Pele
will say of himself years later.
This is an article from the Nov. 29, 1999 issue
In this and other photographs from the time of his World Cup
debut, the teenage Pele offers little hint of the man who will
win three world championships and score a Ruthian 1,280 goals in
1,362 games. His shyness and undeveloped features are products
of an impoverished childhood spent in Bauru, a railroad junction
in southern Brazil. Pele grew up without shoes, and thus his
precious feet are flattened and wide and much older in
appearance than the rest of him.
When he was 10 years old, Pele and his friends stole peanuts
from a warehouse with the dream of cashing them in for soccer
boots. They were hiding their loot in a cave when it began to
rain heavily, and they were overtaken by a mudslide that
swallowed up one of the boys. The survivors formed a team known
as the Shoeless Ones.
Pele's emergence at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden was as dramatic
as any sporting event of the century. Now, four decades later,
Brazil, with its record four World Cup titles, is the undisputed
leader of the world's most popular sport, but until Pele came
along, the Brazilians had not won anything.
At 17 he was the youngest player in the tournament. At that time
his great talent was just a rumor internationally. An injury to
his right knee, suffered in a pretournament tune-up, kept him on
the bench for Brazil's first two World Cup games. The tension
within him grew as he waited for the chance that might not come.
Then the team doctor cleared him to play, and he was inserted
into the lineup for the final game of the opening round. Within
four minutes of his debut he was banging at the door of the
Soviet goal, rattling the woodwork with a terrific shot. Pele
assisted on the second goal in Brazil's 2-0 win. In the
quarterfinals four days later he scored the only goal in a
victory against Wales--"my most unforgettable goal," Pele would
say years later, because it set Brazil on a course for its first
world title and marked his first step in becoming the world's
most famous team athlete.
In the semifinal Pele unveiled all his skills. After France tied
the game at one in the ninth minute--the first goal allowed by
Brazil in the tournament--Pele grabbed the ball out of the net
and sprinted back upfield for the restart. There were still 81
minutes to play, and here was this teenager acting like a
quarterback in a two-minute drill. "Let's go! Let's get started!
Let's quit wasting time!" he shouted, waving his elder teammates
into position. They stared at him, and then, together, they
scored the next four goals, three of them by Pele.
Before he completed his hat trick, Pele was tackled viciously on
his frail right knee. "I went down, my knee hurting like the
devil, and then rolled over to glare at the player with pure
hatred," he would recall. No substitutions were permitted in
those days; had Pele retreated to the sideline, his team would
have played with 10 men and the tackler would have been
rewarded. Pele would have none of that. Minutes later, when he
saw the same defender closing in on him, Pele flipped the ball
over the villain's head--a "hat" move, as the Brazilians called
it--scampered around him and blasted the ball into the net
before it touched the ground.
Over the three concluding rounds of the World Cup, culminating
in Brazil's 5-2 victory over host Sweden in the final, young
Pele would score six of his country's 11 goals. After many of
them he would sob uncontrollably: He could not quite believe
that all would turn out well. To him the game moved slowly, as
in a trance, and each time he achieved his objective it had the
effect of shaking awake the barefoot child from his feverish
dream, which in fact was not a dream at all.