Soccer Legend and Longtime East Hampton Resident Pelé Has Died at 82

Pelé is hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates after Brazil won the World Cup final against Italy, 4-1, in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca, June 21, 1970
Pelé is hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates after Brazil won the World Cup final against Italy, 4-1, in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, June 21, 1970
AP Photo, File

Pelé, the Brazilian soccer phenom who won a record three World Cups (in 1958, 1962 and 1970) and was among the sports world’s greatest legends from the last century, died Thursday, December 29 after a monthlong hospitalization. He was 82.

A longtime Hamptons resident, the iconic athlete and king of “the beautiful game” had been receiving treatment for colon cancer since 2021, but the medical center where he had been hospitalized said he died of multiple organ failure caused by his cancer.

Pelé entered the hospital on November 29 to treat a respiratory infection exacerbated by COVID-19, and while it was originally reported that his health had been improving, things took a turn for the worse. By Christmas Eve, December 24, his family had gathered to be with him and say goodbye at Albert Einstein hospital in Sao Paulo.

He was gone five days later, leaving a hole where his outsized persona once lived, but his indelible legacy will remain.

Pelé attends unveiling ofHublot Fifth Avenue Flagship Boutique, NYC, in April 2016
Pelé attends unveiling of Hublot Fifth Avenue Flagship Boutique, NYC, in 2016Victor Hugo/ PMC, ©Patrick McMullan

Pelé in the Hamptons

The soccer star became a Hamptons resident in 1979, when, at near the height of his fame, he bought a waterfront home on Waterhole Road in the Clearwater section of Springs, East Hampton for $156,000.

He spent nearly 40 years here, enjoying summers in Springs, upgrading and expanding the house over the decades, before selling for $2.85 million in August of 2018 — scoring another huge win at age 77. By then he was spending most of his time in Brazil, but his absence was still felt by fans and those who had gotten to know him here.

During his time here, Pelé played in the East Hampton Artists & Writers Charity Softball Game, adding his name to the often-repeated list of vaunted figures who graced Herrick Park with their presence at the historic game.

In 1982, he sat for world-renowned East Hampton artist Elaine de Kooning, who painted portraits of him at her home and studio on Alewive Brook Road in Northwest Woods. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. chronicles the sitting as part of their Catalog of American Portraits, forever memorializing Pelé’s place in Hamptons history.

According to the National Portrait Gallery, an East Hampton Star reporter who witnessed the sitting, quoted de Kooning on day:

“Pelé is not a studio man. Obviously his action is outdoors,” de Kooning told the Star, adding, “The light is perfect today — as if it was washed by last night’s rain. And the sunlight filtering through the trees makes interesting patterns on the scene — sort of a gesture of nature.”

And in September of 1990, Hamptons TV station WVVH caught him during a photo shoot on Clearwater Beach, holding court and being generous with onlookers in his dapper white suit.

“Pelé changed everything. He transformed football into art, entertainment,” Neymar, a fellow Brazilian soccer player, said, reacting to his death on Instagram Thursday. “Football and Brazil elevated their standing thanks to the King! He is gone, but his magic will endure. Pelé is eternal!”

Pelé bicycle kicks a ball during a game at unknown location in September 1968
Pelé bicycle kicks a ball during a game at unknown location in September 1968AP Photo, File

Mastering the Beautiful Game

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, in the small city of Tres Coracoes in the interior of Minas Gerais state on October 23, 1940, Pelé grew up shining shoes to buy his modest soccer gear.

He went on to become widely regarded as one of soccer’s greatest players, and spent nearly two decades enchanting fans and dazzling opponents as the game’s most prolific scorer with Brazilian club Santos and the Brazil national team.

Pelé’s grace, athleticism and mesmerizing moves transfixed players and fans. He orchestrated a fast, fluid style that revolutionized the sport — a samba-like flair that personified his country’s elegance on the field.

He carried Brazil to soccer’s heights and became a global ambassador for his sport in a journey that began on the streets of Sao Paulo state, where he would kick a sock stuffed with newspapers or rags.

Different sources, counting different sets of games, list Pelé’s goal totals anywhere between 650 (league matches) and 1,281 (all senior matches, some against low-level competition). In all, Pelé played 114 matches with Brazil, scoring a record 95 goals, including 77 in official matches.

He later found his way to New York, and eventually the Hamptons, when he joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in 1975. Despite being 34 years old and past his prime, Pelé gave soccer a higher profile in North America. He led the Cosmos to the 1977 league title and scored 64 goals in three seasons.

On the field, Pelé’s energy, vision and imagination drove a fast, fluid style that exemplified “O Jogo Bonito” — Portuguese for “The Beautiful Game,” which became the title of his 1977 autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game, making the phrase part of soccer’s lexicon.

Pelé and English soccer star David Beckham pose for photos during a U.S. Soccer Foundation fundraising gala, in New York, March 19, 2008
Pelé and English soccer star David Beckham pose for photos during a U.S. Soccer Foundation fundraising gala, in New York, March 19, 2008AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File

Life After Soccer

Pelé ended his career on October 1, 1977, in an exhibition between his two former teams, the Cosmos and Santos, before a crowd in New Jersey of some 77,000 fans. He played half the game with each club.

His fame was such that in 1967 factions of a civil war in Nigeria agreed to a brief cease-fire so Pelé could play an exhibition match in the country. He was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1997, and when he visited Washington to help popularize soccer in North America, it was the U.S. president who stuck out his hand first.

“My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the president of the United States of America,” the host said to his visitor. “But you don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pelé is.”

Pelé’s life after soccer took many forms. He was a politician — Brazil’s Extraordinary Minister for Sport — a wealthy businessman, and an ambassador for UNESCO and the United Nations.

He had roles in movies, soap operas and even composed songs and recorded CDs of popular Brazilian music.

As his health deteriorated, his travels and appearances became less frequent. He was often seen in a wheelchair during his final years and did not attend a ceremony to unveil a statue of him representing Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team. Pelé spent his 80th birthday isolated with a few family members at a beach home.

Pelé and his wife Rosemeri pose for a photo with their daughter Kelly, in an unknown location, June 1967
Pelé and his wife Rosemeri pose for a photo with their daughter Kelly, in an unknown location, June 1967AP Photo, File

Pelé would endure difficult times in his personal life, especially when his son Edinho was arrested on drug-related charges. Pelé had two daughters out of wedlock and five children from his first two marriages, to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi and Assiria Seixas Lemos. He later married businesswoman Marcia Cibele Aoki.

He was predeceased by his younger brother,  Jair Arantes do Nascimento “Zoca,” who died, also of cancer, at age 77 in March of 2020.

With Associated Press

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