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World Cup Icons: Pele

The only player to lay claim to having won three World Cup titles, Brazil legend Pele enjoyed a glittering association with football's most famous competition.

1958 World Cup

Pele made his international debut for Brazil in 1957, scoring in a 2-1 defeat against Argentina at the Maracana. Aged 16 years nine months, he remains his country’s youngest ever scorer to this day. 

Already the leading scorer in Brazilian domestic football with Santos, Pele was named in Brazil’s squad for the World Cup Finals in Sweden in 1958. Nursing a knee injury at the time, his teammates were forced to plead for his selection at the tournament.

Their faith in a young Pele would prove warranted, with the 17-year-old making an instant impression upon his first taste of World Cup action once reaching full fitness, contributing with an assist in Brazil’s 3-0 win over the USSR in their third group match.

Pele, the youngest player to ever turn out at a World Cup Finals at that stage, took the tournament truly by storm from the semi-finals onwards.

With Brazil leading France 2-1 at half-time, Pele scored a blistering second half hat-trick to help secure a 5-2 victory for his country to send the South Americans into the World Cup final.

Faced with hosts Sweden in the final, the imperious Pele proved too hot to handle once again as he fired his country towards its maiden World Cup title.

Netting a brace in a second consecutive 5-2 win for Brazil, the first of which a delicious volley driven home after the striker expertly flicked the ball over a hapless Swedish defender’s head, Pele’s precocious talent was the talk of the entire world.

The photo of a teenage Pele sobbing in the arms of his teammates after becoming a world champion goes down as one of the competition’s all-time classic images.

Pele finished his first World Cup in 1958 as the tournament’s second top scorer with six goals from four matches, behind only France’s record-breaker Just Fontaine on 13. 

The Brazilian was also named as young player of the tournament, and retrospectively awarded the Silver Ball as the second best player at the Finals behind teammate Didi.

1962 World Cup

Four years later in 1962, Pele was regarded as the best player in the world as Brazil went in pursuit of a second successive World Cup title in Chile.

In Brazil’s opening match against Mexico, Pele was on top form with a mesmerising solo goal and an assist inspiring a 2-0 win for his country. 

Pele’s outing at the 1962 World Cup was unfortunately cut short in the subsequent group match against Czechoslovakia, however, with the Brazil legend suffering an injury whilst attempting a shot which would rule him out of the rest of the tournament.

In the only change to Brazil’s line-up throughout the whole competition, Pele was replaced by Amarildo in attack, with Garrincha assuming the status as the team’s star man as the South Americans were able to win their second World Cup title in spite of the loss of their talisman.

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1966 World Cup

No doubt frustrated by his lack of action in 1962, Pele travelled to the 1966 Finals in England as the most famous footballer in the world. The tournament did not go well for Brazil, however, with Pele and co eliminated in the group stages.

Despite becoming the first player to score in three consecutive World Cups after converting a free-kick in a 2-0 opening win against Bulgaria, Pele was ruled out of his country’s subsequent 3-1 loss to Hungary through injury after being on the receiving end of a series of rough fouls which went unpunished.

Returning for Brazil’s final group match against Portugal, Pele and Brazil’s other flair players were again targeted with malicious tackles. Grounded by a particularly bad challenge from Portuguese defender Joao Morais, Pele was forced to spend the remainder of the game limping as Brazil were knocked out following another 3-1 defeat.

Incensed by the lack of protection provided by the referees and their failure to issue blatant red cards, Pele vowed to never partake in a World Cup ever again.

1970 World Cup

Pele would return with a vengeance four years later for the 1970 Finals in Mexico, however, in what was to be his final outing at a World Cup.

As part of a star-studded Brazilian squad widely considered as the best international team ever assembled, featuring players such as Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gerson and Carlos Alberto, Pele was once again able to marvel on the biggest stage.

Pele netted his first goal in the tournament in a 4-1 win for Brazil against Czechoslovakia, in a group opener which also saw the striker come agonisingly close to scoring from the halfway line after attempting an audacious lob over the Czech goalkeeper. 

In Brazil’s second game against England, which ended 1-0 to the South Americans, English goalkeeper Gordon Banks pulled off what was later described as the “save of the century” from a Pele header. Speaking after the event, Pele remarked how he screamed out in celebration before Banks somehow managed to claw the ball back from the goal-line.

Bagging a brace in Brazil’s closing group match against Romania in a 3-2 win, Pele went on to provide an assist for teammate Tostao to defeat Peru 4-2 and set up a semi-final showdown against Brazil’s 1950 World Cup final opponents Uruguay.

Scoring and assisting in a 3-1 victory for Brazil, this semi-final marked one of Pele’s most famous plays. Latching onto a through-ball from teammate Tostao, Pele deceived the onrushing Uruguay goalkeeper by feinting to shoot and letting the ball run behind him, only for his eventual effort to slide wide of the post with the goal gaping.

In a final full of iconic moments against Italy at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Pele headed Brazil into the lead in the 18th minute in what was his country’s 100th World Cup goal. His celebration, leaping with joy into the arms of teammate Jairzinho, is the stuff of World Cup legend.

In a match which showcased the swashbuckling talent of this Brazilian side of 1970 in all its glory, Pele provided the assists for Brazil’s third and fourth goals for Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto respectively as the South Americans ran out 4-1 winners.

The latter goes down as one of the best team goals of all time, with every Brazilian outfielder involved before Pele’s slide-rule pass supplied right-back Carlos Alberto with space to thunder the ball into the bottom left corner in emphatic fashion.

Registering a total of four goals and seven assists to help secure his and his nation’s third World Cup title, Brazil’s main man was awarded the Golden Ball and cemented his reputation as one of the greatest footballers of all time.

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