SAO PAULO • Considered by many to be the greatest footballer of all time, Pele will celebrate his 80th birthday today, confined to his home in Brazil because of the pandemic, but meeting the milestone with his trademark laugh.
“The King” has suffered from a series of health problems in recent years, but has not lost his charisma or sense of humour.
“I’m fine, it’s just I won’t be able to play (football),” he said jokingly in a video call with the head of the Brazilian Football Confederation earlier this week.
The only player in history to win three World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970), Pele will celebrate his birthday quietly – as he does almost every year – pandemic or not.
But several tributes have been planned in Brazil, from an exhibit in his honour at the Sao Paulo Football Museum to a mural designed by renowned street artist Kobra in Santos, the city where Pele started his professional career as a 15-year-old prodigy in 1955.
Special newspaper sections and TV specials have also been dedicated to celebrating his legacy.
“He’s a living legend, we have to revere our idols while they’re still alive and still with us,” said Gabriel Oliveira, a visitor to the exhibition in Sao Paulo. “He’s done so much. Thanks to him Brazil is known the world over.”
To thank his supporters, Pele recorded a song with Grammy-winning Mexican duo Rodrigo and Gabriela, billed as “a little birthday present for his fans and himself”.
“Thank you to Brazil and all Brazilians. I was always very happy wearing this jersey. Thank you for all your warm wishes for my birthday,” he said in an Instagram post on Wednesday that was accompanied by a photo of himself celebrating one of his 1,281 goals (including those from unofficial matches).
Whether captured in grainy black and white early in his career, or with his yellow and green No. 10 Brazil jersey in the era of colour TV, many of those goals were spectacular displays of athletic prowess, setting the standard for the jogo bonito or beautiful game that would come to define Brazilian football.
His legacy looms so large that Fifa named him the greatest footballer of the 20th century in 2000, alongside Argentina’s Diego Maradona, who celebrates his 60th birthday on Oct 30.
Pele, however, has grown increasingly frail with age. His public appearances had become rare even before the pandemic confined him at home in Brazil, where Covid-19 has now claimed over 155,000 lives, the second-highest death toll in the world after the United States.
He has had longstanding kidney and hip problems and earlier this year, his son Edinho revealed his father had become depressed and reclusive due to his failing health.
“Just imagine, he’s the ‘King’, he was always such an imposing figure, and now he can’t walk normally,” he said.
- THE GREATEST DEBATE PELE (BRA)
Years active 1956-1977
Goals 77 in 92 games (international); 707 (club)
Major titles World Cup (1958, 1962, 1970), Copa Libertadores (1962-63)
CRISTIANO RONALDO (POR)
Years active 2002-present
Goals 101/167; 641
Individual honours Fifa World Player of the Year/Ballon d’Or (2008, 2013-14, 2016-17)
Major titles European Championship (2016), Premier League (2007-09), La Liga (2012, 2017), Serie A (2019-20), Champions League (2008, 2014, 2016-18)
DIEGO MARADONA (ARG)
Years active 1976-1997
Goals 34/91; 312
Major titles World Cup (1986), Serie A (1987, 1990), Uefa Cup (1989)
LIONEL MESSI (ARG)
Years active 2004-present
Goals 71/140; 636
Individual honours Fifa World Player of the Year/Ballon d’Or (2009-2012, 2015, 2019)
Major titles Olympics (2008), La Liga (2005-06, 2009-11, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018-19), Champions League (2006, 2009, 2011, 2015)
But Pele told the public earlier this week that he was still mentally alert, saying: “I thank God for giving me the health to make it this far lucid. Not very intelligent, but lucid. I hope when I die, God will welcome me the same way I’ve been welcomed all over the world because of our beloved football.”
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS