Brazil football icon Pele leaves winning legacy in Arab world and beyond

Brazil football icon Pele leaves winning legacy in Arab world and beyond
Brazilian football legend Pele passed away just over two years after friend and Argentina legend Diego Maradona's death and less than a fortnight after the 2022 World Cup final.
3 min read
30 December, 2022
Pele died in Sao Paulo after a long battle with cancer [Getty/archive]

The football world lost one of its greats on Thursday when Brazilian football legend Pele passed away at the age of 82.

The three-time World Cup champion, who died at a Sao Paulo hospital after a long battle with cancer, is being fondly remembered by football fans worldwide, including in the Arab world.

Many regard him as the best footballer to have ever played the beautiful game - along with Diego Maradona, who won the World Cup with Argentina in 1986.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in 1940, Pele was a prodigal talent, playing for top domestic team Santos at 15 and the Brazil national team at just 16.

European giants including Inter Milan, Juventus, Manchester United and Real Madrid had their eye on Pele, much to the unease of Brazilians who did not want to see the football star leave his homeland.

The world-famous clubs' attempts at signing the young star were unsuccessful as then-Brazilian President Janio Quadros had formally declared Pele to be a "national treasure", making it legally tricky for him to move abroad.

Pele played for Santos for almost two decades, from 1956 and 1974, before finishing his footballing career at US club New York Cosmos, all the while a fixture for his national team.

Pele visited a number of Arab countries during his career. 

An Africa tour in 1967 took him to Algeria, a country he would visit again in 2014. 

In 1973, he visited the Gulf, Egypt and Sudan; two years later, he would travel to Lebanon.

His visit to the Lebanese capital Beirut, where he played a friendly match with local club Nejmeh SC against a team of students from French-language universities, took place only days before civil war broke out in the country on 13 April.

Lebanon today has a huge fanbase for the Brazil team, in large part thanks to Pele's electrifying play and his visit to the country.

Ardent admirers of Brazil and Pele can be found across the Arab world, where many in the older generations reminisce about the days they grew up watching Pele play.

Pele was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 and was included in the TIME list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. FIFA simply labelled him "the greatest".

Among football fans in the Arab world and beyond, however, discussions around the greatest player of all-time often see the name of another Latin American football great thrown into the ring - Maradona.

Whether a fair comparison can be made is debatable. Pele is 20 years Maradona's senior, and the two never faced off in a competitive match.

But the two were indisputably the brightest lights of football in the second half of the last century.

They made public appearances together on multiple occasions, and although they had their feuds, their relationship by the end was marked by profound respect for each other.

One heartwarming video that has surfaced since Thursday’s sad news shows Pele and Maradona doing headers together on a television show.

Maradona passed away in November 2020, missing his national team, led by Lionel Messi, winning the World Cup this year in Qatar. Pele watched much of Brazil's run to the quarter-finals from a hospital bed.

Following Maradona's passing, Pele had said in tribute to his "dear friend" and "legend": "One day, I hope we can play ball together in heaven."