Few players have touched the game of soccer like Pele.
The Brazilian, who turned 80 on Friday, is still considered as one of the greatest players to ever play the game and remains the only man in history to win three World Cups.
Even those who don’t follow football know his name; it’s synonymous with the sport — and his legacy remains as strong as ever.
But before he was Pele, he was Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Born in 1940 in Tres Coracoes, an inland city about 350 kilometers (220 miles) northwest of Rio de Janiero, he grew up poor, honing his craft playing barefoot with improvised balls made of coconuts or balls of socks.
Pele credits his humble beginnings for his mastery of the sport.
Whatever he did, it worked. By age 14, he started off playing juniors for Sao Paulo’s Baura Athletic Club. Pele found his professional home two years later at the namesake club in the coastal city of Santos and, except for a late-career stint with the New York Cosmos, he never left.
He averaged nearly a goal a game — 619 over 638 appearances — for the Brazilian club, quickly earning a reputation as one of the best players ever produced in the country.
But Pele became and remains a global icon.
His ascent began in 1958, when the then-17-year-old burst onto the scene at the World Cup.
A teenage Pele scored Brazil’s lone goal in its quarterfinal win, notched a hat-trick in the semifinals against France, then netted two more goals in a 5-2 victory over Sweden in the final. Brazil won the World Cup again in 1962, even after Pele went down with a thigh injury.
Even after retiring, Pele remains in the spotlight through international product endorsements and as an outspoken public figure.
He continued to be recognized not just for his athleticism, but also for calling government policies and championing the poor in Brazil — people just like him, so many decades ago.
In 2000, FIFA named the man known as “The Black Pearl” and simply “The King” as its Player of the Century, an honor he shared with Argentina’s Diego Maradona.
Zico, one of the Brazilian standouts who followed in Pele’s footsteps, said the honor shouldn’t have been in question, nor should it have been shared.
“This debate about the player of the century is absurd,” Zico said. “There’s only one possible answer: Pele. He’s the greatest player of all time, and by some distance I might add.”