How many World Cups did Pelé play in and how many did ‘O’Rei’ win with Brazil?
Join us for a look back over the illustrious career of one of soccer’s greatest ever players and the idol of millions of fans worldwide to this very day.
At 16, Pelé was already a national idol. In 1957, the teenager was a starter for Santos and was top scorer in the Paulista Championship, a record that stands to this day. He played at Peixe for almost his entire career until 1974. There he won 20 titles: ten state, six national, two continental and two world titles. His debut with the ‘Alvinegra’ shirt was at the age of 15, a month after arriving in the coastal city of São Paulo. It was in the friendly against Corinthians de Santo André that Santos won 7-1. Pelé entered the field in the second half and scored the sixth goal. It wouldn’t be long before destiny knocked on Pele’s door in the form of call from the national team. Just two years later, the king of football would play in football’s greatest event, the FIFA World Cup.
World Cup in Sweden - 1958
The legend of Pelé was not born until the 1958 World Cup. In truth it almost didn’t happen, on two occasions. Pelé's path in 1958 was not easy. First, his presence was in doubt due to his age. Later, it was due to an injury that prevented him from playing the first two matches of the Canarinha in the World Cup. A few days before the trip to Sweden, in a friendly preparation against Corinthians, Pelé suffered a heavy tackle from central defender Ari Clemente and was injured. Alarm bells went off. To this day, few understand why, but the legendary coach, Vicente Feola, took Pelé to the World Cup although injured. Once there, the teenager would recover and go on to make his start in Brazil’s third game of the World Cup, against the USSR. The rest is history. At 17, the youngest player at the World Cup scored six goals in four games and left Sweden to become O Rei do Futebol.
The World Cup in Sweden in 1958 left us with one of the most emblematic images in the history of football, one of the most iconic goals of the World Cup. Pelé controlled the ball with his chest, while simultaneously displacing his marker. What came next was a beautiful ‘sombrero’ to beat the second defender before finishing the sequence with a volley into the waiting net. Before the final whistle the young king would score two goals as he helped Brazil to its first World Cup title. The 17-year-old boy was now truly the King of Soccer and his teammates showed it by hoisting him onto the shoulders as they celebrated the arrival of no just a title, but greatness.
Vicente Feola’s monumental decision
Yet, we’ve got to make special mention of the visionary choice made by Vicente Feola. Feola had been Flávio Costa’s technical assistant in the 1950 World Cup and had suffered personally from the trauma of the ‘Maracanazo’, when Brazil lost the final against Uruguay. A wound that ultimately made him rethink the way football should be played. At a time when the world was trying to copy the way of the European teams due to their tactical rigidity, Feola implemented a hybrid system that took advantage of the talent of great players like Zagallo, Garrincha, Didi, Nilton Santos and Pelé. Against teams that at that time defended with three central defenders, Feola presented an innovative proposal to occupy space on the field, with two players, Zagalo and Pelé, who acted as wild cards. They were excellent in the offensive game and also helped in the defense. Indeed, they allowed him to defend with a 4-3-3 and attack with a 4-2-4, decimating the systems with three center-backs.
Pelé had played for the national team only twice, in 1957, before being called up to Sweden. What’s more is that Feola actually fought with the then president of the federation, João Havelange, in order to include Pelé in the World Cup. Remember, this was a young man who didn’t even have a driver’s license. Former player and coach Mario Zagallo was open about the surprise he and others in the team at the time felt, when they saw a boy from Santos among them. “Me, Nilton Santos, we didn’t know Garrincha, Vavá or Didi, I had no idea who he was. But he quickly taught us all why he was there.” What’s even more surprising, is the fact that Feola was clear that Pelé would be the starter. Criticism about his age, experience or the injury he was carrying was not given the time of day. For their first game, Dida started in Pelé's stead and helped Brazil cruise to a 3-0 rout of Austria. He would do so again in the draw against England, which meant that it would be the third game of Brazil’s World Cup before Pelé made his debut against the USSR, a game which they won 2-0 courtesy of two goals from Vavá.
It would be on to Wales next as won their group and it was there that Pelé showed for the first time in the tournament why Feola opted had chosen him. The youngster scored the only goal of the match, which would take Brazil to the semifinal against France. For the purpose of context, it should be understood that the French attack was highly favored having amassed 25 goals on the back of the effort from the tournament’s top scorer, Just Fontaine, with 13 goals. Yet, the French could do nothing but watch in disbelief as Pelé scored a hat-trick in the 5-2 win. On the cusp of greatness, Brazil and their young talent were now finals bound. There, they would take on hosts Sweden and as mentioned above Pelé scored a double and finished as the second highest goal scorer of the World Cup with six goals in four games. It will forever be remembered as Pelé's World Cup.
World Cup in Chile - 1962
Following the success of the 1958 World Cup, it was only obvious that Vicente Feola was going to be the coach of Brazil in 1962. Unfortunately, fate had other ideas and due to various health complications caused by his excess weight, Feola was forced to leave the team. He was then replaced by Aymoré Moreira as Brazil went on the hunt for a second consecutive world title in Chile. The pair formed by Pelé and Garrincha was considered the most spectacular on the planet and the young Santos striker, then 21 years old, was already called O Rei do Futebol by the international sports press.
An extraordinary athlete, Pelé suffered very few injuries during his more than two-decade career, however, he did suffer with a groin injury after attempting a shot with his left foot against Czechoslovakia, in the second game of the group stage of the 1962 World Cup. An injury that “hurt the whole nation”, said the announcer of the match on the radio, defining the anguish felt at that moment by the yellow-green fans. Indeed, at that moment nobody could have imagined was that his replacement would end up being one of the great stars of the tournament. ‘The Possessed’ was Amarildo’s nickname. The brilliant Botafogo striker entered a starting eleven that already
had four of his teammates: Nilton Santos, Garrincha, Didi and Zagallo. This connection from Botafoguense - then the best team in Brazil- was the ace up the sleeve of Aymoré Moreira, who witnessed Garrincha not go to super human levels. The ‘little bird’ would go on to become the top scorer and was without doubt the protagonist of a historic cover of the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, which followed an incredible 3-1 victory over Czechoslovakia in the final. The headline read: “Garrincha, what planet do you come from?”
World Cup England - 1966
“I promised myself that I would never play another World Cup again.” The decision that Pelé claimed to be final was made after the biggest debacle in the history of the Brazilian team, the only time it was left out of a World Cup. It was in England 1966 that Brazil were eliminated at the group stage for the first time in the biggest sporting event on the planet. Having won the last two championships, it was hard to believe that the duo of Pelé and Garrincha, along with young talents like Gérson, Tostão and Jairzinho couldn’t get the job done. Even more so with the likes of the genius strategist from 1958, Vicente Feola, on the bench. What could go wrong?
Well, everything! After a horrific build up for the tournament, which saw 47 players called up, a tour of five cities in the Brazilian interior and no friendly matches, the Canarinha team arrived in England unrecognizable and confused. Their opening 2-0 win over Bulgaria would be the last time that the so called ‘Dream Couple’ would play together in the yellow jersey. What followed next was a 3-1 loss to Hungary in which Pelé did not play due to injury. Then, disaster struck as Brazil were eliminated 3-1 by a Eusebio led Portugal. Garrincha, considered by that time as an aging great, was benched and Pelé was essentially kicked off the park. Indeed, Morais hacked him down with such venom that even Eusebio scolded him. Pelé returned home devastated. Where the national team was concerned, they spent the next three years with heads hung low and an open lack of support from the public who were now dealing with a cruel military dictatorship that had taken hold after a 1964 coup. What came next was a radical decision by the federation on February 1st, 1969. The well-known journalist and former Botafogo coach, João Saldanha was given the job as manager of the team. In his presentation, Saldanha lined up his starting eleven before giving his first list or doing his first training session. At that moment, Las Fieras de Saldanha was born with Pelé, Carlos Alberto Torres, Gérson, Jairzinho, Tostão, Rivellino and company. As we now know, it would be just one year later that the group go down in history as the best soccer team humanity has ever seen.
World Cup in Mexico - 1970
Saldanha’s Brazil won all six qualifying games for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, with an average of almost four goals per game (they scored 23 goals in total) and conceded just two. Indeed, it was a side that enchanted the world and more importantly gave Pelé the desire to play one more time. “The lesson I learned is that you should never be afraid of changing your mind,” O Rei said of the decision to play in the 1970 World Cup.
Yet, the road was not without its obstacles. Just two months before the tournament, Saldanha left the national team under much controversy. A declared militant of the Communist Party and fierce critic of the military regime, the journalist was dismissed and Zagallo took his place. It also probably didn’t help that Saldanha took the decision to leave Pelé on the bench. World Champion in 1958 and 1962 as a footballer and former teammate of the vast majority of the internationals that made up that squad, Zagallo’s mission was to interfere as little as possible and let Las Fieras go hunting and that’s what happened. Brazil strolled in Mexico and established with the team eventually becoming the first three-time World Cup champions, scoring 19 goals in six games, while showcasing plays that will live forever in our memories.
At 29, Pelé became the first and only player to win three World Cups. Courtesy of his two gifted feet, we were blessed with some of football’s most beautiful plays in Mexico. Indeed, the four goals that he scored in the tournament don’t do justice to what he demonstrated on the pitch. Whether it was the shot that came from behind the midfield against Czechoslovakia and missed by two millimeters, or the header that gave us one of the most spectacular saves ever seen, by Gordon Banks, in the match against England. Then, there was also the outrageous ‘dummy’ that he used on the Uruguayan goalkeeper, Mazurkiewicz, which ended with a beautiful shot that somehow failed to cross the line. Last but not least, there was his no-look pass which led to Brazil’s fourth goal in the final against Italy which was scored by Carlos Alberto. Pelé was the face, body and soul of the most loved and admired team in the history of our sport.
Pelé made the World Cup great and the World Cup turned Pelé into ‘O Rei.’