How fitting that a sport revered for uncomplicated beauty has as its greatest exponent a man with such a simple name.
Pele. Four letters, two syllables, one legend.
In sport’s golden era of Muhammad Ali and Jack Nicklaus, those four letters were instantly recognisable anywhere in the world from the moment the 17-year-old with the high cheekbones announced himself with two goals in the 1958 World Cup final.
Brazil had bred a superstar but the whole world staked a claim on the youngster with magic in his feet.
And for all his talent with a ball, he had equal appeal as a human being, with a smile that was a passport to people’s hearts.
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The boy from Brazil, who went on to win the World Cup three times, who scored more than 1,000 goals in his career, turns 80.
And for every superstar – like George Best, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – that has come after him, the debate over who is the GOAT will always include Pele’s name.
Sir Bobby Charlton, a long-time friend, played against him in the famous Mexico World Cup clash 50 years ago and has no doubt about his place in the pantheon of football greats.
Charlton said: “I have said it before and I will say it again, I sometimes feel as though football was invented for this magical player.
“A phenomenal footballer and one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet. Happy 80th birthday Pele – wishing you good health, happiness and many happy returns.”
Charlton’s team-mate from the 1960s, Denis Law, was revered by Manchester United and Scotland fans as the Lawman but he reckons there was one man who made all the rules.
Law said: “Pele was an unbelievable footballer, he had style, grace, flair and made everything look so easy. The fact that he was only 17 when he played in a World Cup final speaks for itself. The precision in the way he played made him such a joy to watch.
“For all his football abilities, he is also a good man with a great presence.
“I would like to wish him a very happy 80th birthday and I’m glad he’s finally caught me up!”
By the late 1970s, as Pele was playing out his final days in America’s NASL, Trevor Francis had become Britain’s first £1million player by signing for Nottingham Forest boss Brian Clough.
But Francis still speaks in hushed tones as he recalls meeting the Brazilian superstar at a lunch in Birmingham in the early 70s.
Francis, a teen sensation with Birmingham City at the time, said: “Just to meet the greatest player in the world, this iconic figure, and for him to say hello was a dream come true.
“It was at the Albany Hotel and there were some photographers there who set up the picture. My hair was quite long then.