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FOOTBALL

Pele

Pele

Brazil | Forward

Achievements: World Cup winner 1958, 1962, 1970

The closest thing soccer has to royalty, Pele has been an icon of his sport ever since he set the 1958 World Cup alight as a 17-year-old. In the sporting world only Muhammad Ali can rival the Brazilian's fame.

Pele played in four World Cups and was a winner three times, a unique achievement in an extraordinary playing career. But for Pele the "beautiful game" was always about more than just winning.

As many goals as Pele scored, he never stopped dreaming of new ways to beat goalkeepers and ever-more imaginative tricks to torment defenders, delight spectators and show off his extravagant talents.

And whether the game was an exhibition match for Santos, the Sao Paulo club where he spent most of his career, or the World Cup final, for Pele the spectacle was inseparable from the result.

Pele made his Brazilian debut as a 16-year-old in 1957 before spending the opening games of the 1958 finals in Sweden on the bench. But the teenage star made an immediate impact when he was called into the side for the quarterfinal against Wales, grabbing the only goal of the game.

In the semifinal against France, Pele was unstoppable and finished with three goals in a 5-2 win, completing his hat-trick with a stinging volley. But Pele saved his best tricks for the final

For his first goal he flicked the ball over the head of a helpless Swedish defender and volleyed it home. And in the last minute he set Mario Zagallo free on the wing with a languid backheel before running into the middle to head home the final goal of Brazil's 5-2 win.

Swedish defender Sigge Parling later said: "After the fifth goal I felt like applauding." Pele was carried from the field in tears and a legend was born.

The 1962 and 1966 finals were less happy for Pele. He scored in Brazil's 2-0 win over Mexico in its opening match in 1962 but failed to feature any further in Brazil's campaign after limping out of the next match, a goalless draw with Czechoslovakia, as a result of some heavy man-marking.

It was the same story in England in 1966 when Pele and Brazil were kicked out of the competition in the first round.

But in 1970, with their bright yellow shirts framed by color television and taking advantage of the gentle pace of play forced by the Mexican heat, Pele and his teammates produced a series of performances that took football to levels of near-perfection.

Brazil strolled through the tournament, scoring eight goals against England, Czechoslovakia and Romania in the first round, crushing Peru 4-2 in the last 16 and then beating Uruguay 3-1 in the semi-finals.

Yet more impressive than the inevitability of Brazil's victory was the artistry of the team's performances.

And while Pele scored his share of goals, against Czechoslovakia and Romania and the first in the 4-1 win over Italy in the final, it was the cameo moments of sheer inspiration that caught the imagination.

Against Czechoslovakia he tried to score from deep inside his own half, beating the Czech keeper but missing the goal by a couple of feet. In the semifinal he threw an astonishing dummy to send the ball past the bewildered Uruguayan keeper but then shot wide from a narrow angle.

Even in the final it is not Pele's leaping header that most people recall but his two-yard square pass for Carlos Alberto to score the final goal. A simple pass but one that few other players could have weighted and timed so perfectly.

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