Some of the most accomplished and famous individuals in world history are known only by just one name. A few examples are Michelangelo, Napoleon, Gandhi, Mandela, Oprah, Churchill and Obama.
The most famous name in world football history over many generations is also known by one name: Pelé of Brazil.
On the road from Esperance to Perth
I was about to embark on a 700-kilometre road trip from Esperance to Perth in Western Australia when I heard on the news that the great Brazilian player had died at age 82.
More than seven hours on the road and one of recurring thoughts I had was that Pelé’s passing had ended an era in world football history.
I couldn’t help thinking that it is a testament to Pelé’s legacy that as famous as he was until the end of his life in December 2022, most people do not realise that his real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
Knowing of Pelé from Africa
I grew up in Ghana, a football-loving nation where everyone knew of Pelé and his game.
But it wasn’t until I worked as a journalist in a radio station in Ghana’s Western Region that I learned of the name Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
I wrote a book in 2022 called Absolute Radio in which I describe the passion for football shown by the sports team at the radio station.
One of the excellent presenters at the time, Kojo Frempong, was outstanding in the way he ran commentary on live football matches on air.
Beyond his vivid descriptions of live action on the field, he would offer deep background material about the match, it’s history and legendary players in a way that provided a 360-degree appreciation of the beautiful game.
When the real name Dropped
It was during one of his football commentaries that Kojo Frempong said “this man plays like Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé from Brazil.”
It was early 1998. Kojo Frempong was on air, reporting the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament in Burkina Faso. That is when he dropped the name.
He mentioned it with style, respect and panache. He explained that once a while, a skilful move on the field is a reminder of the level at which the great Pelé played the game.
I made a mental note and later confirmed the fact for myself.
Pelé’s impact on world football is incalculable.
He is admired for his skill, speed, and ability to score beautiful goals. That is how he led Brazil to three World Cup victories.
A Legacy so Timeless
Every iconic move and dribbling on the field is synonymous with Pelé. That is why every outstanding player is compared to Pelé. Messi, Ronaldinho, Portugal’s Ronaldo and Mbappe of France.
They are all measured frequently against his groundbreaking style.
Generations of football players became great players only because they set out to play like Pelé.
It is all the more impressive because Pelé had not played competitive football for about half a century before his death.
All of the active professional players around the world were born long after Pelé stopped playing, and yet, they all looked up to him for inspiration.
Abedi Ayew, a great Ghanaian footballer who captained the national team, the Black Stars became known as Abedi Pelé because of how well he played.
Pelé is probably the singular reason why football is described as the beautiful game.
No wonder that he attracts universal appeal and recognition.
Recognition Beyond Borders
The International Olympic Committee named Pele as Athlete of the Century, while Time Magazine celebrated him as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
In his own biography, Pele said it took him some time to fully process the extent to which his skill as a footballer moved millions of people.
He visited many countries around the world with a focus on Africa. Later, he took time to reflect on it.
He said his travel experience changed not only his view of the world, but also his discovery of how the world perceived him.
There will never be another Pelé
I listened to a Podcast recently in which Robert Breedlove discussed the concept and importance of the number zero in mathematics.
He points out that zero, as a number, has no substitute because it is essential to all modern science and calculus.
“You are not going to invent a new zero,” said Robert Breedlove.
I thought Breedlove’s statement is a perfect analogy about the importance of Pelé to the history of football.
Pelé’s time, his place and what he did can never be replicated.
The world will never see another Pelé.
That is why Pelé will always be special.
That is why to Brazilians and the global world of football, the smiling and electrifying athlete will always be King Pelé, the king of football.
Phillip Nyakpo is the author of Absolute Radio, an inspiring true story that examines the foundation of Ghana’s private broadcasting industry. The book is now available worldwide in Paperback, Kindle, eBook and Audiobook. Phillip writes a blog regularly on www.nyakpo.com.au