Edson Artantes do Nascimento, more famously known by his childhood nickname of Pelé, is one of the best soccer players ever to play the game. Nearly three decades after his retirement from competitive soccer, he is still idolized in his home country of Brazil. His "bicycle kick" started not only a movement in aggressive play but spurred sports scientists to break down the mechanics of previously simple actions such as striking the ball.
Pelé was the son of a soccer player. His soccer skills were evident early in his life, despite the lack of training facilities and equipment that were the result of poverty. By the time he was 11 years old, he had caught the attention of Waldemar de Brito, a famous Brazilian soccer player of the time. Invited to play for de Brito's amateur team, Pelé's talent soon brought him a professional contract offer from the Santos football club.
He joined Santos in 1956, when he was just 15 years of age. Pelé's professional debut was an auspicious four-goal performance. Later the same year, now 16 years old, he was a regular player for Santos, led the league in scoring, and joined the squad of the Brazilian national team.
Pelé played for Santos from 1956 to 1974. During that time, he scored over 1,200 goals (the most by any soccer player to date) and assisted on over 1,100 others in 1,360 games. His career on the Brazilian national team spanned 15 years, from 1956 until 1971. In international competitions, he averaged one goal per game.
Playing at midfield, Pelé had offensive and defensive skills that made him the best player in the world of his era, and debatably the finest player ever to play soccer. He was an exceptional attacker, whose speed and exceptional passing ability with either foot allowed him to move the ball quickly and accurately upfield. When given the opportunity to score, he seldom missed. He could direct the ball, with power and precision, using his head. He was also a skilled defender, and thus able to hinder the advance of the opposition players.
Of all his prodigious skills, Pelé is most famous for a move dubbed the "bicycle kick." In this move, he would leap into the air, somersaulting during flight, so that his feet moved above his head. In a coordinated motion that looked similar to the pedaling motion of bike riding, he would kick the ball with one of his feet. The move was performed with his back to the net; the kick would send the ball rocketing toward, often into, the net.
Two years after joining the national squad, Pelé led his team to victory in the World Cup. Only 17 years old, he was a dominant player, especially in the team's victory match, in which he scored twice. He played in three more World Cups, in 1962, 1966, and 1970. Brazil was victorious in the 1962 and 1970 campaigns.
During his career, Pelé was coerced to join European soccer clubs with tremendously lucrative offers. However, to ensure that his career would not take him away from Brazil, the government officially declared him to be a national treasure.
After his retirement from Brazilian soccer competition in 1974, Pelé resumed his professional career in 1975 by joining the New York Cosmos of the fledgling North American Soccer League. His salary—reportedly $7 million for three years—was the highest at that time. His presence helped popularize and legitimize soccer in North America.
He retired from competitive soccer in 1977. In his two-season career with the Cosmos, he scored over 100 goals and had 65 assists. Since then, he has been an active participant in activities of the United Nations, including UNICEF and U.N. environmental initiatives. The honors he has received include an honorary British Knighthood in 1992 and recognition as Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 (although he never played in Olympic competition). In an age when video games have become universally popular, Pelé is also noteworthy for being the first sports figure featured in a video game, a product of the Atari company that was called Pele's Soccer.
Pelé remains an internationally recognized personality and soccer ambassador.