Pele is only player to win three World Cups
Won his first as a 17-year-old in Sweden
His last was Mexico in 1970
Making a list of career highlights is a pretty simple task for most footballers – but most footballers haven’t accomplished half of what Pele did on the field.
Fresh off the heels of his recent biopic “Pele: Birth of a Legend,” the only man to ever win the World Cup three times sat down with CNN’s Don Riddell to rank his most memorable achievements:
1: Brazilian national team debut, 1957 Copa Roca
The most famous player in Brazil’s history made his debut in the two-day friendly tournament against Argentina on July 7, 1957, according to sambafoot.com.
Though Brazil lost 2-1, the 16-year-old came on as a substitute and scored his team’s only goal in the 32nd minute. Three days later, Brazil exacted revenge on its archrival by winning 2-0 on the back of goals by Pele and Mazzola.
“I was selected, it was beautiful,” Pele recalls. “It was like a dream.”
2: Winning Brazil’s first World Cup, 1958 Sweden
“When we arrived in Sweden, no one knew what Brazil was. They know about Argentina … Uruguay. It was a surprise for us,” recalls Pele – who, at 17 and seven months, became the youngest person to play in a World Cup until Northern Ireland’s Norman Whiteside took that record in 1982.
“I thought the whole world knew about Brazil, but in Sweden, nothing,” he adds.
“Then when we won the World Cup, everybody knew about Brazil. I think this was the most important thing I gave to my country, because we were well known after that World Cup.”
Pele scored six goals in four matches – including two on the way to defeating Sweden 5-2 in the final.
Pele’s first goal is one of the greatest in World Cup history, as he flicked the ball over a defender and volleyed home, while the second goal was a looping header over the keeper that wrapped up the match.
“After the fifth goal, I felt like applauding,” Swedish opponent Sigge Parling said after the match, according to FIFA.com.
3: Winning the South American Military Championships with the Brazilian Army, 1959 Rio de Janeiro
“Very few people know about it,” Pele recalls. “I was champion of the world when I came back from Sweden; I was 18 years old and selected to do the army in Brazil.”
Pele documents the moment in his 2007 book “Pele: The Autobiography,” where he writes that the only way out of the military – even for a famous footballer – was to fake an injury, something the football directors at Santos laughed off.
“Are you mad?” they asked. “You’ve just won the World Cup. The whole country knows you are a shining example of health. If you weren’t so high profile, then there might be a way. But not you. If there’s any 18-year-old Brazilian who has to do military service, then it’s you.”
“Then I went to the army and we won the tournament,” Pele says, savoring the 2-1 victory over Argentina in the final (though Pele received a red card, the first of his career.) “This was very important to me; now I understand that I had to do my duty.”
4: Winning the 1970 World Cup in Mexico
Considering what he had achieved before his fast-approaching 30th birthday, Pele thought about retiring ahead of the 1970 tournament – but had a last-minute change of heart after telling his club team Santos of his plans.
“I said Santos are champion, I am going to retire,” he recalls. “Then I said ‘No, I am going to play the World Cup. This will be my last World Cup, may God give me one more time the gift to play good.’”
Forced into playing World Cup qualifiers because of Brazil’s failure to defend its title in 1966, Pele scored six goals in six matches.
But he saved his best performances for the World Cup itself, where his four goals earned him player of the tournament, capped by an assist to Carlos Alberto in the final against Italy – one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. (Younger teammate Jairzinho scored seven times.)
“We won the World Cup, and I think in my life in sport (that was the pinnacle), no doubt,” he said.
Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich summed up Pele’s magic fittingly: “I told myself before the game, he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else. But I was wrong.”
A moment where Pele didn’t score also went down in World Cup history – England goalkeeper Gordon Banks’ incredible block from the Brazilian’s powerful header is widely considered to be the greatest save of all time.